Harry Meadley: But what if we tried?

Tom Emery finds out what happens when a public gallery attempts to exhibit every artwork in its collection at once

Harry Meadley ‘But what if we tried?’ 2019

Harry Meadley ‘But what if we tried?’ 2019

Why don’t civic galleries display all the artwork in their collections, and what would happen if they tried? This is the premise for Harry Meadley’s ‘But what if we tried?’ at Touchstones Rochdale, the final project in the gallery’s Contemporary Forward series of commissions. What initially seems like a fairly simple – if logistically demanding – idea is given room to grow into something much greater, an exhibition that disassembles the gallery to show you how it works, and why.

The idea seems to have been prompted by the sort of questions from visitors that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a front-of-house role at a public gallery. Visitors often want to know why so much work is held in storage rather than being out on display. Likewise, if a particularly famous work isn’t on display, they want to know why not, and if something in storage is worth millions of pounds, they want to know why it can’t be sold. The answers seem obvious once you gain some experience of the industry, perhaps so much so that we forget the legitimacy of these enquiries and the importance of galleries answering them, demonstrating public accountability.

At Touchstones, these sorts of questions have been addressed with refreshing transparency through the delivery of the exhibition, which is divided into three sections that focus on different areas of the gallery’s work. Accompanying this is a five-part documentary shot by Meadley, showing the process of undertaking the project and making it clear that the small team of staff, led by curator Mark Doyle, were vital collaborators in both practical and creative terms. A sixth part is on its way, documenting the show while it is open, and, as with the others, it will be made available on both Meadley’s and Contemporary Forward’s websites.

In the first section, the gallery’s stores are recreated, as well as displays of works under conservation and works going out on loan. As well as highlighting conservation methods, it also becomes clear that there is only so much money available for conservation, as demonstrated by two Susan Hiller wallpaper works. Doyle explains that these works are deteriorating, even while in storage, and any conservation would be an expensive temporary fix – the work wasn’t made to last. This raises a difficult issue: the gallery has a duty of care for its collection, but to let artworks waste away in storage, even if this would maintain them for longer, seems futile – thus they have taken the bold step to display the Hillers while they still can.

Beside the exit, a number of paintings are shown in their crates with the fronts removed. These are works that are due to go out on loan, accompanied by a list of current and forthcoming loans. As well as this, copies of the loan requests are made available to read, giving visitors a view into the fairly opaque world of artwork loans. When well-known artworks aren’t on display, the reason is often that they have gone on loan elsewhere, but visitors often feel affronted that this is done without any prior notice, especially when they may have travelled to see a specific work that is no longer on display. Thus, letting people see how the process works, as well as informing them of loans that are coming up, is quietly radical. It’s a simple gesture, but also a generous one.

The situation is not exactly the same, but the (overblown) fuss about the temporary removal of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896, from display at Manchester Art Gallery (see Sonia Boyce’s interview AM415 and Francis Frascina’s ‘Troublemaking’ AM416) is an apt example of how aggrieved visitors can feel when galleries don’t adequately communicate the reasoning behind curatorial or, in this case, artistic decisions.

Following from this, the second section shows a selection of recently acquired works, displayed in a half-installed state. A ceramic work from Rachel Kneebone sits in its crate (which itself is an ingenious, impressive piece of design), with lengthy install instructions from White Cube made available to read. Elsewhere, paintings lean on the floor, ready to be hung, something that will be done as a live event later in the exhibition’s run. Most intriguingly, Doyle uses this space to state publicly, and explain, his acquisition strategy, which is split into three overlapping strands: women artists, northern artists and contemporary craft. This sort of information is not exactly secret, but it isn’t explicitly public either.

The two first sections are notable for how they make visible the work of running an art gallery. Galleries often seem as though they are trying to make this process invisible, producing immaculately installed exhibitions that appear effortless. While this can be a seductive display mechanism, it also encourages the public to question how much work does go on behind the scenes, and what public money is spent on. Meadley’s fly-on-the-wall documentary reinforces this, clearly showing that this is a small team working with limited resources, making a project of this scale all the more impressive.

Finally, there is the salon hang, displaying over 200 works in one room. Gallery space is typically reserved for thematic collection displays: this is almost anti-curating, displaying as many artworks as will fit according to the order they were acquired. This section demonstrates the impossibility of the initial proposition; with approximately 13% of the total collection on display, you begin to get an idea of how much space the full 1,600 artworks would require. By volume alone this display manages to cater for a wide variety of tastes, ranging from contemporary stars like Lubaina Himid to local favourites like the frequently asked after Charles Burton Barber, whose A Special Pleader, 1893, was at one point the most reproduced image in the UK.

With local authorities facing drastic cuts in government funding, culture can become an easy target. It is tough to justify arts spending when you can’t pay for social care, and the sale of artwork is a tempting – though temporary, short-term and retrograde – fix to help fill budget gaps. In this environment, galleries need to do what they can to demonstrate their value. Across the industry, organisations seem to assume that their value is self-evident, perhaps a symptom of the absence of diversity across the staff of most arts organisations. Transparency is one way to demonstrate value, and ‘But what if we tried?’ is radically transparent, showing the mechanics of the organisation and inviting public response. If this can happen in Rochdale, there is no reason it can’t happen elsewhere, and it would be extremely welcome if curators from across the UK (many of whom will be far better resourced) would pay attention and learn from Touchstone’s approach.

Tom Emery is a writer and curator based in Manchester.

First published in Art Monthly 425: April 2019.

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