Friday, 30 November 2012

Here come the girls

Earlier this year I arrived at a job interview for a contemporary commercial art gallery in London’s West End to be greeted by the slightly shocked faces of the gallery directors.  “Oh,” they said, “we were expecting a man.” 

I have often encountered confusion because of my name.  I have been known as Charlie Levine instead of Charlotte Levine since I was a pre-teen and I saw no reason to change it when beginning my career as a curator.  (Especially in light of there being a Levine Museum in Charlotte, USA – I would have been a nightmare to google!)  I have never previously been aware of this being a problem, until said interview, when I did not get the job as they were “really looking for a man” to fill the Gallery Manager role.

This want for a man to fill the role is nothing new, but the statistics and artist, Hennessey Youngman, say that there are more female curators than male ones.  But is this true?

When considering Birmingham, UK, specifically, men head up the main contemporary art gallery venues.  Jonathan Watkins at Ikon, Craig Ashley (for the visual arts programme) at mac birmingham, Gavin Wade at Eastside Projects and Andrew Bonacina at International Project Space.

I think I need to pose a feminist question here - why women are not in these powerful Director roles, and why do we find ourselves slightly on the outskirts of the decision-making? And is this Birmingham specific? And does it really matter?

In the larger scheme of things, women this year in the visual arts have had a massive impact, particularly Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Artistic Director of dOCUMENTA (13).  Christov-Bakargiev was placed first in ArtReview’s Power 100 list for the success of this year’s festival.  The art journal said “ArtReview is not in the habit of placing a curator at the top of the Power 100 for creating one influential exhibition. In 11 years of listmaking, we have taken the logical position that the influence of biennials, triennials, quinquennials and all the rest of them comes on like a very strong wave that recedes just as fast as the next one arrives. So what’s different about Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13? Aside from being critically lauded and unusually popular – there were an extra 110,000 visitors this year, in comparison to 2007 – how is it more than another big show? A really big show, in fact, that no one could ever hope to see, spanning, as it did, the cities of Kabul, Banff and Alexandria/Cairo after sprawling over Kassel more than ever before, and encompassing screenings, performances, talks, essays, books and disciplines that extend far beyond the field of art. Bearing all this in mind, then, just what was it that made this year’s Documenta so different, so appealing? And what makes its curator, well, so powerful?”

Christov-Bakargiev is clearly doing something right for promoting great visual art as well as the reputation of women in the arts and highlighting the power a curator can potentially posses. From this female inspired power play Hennessey Youngman’s ‘Art Thoughtz’ is seemingly right – it is mostly women leading the way in independent curatorial practices. 

In Birmingham specifically there is myself at TROVE and Aedas Presents, Cheryl Jones leading at Grand Union, Mona Casey who curates ARTicle at BIAD School of Art and SLICE and Sandra Hall the co-director of Friction Arts, and we have all been practising for 5+ years in the city. 

Then there’s Jo Masding at Lombard Method, Caitlin Griffiths of Lamb White, Sonya Russell-Saunders co-director of The Wig, Elly Clarke of Clarke Gallery, Kate Eagle who I work with at Aedas Presents, Cathy Wade leading Hedge Enquiry at Edible Eastside and Abigail Duffty who is the Director of [STATE] performance art night, who have all been producing exhibitions in Birmingham for 2+ years.

And then there are the just on the scene ‘new girls’ Beth Derbyshire, Lizzy Jordan, Kate Livingston, STRYX (all female studio and curatorial group) and current MA Curatorial students Emma Leppington, Prune Phi and Claire Reece.

I should also mention the influential Lara Ratnaraja and Nicola Shipley as two women working with the visual arts in Birmingham in policy making, arts and business advisors, creative consultancy/producers and general advocates for visual arts activity in the city.  Although they are not gallery directors, or straight curators or artists, they care about the visual arts in Birmingham and are incredibly inspirational to my practice.

Birmingham finds itself currently in a cliché – ‘behind every great man (city), there’s a great woman.’  The men in charge of the larger organisations might provide the face of Birmingham’s cultural sector via their more outwardly focused galleries, however, the exciting activity that is happening just under the radar is being led and realised by a vibrant group of women.  

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The problem is the solution

Why is the emphasis always on the problem, rather than actually acting upon a very obvious, and already active, solution?

October 2012 saw Birmingham City Council host its first ever Art Summit.  Cultural organization from all over Birmingham, covering a vast array of creative outputs and agendas came together in the same room.

Though the summit was huge and there was a lot of information put forward and speakers from around the world attended, and a plethora of facts, figures and examples of people who do it better presented, the two day conference can be summarised, actually, quite efficiently. 

Birmingham is honest with itself: it suffers from low self-esteem and there is need for more crossover partnership work to expose new funding streams and opportunities in and out of the region/country, especially in terms of finding cash to make projects happen.

What I found quite interesting about this summit was that this activity is already underway in the city.  Small organizations and independent art facilitators have partnered to realise and work through Birmingham’s so-called ‘creative sector problems.’

Projects like Aedas Presents, which combines a local independent curator and the largest global architect firms Birmingham office.  These two partners have, since 2010, realized an 18 month contemporary art exhibition programme in the Aedas studio; they have sold works, commissioned new pieces and given early career and recent graduate artists their first solo show opportunity.  The team have partnered with Birmingham City University on several projects, worked with second year fine art students through offering internships and crossed over audiences from the arts and business sectors. 

Aedas Presents are also ever growing.  Their next project will be hosted in the Grade II Listed Municipal Bank building in Birmingham.  Continuing their relationship with me, an independent curator, this project is also being partnered by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Birmingham Architects Associations (BAA), the Birmingham City Council (BCC) and the new Library of Birmingham.  

This is an example of the arts and business sectors already working together to produce a high class, important contemporary arts exhibition in a building of great Birmingham (and UK) heritage.  This project, Thrift Radiates Happiness, aims to shout about Birmingham as a city and highlight its incredible history and importance to the country as a whole.  It also stands up and exclaims that a group of people saw the problem with Birmingham and came together to provide the solution.  Thrift Radiates Happiness is more than an exhibition in a great building; it’s showcasing Birmingham’s potential and proving that arts and business sectors can work together.

Another project currently making waves in Birmingham is FRAME_Birmingham, a project led by artist/curator, Elly Clarke.  Clarke moved to Birmingham two years ago from Berlin. She instantly saw what Birmingham was missing and went about shaking things up in the creative and business sectors in Birmingham.  FRAME_ works on a simple concept – art in places you already go to.  Clarke has broken down the barrier of trying to get people into art venues; she is taking the art directly to new audiences.  40+ international artists in 30+ venues for 3 months around Birmingham city centre, the venues include coffee shops, hotels, churches, clothes shops, nail bars and more.  Accessing these venues was done on a face-to-face, walk in method.  Elly and her (very) small team would walk into venues, tell them about the project and leave (most of the time) with that venue agreeing and wanting to be part of the project. 

All the works in the project are for sale and for no more than £750.  This project is being partnered by mac birmingham and the Arts Council initiated ‘Own Art’ scheme and has literally blown the doors off art institutions and the process of how you see and buy contemporary art works.

It is easy to throw around phrases like ‘new models for selling art’ or ‘re-thinking a commercial art scene’ but what Elly Clarke has done is make it simple, “splendid art in places you already go.”  Birmingham and people that visit it love to shop.  Clarke has put art in those venues.  Simple.

Both FRAME_ and Thrift Radiates Happiness are examples of cross partnership activity already happening in the city of Birmingham.  Independent curators are already working in partnership with the corporate world, and are doing so successfully and with pride and passion.  The questions and problems that arose from the Birmingham Art Summit are outdated and unrealistic when you look at the grass routes projects.  The questions, therefore, should be – why are the larger institutions and organizations with the bigger voices (and marketing budgets) not also partaking in this activity? Why are they not working alongside the independent curators and facilitators to help shout about the possibilities Birmingham has? And why is the emphasis always on the problem, rather than actually acting upon a very obvious, and already active, solution?

Monday, 12 November 2012

Proxy by MadeScapes^


Preview: 7th December 2012 6-8pm

Open by appointment between 8th – 20th December 2012
email TROVE
for further information

TROVE, Newhall Square,
Off 144 Newhall Street,
Birmingham, B3 1RY               

This December, TROVE presents Bristol based art collective, MadeScapes^.

Proxy is an exhibition that showcases MadeScapes^ practice for presenting brightly illuminated collaborative installations. They combine traditional materials with the inspiration they take from growing up during the mass use and production of digital culture.  These are then constructed into isolated sequences of objects, colour and light.

Proxy highlights a fragmentation that appears as a result of twenty-first century narratives as we - the first generation of digital natives - come of age. We construct this exhibitions story, around and through its interactions with the screens and surfaces of mass culture.  We depict each structure as pixels and combine them to create the whole.  Relics and ideas from the past, present and future are combined and looped, and we navigate our way around them. 

MadeScapes^ are made up of Jack Addis, Alex Cotterell, Tom Johnson, Will Kendrick, Trevor Smith and Lewk Wilmshirst.