Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Picking Your Installation Battles

The New York Times has a feature piece today on the complications and considerations of installing artwork. It's probably a rather dry read for folks who haven't lived this experience (the Times article suggests the subtleties of hanging art are perhaps the "curatorial version of arguing about angels on pinheads") but ask any artist, curator, or gallerist, and most can share more than one nightmare installation story. (Oddly enough, rarely is the one telling the tale the source of the nightmarish problem it seems, but....)

The article focuses on two challenging installations and creative solutions at the Whitney (the Richard Tuttle exhibition, which includes 300 pieces "of all shapes and sizes, made from things like tissue paper, string, Styrofoam and florist's wire. (Some pieces are so delicate that strollers and backpacks are not allowed in the exhibition.)" and Ed Ruscha's exhibition, which includes 10 paintings, "most depicting jutting, angular urban buildings, in a huge square gallery without making the pairings seem too literal, too straightforward - in other words, too square." But it was the following that got me to thinking about what's important to remember about the challenges each installation can present:
While Mr. Tuttle and [Whitney curator, David] Kiehl had argued strongly that they did not want even labels to accompany the work, Mr. Kiehl said, "some battles you lose." But as just one example of the many competing demands on curators, he described another battle over a series of zigzag walls that would have been used to display drawings in one room. Mr. Kiehl hated the zigzags. So he and [Mark] Steigelman [the museum's design and construction manager] simply designed the drawings room to be too narrow to accommodate the walls. He leaned forward during an interview and smiled: "Let's just call what we did creative sabotage." [emphasis mine]
I've seen otherwise cheerful relationships between artists, curators, and gallerist go sour during an installation, and clearly, at that point all the competing interests of the respective parties are bound to clash sometimes, but this one simple idea---"some battles you lose"---is a very good mantra to help get you through such times. In other words, it's important to pick your battles: To make sure you get what's most important to you, you're often better off compromising on something that isn't that important to you. Understanding ahead of time which is which is the trick here.

In the context of gallery group exhibitions, especially with emerging artists still looking for a gallery, this cannot be emphasized enough IMO. Every emerging artist in a group exhibition should consider that exhibition an interview/audition, if they would like to picked up by that gallery. It's important that you stand up for your work and ensure it's installed in a way that makes sense and is true to your vision, but if you reveal yourself to be high maintenance in the context of a group exhibition, the gallerist will undoubtedly take note and multiply that in their head when considering whether they'd want to work with you on a solo exhibition.

An exhibition I curated many years ago included 9 pieces by an artist who knew which walls were hers. There was no dispute over that. But the artist insisted on seeing each of these 9 pieces in every conceiveable arrangement, and consuming the design manager and my time for our opinion on each. My asking the artist to begin to make at least some choices ("This one? Can we agree that this one looks best here?") led to drama and an insistence that I didn't care if the exhibition looked like shit (yes, I often spend months of my life working on something that in the end I'm that ambivalent about). Meanwhile other artists who needed the design manager were growing angry and resentful. I have had several opportunities to work with that artist again, and she's a good artist, but I'm gun shy and really don't need the aggravation. I mean I would have stayed there until 2 in the morning getting it right (and on other occassions I have) if I thought it was important, but this I felt was more about stroking her ego than anything else. In the context of a group exhibition, that's not a wise career move.

Like I said above, every curator, artist, and gallerist can tell you horror stories about installations. There's generally not enough time or resources to please everyone at this critical juncture. But taking the time to understand what's important to you and the other people involved, in addition to ensuring the exhibition looks awesome, is helpful. (Hint: for gallerists, protecting the artwork and/or public safety are often big, legitimate concerns that make them dig in their heels, as are deadlines and costs [I'll let the artists who read here speak for their concerns...feel free to vent!]).

If you have concerns, as an artist, you probably cannot begin discussing them too far in advance with a curator or gallerist. Most logistical needs can be addressed with enough warning. There's no getting around that fact that often there are competing interests. As with all this, thinking it through ahead of time and communicating clearly can save everyone a lot of drama.

Update: Tyler Green, who has curated at least one exhibition himself, adds some interesting footnotes to installation practices at the Whitney.


Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

I really got a kick out of this article. Tuttle discussing the floor for hours on end really puts it in perspective!

Number 1 and 2 complaints from a photographer?

1. New exhibition spaces (more often than not smaller arts centers that spend the bulk of their construction budget on the back of house functions) that feature vintage WWII German submarine lighting in the main exhibition gallery.

2. New exhibition spaces (more often than not smaller arts centers, again) that feature a lot of very large NON-UV filtered glass picture window views of the great outdoors in the main exhibition gallery.

There ought to be law.


1/10/2006 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous jen said...

Like a lot of artists do, I worked as an installer for a few years. I learned that public spaces have many requirements as far as liabilities...art falling...fire hazards...etc. and that artists have much to learn from engineers and those who have watched people move through those spaces and know how the space functions.
With that perspective, I try to make art that can be installed safely and still achieve the aesthetic I want. I am not the type to discuss a floor for three hours ( ask me again when my career and ego take off! )
There was a good point in the article too, "the hokey factor" is definately a big one to avoid!

1/10/2006 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

vintage WWII German submarine lighting in the main exhibition gallery

LOL. Yes, I've seen that and heard similar complaints...even in lighting, personal aesthetics battles will rage.

1/10/2006 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous jc said...

Pet peeves for me, as an artist who does site specific work, include (in no specific order):

1. The space not being ready at the appointed installation time (sometimes it's a few hours before it's ready). Just let me know when I can actually start installing and I'll show up then!

2. Curators not giving enough thought to how pieces might interact when they are next to each other and/or not planning enough space between the work of two artists. Add to this the problem of trying to put too much work into a show.

3. Giving me a space to install that has absolutely NO lighting available. This really happened to me. No overhead lighting, no natural light--no light at all. I had to put a couple little hooks up on the ceiling, run an extension cord, and hook up a clamp light. Otherwise my piece would have been in a dark cubby hole.

1/10/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Hey Edward, I'll share a [long] story. I was all set for my first solo show and very excited about it. The space was "alternative" in that it was located in the hallways of an office building... 2nd floor... in a suburban town. I knew right away that the lighting would be a challenge and the walls too (they were covered in a light tan textured wallpaper). None of this phased me though, it was my 1st solo after all.

When I was granted the show I was told I'd have the hallways to use as an exhibition space and that the prior show would be taken down the morning mine went up. I went to the space several times to take detailed measurements so that I could design the layout well in advance. I arrived the morning of install with 20 pieces of art. One of the hallways was empty but the other still had about 100 photographs up. I assumed the artists would drop by in the morning to pick up the work.

I began installing my work in both hallways. I took down photographs and hung about 6 of 10 pieces in one hallway and 5 of 10 in the other. I had about 2 hours left to hang and felt comfortable with my progress. Until, that is, the thought crossed my mind that none of the photographers had picked up their work. What if I only had one hallway to hang in?

I got on the phone with the President of the organization putting on the show. She informed me that indeed I only had one hallway and that I should have been told that. By this point I had already taken down all 100 photos.

I was pissed! The thought crossed my mind to drop the exhibition altogether but I decided to make the most of it and hurry to take down and hang my work in the one hallway. However, I refused to re-hang the 100 photographs as I had been mislead and no one from the organization was there to adivse during install. I told the President that she had 100 photographs to re-hang.

In the end the show proved to be a valuable experience and helped me a great deal. I think both sides learned a lot from the ordeal. It has taught me to demand professionalism and at the same time be professional myself. If for no other reason than to avoid the hell that was installation that day!

Disclaimer - This experience was with a small non-profit. I'm sure this NEVER happens in a big Chelsea gallery! Just kidding!

1/10/2006 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I've fortunately only had one issue with the way my show was hung, I no longer show with the gallery. I think it's a key to whether your both on the same page, or at least in the same library. One time I framed at great expense, called the night before to confirm a set up time and was told the gallery was closing. The gallery remained opened at my urging for another month. Show biz!
How about your new space Edward? Bigger better, better lightening? Will you open by the end of the month?

1/10/2006 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger Ashes77 said...

There is never going to be an end to the high-maintenence artist though. They are an obstacle to any event, like fire-alarm pulls and narrow stairwells and food-poisoning from bad cheese. I have more pet peeves than I can list, but I am not going to list them anyway as that would violate numero uno.

I can't read the Times piece, pity pity, I wonder if they mention Crozier, that venerable first Red Flag for artists moving to NYC.

1/10/2006 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

But on the other side of the coin, from the perspective of a board member of a very small not for profit visual arts organization, I can share with you this story...with multiple bullshit variations on the same theme.

I once received a frantic phone call from an off-her-meds artist who was whining to heavens about why she couldn't get into one of our venues at a federal government building on an early Sunday morning to install her work. Her show was supposed to be installed during normal week day business hours, per our agreement with the federal agency in question.

Anway, this lady, being the Frida Kahlo-like destined superstar she imagined she was, proceeded to inform me that she absolutely had to install her work on Sunday because she had been asked at the very last minute to go skiing in Colorado with her boyfriend - they were departing that very Sunday evening.

In an effort to help her manifest her aesthetic destiny, I called the Assistant Director of the agency at home and made special arrangements to allow her to pass through security to install the show. This also required me to give up my Sunday morning to be at the building while she installed her show.

Why was I willing to do such a thing as a unpaid unappreciated volunteer board member of a small not for profit visual arts organization?

Well, I'd love to be able to say it was because I really believed in the strength of the future of her kindergarden-style abstract art...

...but the truth is I did it because she looks like Salma Hayek's twin sister!

After she returned home from her we-broke-up-again ski trip, she invited me to dinner to thank me for my help.

What did I learn from this experience? "Honey attracts more flies than vinegar, baby!"

We're good friends now - although we not such good friends that I would feel comfortable telling her that her art will probably never make it in Chelsea.

...but then again, John Currin's did, so I guess you never really know about these things!


1/10/2006 04:15:00 PM  
Anonymous jen said...

The desire to work again with an artist is very real-artists, check yourselves and do keep in mind that it is a good thing to work well with others...that is, if you want to make a living at it.

Also, a seemingly very simple thing that gets overlooked-I've seen it sooo many times- if your framing a series of pieces that are the exact same size (or have unframed pieces the same size) please ask your framer to put the wire at the same height in the back. Saves an infinite amount of time when installing.

I was also a picture framer for 15 years...

1/10/2006 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Jen,

"The desire to work again with an artist is very real-artists, check yourselves and do keep in mind that it is a good thing to work well with others...that is, if you want to make a living at it."

This is the Gospel truth, Jen.

I can personally testify (from the perspective of a board member of an arts organization, as well as from years or professional experience with arts organizations) that the most unprofessional behavior is invariably exhibited by artists who loudly proclaim that they have no desire or interest in making a living as an artist. Their mantra is always the same: "I don't need to sell my art because I have a real day job so I'm free to do whatever the hell I want." Good for them. But whenever I hear this refrain (and it seems like I hear it more and more these days in the wealthy county in Northern Virginia where I live) the red flags go up.

If you've ever worked for an arts organization, then you no doubt are familiar with the exhalations of wannabe artist prima donnas who have other livable wage options available.

It's no mystery to me at all why some of the most professional artists I've ever dealt with (primarily in New Orleans) also happen to be poor and hungry in their formative years.

One can quickly sense whether an artist has been around the block and knows how to professionally present themselves to realize future artistic, critical, or even financial, success.

Small not for profit volunteer arts organization are frequently the first stepping stone for artists on their long path to some degree of fame, glory and a little bit of money. Or at least they were for me.

I could detail an endless stream of aggravations I've had to deal with concerning a myriad of arts organizations related to my personal exhibits and projects. Unless a potential problem is unethical, immoral, questionable or outright illegal, I can live with it without crying about it as long as it advances my art to a wider audience.

Your point is very well taken. For every person within an arts organization (who might be a well-connected potential supporter) that an artist bad mouths (usually unfairly) because it didn't rain right that day, that bad mouthed person knows dozens more to privately inform about the artist's complete lack of professionalism. A fledgling artist will never win the game of who knows who. That's why they're a fledgling artist.

Of course, none of this matters if an artist really doesn't care about making a living as an artist. But, as I said, those artists are easily recognizable - they declare themselves to be indifferent to financial success at every opportunity.

I'd really be curious to know what Edward, as a professional and successful gallery owner, thinks about this subject.

Edward, I know this is a bit off topic, but if an artist were to approach you for representation and were to display a completely indifferent attitude about what is required as the most basic level to be successful, what would your impression be, notwithstanding a judgement of their artistic talent?


1/10/2006 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Well, I thought I had nothing to offer here, installing is always a difficult time, artists are at their worst, most freaked out, but, now, I have to point out that everyone is always asking the artist to compromise. At every step along the way artists are asked by even seemingly the most professional curator or gallerist to compromise their vision for the sake of expediency or intra-office politics. Artists have dedicated themselves to no compromise, risked their very livelyhoods, to pursuing a vision. To be asked to compromise at the very last moment, installation, can be infuriating and perplexing. As an artist it is your job to be a prima-donna, no one else will do it.

Prima-donna means first dancer. You don't get to that position through compromise.

Given all that, there are artists we will not be asking back. Typically, these artists somehow confused us with their parents. Rebeling against our perceived authority. I want to say, "get some therapy. It can be fun."

1/10/2006 08:43:00 PM  
Anonymous jc said...

To be asked to compromise at the very last moment, installation, can be infuriating and perplexing.

Nice way to put it. It's the unexpected last-minute changes that can really rattle us. I don't think the prima donna attitude is necessarily required, but sometimes we do need to stand up for our work.

Of course, diplomacy is one of the most valuable skills (talents?) one can posess in these situations.

1/10/2006 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Tim,

We absolutely agree on the definition of prima-donna.

My reference was to wannabe prima-donna artists. This definition describes an artist with more puffed-up attitude than talent.

Highly paid curators with MoMa may have to endure feckless behaviour patterns of prima-donnas and wannabe prima-donnas - indeed, I suppose an argument could be made that they are paid to do so. Small not for profit all volunteer organizations do not. Such organizations will always have more to offer to the fledgling artist than the fledgling artist can offer to the organization - unless, of course, that fledgling artist is inclined to lay down the "bad boy/girl" attitude, join the organization and actually get involved in the hard work of advancing the organzation's mission.

Over the years I have met many seriously talented prima-donna artists who have done that, gotten involved and worked hard to make an organization better - however, I have never met a seriously untalented wannabe prima-donna artist who has been willingly to work in a volunteer capacity to further the mission of a not for profit visual arts organization, especially one that might have helped jump start their artist career, to whatever degree of succes they the artist may define that career.

To try and put this in some perspective: the arts organization on whose board I serve has an annual operating budget of less than $10,000 dollars. Our venues are corporate and government office buildings, which have a mutiplicity of content restrictions regarding subject matter: no nudes, no porno, no anti-American flag burning hang Bush in effigy installations, that type of thing. I'm not sure what position we could ever be in to "demand" any type of artistic compromise from an artist.

Beyond that, no artist is in a position to demand that we do anything. We can agree, if we wish for the sake of our collective mental health, to a demand to get through a problem, but we aren't paid to put up with bullshit.

Of course, the other option with an outrageous wannabe prima-donna artist demand is that we (the board) could just throw up our hands, say we quite the board and inform the artist that it's now your problem...and then sit back and see if that artist can rise to the challenge. The real prima-donnas will; the wannabes will not. That's probably the best way to tell the difference between the two, rather than judging the merits of their respective art.


1/10/2006 09:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a curator of a small midwestern contemporary art museum and in an effort to compete with larger, more established institutions, I try to give as much freedom as possible to the artist. This can include everything from the installation itself to the PR, marketing and press releases (or in my current situation, fake press releases) to the food we serve and the dj we hire.

All that being said, I know the institution, I know our audience, and I know the physical space better than anyone. Yes I pick my battles, but ultimately it needs to be my decision and I need to be able to stand up and defend those decisions. I can honestly say it does not take a very long conversation with an artist or their dealer/representative to assess how difficult they are going to be to work with for what is often 6 months to a couple of years. I would expect an artist to scrutinize a curator as much as the curator scrutinizes the artist.

1/11/2006 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger patsplat said...

An artist I worked with once did an elaborate floor installation in loft apartment for a large open studio event. The owner of the loft space moved him around several times, and the artist patiently reworked his installation to fit the dimensions alotted to him.

When he returned, there was a band playing on top of his piece.

I think that's about the worst story I know.

1/12/2006 01:45:00 AM  

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