VAN July/August 2010: Touring For One & Many

Edel Horan Reports on ‘Touring Exhibitions – Who Benefits?’ a Round table Discussion Held at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow on 28 April

VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow hosted the discussion ‘Touring Exhibitions – Who Benefits?’ (28 April) in conjunction with the venues showing of the touring exhibition ‘Noughties but Nice: 21st Century Irish Art’ (2 April – 8 May 2010) curated by Mike Fitzpatrick and Susan Holland. The exhibition was originated by Limerick City Gallery of Art – where it was first shown. ‘Noughties but Nice: 21st Century Irish Art’ was supported by the Arts Council touring pilot scheme and subsequently the touring and dissemination of work scheme. The exhibition’s other ports of call were the Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny and Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, where it finished up. The stated central curatorial aim of exhibition was to survey the “extensive terrain of contemporary Irish art over the last decade”. The exhibition featured works by Aideen Barry, Sarah Browne, Denis Connolly, Anne Cleary, Amanda Coogan, Joe Duggan, Ciara Finnegan, Andrew Kearney, Sean Lynch, Caroline McCarthy, Tom Molloy, Seamus Nolan, Eamon O’Kane and John Shinnors.

The panel for the discussion comprised Belinda Quirk, Director of Solstice Arts Centre and Carissa Farrell Director of VISUAL; the artists Amanda Coogan, Seamus Nolan and Aideen Barry; the exhibitions co-curator Susan Holland of Limerick City Gallery along with Val Ballance, Head of Venues at the Arts Council.

Val Ballance spoke first and considered the term ‘access’ and what this means for exhibition organisers and audiences. In his view, it was exactly such access – in the most general sense of the term – which a touring show like this sought to promote. ‘Noughties but Nice: 21st Century Irish Art’ offered other regional publics and institutions the benefits of Limerick City Galleries programming and resources.

Strikingly, Ballance ventured the opinion, that in his view regional arts centres, through such initiatives were actually ‘outperforming’ certain of the city galleries in Ireland, in terms of both offering more varied programmes and considering the dynamics of their audiences. Expanding on this idea, Ballance cited Mike Fitzpatrick’s introductory comments in the shows catalogue, which discusses consideration of the ‘one and many’ in exhibition curation and planning –, the one being the artist, the many meaning the audience. A Fitzpatrick had put it, the aim of a good touring show was to serve “separately but coherently” the one and the many – and a show ultimate success would be judged by the many: the audience.

The subject of public and audience was made much of during the round table discussion. A key point raised was the notion that touring shows had the potential to create and develop new audiences. It was observed by Carissa Farrell, that the focus, in terms of funding decisions used to be on artists; and the move to the Arts Council’s emphasis on considering the audience was a significant and welcome one. Co-curator of the exhibition, Susan Holland added that the curator’s job as being one of bring together audiences and artists.

As Val Ballance pointed out, it is essentially audiences – as taxpayers – who are the arts funders. As such it was essential that time should taken in curatorial and programming planning, to consider, develop and address audiences. Ballance noted that audiences should neither have art ‘foisted’ on them; or kept from them, as “having work [in a collection] which people don’t see is a waste of money”.

‘Noughties but Nice’ kept in mind both of these points. The show comprised a mix of previously exhibited works and those that had not. The curatorial reasoning behind this mix of old and new, seen and unseen was due to a desire as co-curator Susan Holland put it, to show a “broad wealth of practice” in order to respond to the complexities of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ decade. Examples in the show included Eamon O’ Kane’s new work Cardboard Modernist Furniture; and Denis Connelly and Anne Cleary’s Plus / Minus, which although being an old work was presented in a new way. As well as this, Ballance observed that the works in the show were predominantly concerned with issues of viewer / audience engagement. Examples include Aideen Barry’s works focus on psychological and mental states; Seamus Nolan’s practices engagement with state power and Amanda Coogan’s critiques of consumer society.

The consensus amongst artists on the panel was that the benefits of a touring exhibition were all in the mobility and making of the work accessible to more diverse audiences. After showing Adoration at Live @ 8 in Galway, Amanda Coogan was unsure who else would get to see it. As part of ‘Noughties but Nice’, Coogan felt the work had got “a really good outing” by being shown in four venues as opposed to one. The piece was seen by more people – and along the way came to the attention of both Kinsale Arts Week and Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Festival who subsequently both incorporated the work in their respective visual arts programmes. Another plus for Coogan was the fact that in each venue the exhibition layout was different, thus permitting the artist to re-imagine and re-configure the work in different ways.

Coogan added that that a well planned touring show such as ‘Noughties but Nice’, offered a curatorial ‘investment’ in artists. For Coogan, this type of care and attention could make a huge difference for artist in terms of providing a kind of ‘investment’ in artists making innovative and interesting work. Aideen Barry also felt that the curators of this show were very supportive of her work. It was also noted that touring shows often offered the opportunities and resources for the proper documentation and discussion of artists. The ‘Noughties but Nice’, catalogue included essays by the curator, along with contributions by Shaun Hannigan, Niamh Anne Kelly and of the artists. Each artist featured in the show, was given a four-page section in the publication.

Seamus Nolan similarly observed that a touring show could allow for an “expanded practice”. In terms of his own work, this was especially the case, as Nolan’s practice is focused on the politics of culture; and he often works with local community groups. Thus being part of a touring exhibition offered the opportunity to re-contextualises his work in such terms in each venue. For Nolan it was the “immeasurable values are important”, he noted that his experience of being in a touring exhibition had brought up many questions concerning how a venue or show seeks to ‘educate’ its audience. This concern with creating audiences and engaging audiences was something that Nolan found problematic for Nolan. He noted that for the visual arts in general, audience numbers are very difficult to ascertain, unlike theatre where ticket sales are counted and targets set etc.

Joe Duggan, Golden Boy God, Assemblage, 2009; Two Prominent Boulders, C Print, 2008; Unfinished Church, Wood Model, 2009. Installation view at Limerick City Gallery of Art. Photo: Patrick Biesty.

While it was felt that institutional collaboration could offer a valuable sharing of experience and result in the forming of connections, some problems were flagged. In particular the question of how to communicate to diverse audiences that spanned a wide socio geographic areas was a challenge for the organisers. Reaching out to audiences and creating PR which covered all the particularities of each venues profile and audiences presented a challenge for each director. PR does “sustain a venue” according to Carissa Farrell and “presenting an identity of a venue is important in terms of press because they run with a certain identity”.  As the identity of a venue, especially in regional centres is important in terms of its profile, the issue arose of whether a venue loses its own particular identity when hosting a touring exhibition? For example some venues have a policy of including local artists, for the purposes of their local profile and relevance – a touring show can upset this balance.

In the application for the Arts Council’s touring exhibitions schemes, Susan Holland outlined how she had stressed the importance of promoting “additional links regionally” and sharing a “huge body of research”. By creating links between regional arts centres, Holland explained how the curators of ‘Noughties but Nice’ wished to create opportunities for venues to work with each other. Solstice director Belinda Quirke stressed the need for such connections – especially in light of the budget constraints that regional art centres had to work with. Quirke observed that touring exhibitions such a ‘Noughties but Nice’ brought a diverse contemporary practice to Navan, which they themselves would not necessarily have the resources and budget to access. Carissa Farrell did note that however, hosting a touring show, itself required resources – the hosting venue needs to have enough staff to invigilate; as well the technical support and staff to run what might be a complex exhibition in terms of equipment and media set ups.

The response to this touring pilot was a positive one, echoed by all who took part, including the audience. One of the closing questions was whether Ireland was too small to host touring exhibitions? The example of ‘Noughties but Nice’ seems to suggest that this is certainly not the case. It was agreed that the connections fostered by the participating venues would prove to be invaluable resources for all of the participating institutions.

Overall, Seamus Nolan’s interest in “immeasurable values” had a key relevance to this project which surveyed work made during the materialistic yeas of the Celtic Tiger years. What can be said for the next decade? During the ‘tiger’ years Carissa Farrell saw art becoming “very introspective”; but as evidenced in the both work featured in ‘Noughties but Nice’ and the models of curatorial and artistic practice underpinning the exhibition, there seems to be a turn towards ‘the audience’ taking place – a looking outwards again. As Susan Holland noted, more and more “audiences and audience development are becoming a topic of conversation” between institutions and funders. Simply put, according to Carissa Farrell ‘Noughties but Nice’ “considered the audience very well; and that is why it worked”.

Edel Horan

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