AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD studentship

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD studentship University of Manchester and the National Gallery, London from October 2014.

‘Making a Market for Art: Agnew’s and the National Gallery, 1850-1944’ 

The University of Manchester and the National Gallery, London invite applications for a fully funded AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD studentship: ‘Making a Market for Art: Agnew’s and the National Gallery, 1850-1944’.

The aim of the project is to investigate the relationship between Agnew’s and the National Gallery, particularly studying how an art dealer creates a market for their goods, and how a public collector (specifically, the National Gallery) responds to and shapes that market. The research will investigate the history of the National Gallery’s engagement with Agnew’s and the impact of this influential dealer on the formation of the Gallery’s collection; for example, by examining the tensions and synergies between commerce and philanthropy, and between profit and patriotism. This will be the first in- depth study of a remarkably long relationship between a particular dealer and the National Gallery; in turn, it will provide an important historical and critical perspective on the operation of the Gallery within the art market.

The recent acquisition of the Agnew’s Archive by the National Gallery provides a very significant research resource, which has not previously been available to scholars for sustained, critical study. This project will constitute the first disinterested analysis of the data contained in the Agnew’s Archive, contextualised in relation to the parallel history of collecting contained in the National Gallery records.

Candidates should have an excellent academic track record, including a Masters (or equivalent) degree in a relevant subject, including Art History, History or Museum Studies. They should be able to demonstrate an interest in the history of the art market, collecting and/or art institutions.

Full details including eligibility criteria and application procedures are available from Professor Helen Rees Leahy.

Email: helen.rees@manchester.ac.uk

Closing date: 25th April 2014 (including receipt of 2 reference letters).

Interviews will take place in London on Monday 12th May. 

Further Particulars

Co-curating knowledge with our audience – Francesco Manacorda

As custodian of a significant chunk of the nation’s art collection (nearly 70,000 works and growing), how does Tate navigate the space between artworks and their owners, the great British public?  In the institution’s own words, everything it does is focused towards ‘promot[ing] public understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art’.  Tate Liverpool is taking a lead on attempting to foster this ‘emotional’ as well as legal ownership for its visitors, as Artistic Director Francesco Manacorda explained.

Tate Liverpool’s permanent collection galleries received a major overhaul last year to mark the gallery’s 25th birthday.  2013 also saw Tate Britain rearrange its collection into a rigidly chronological hang with pared back interpretation, indicating a keenness at Tate to challenge both itself and its audiences.  Constellations at Tate Liverpool uses artworks in the collection to offer a crash course in art history and theory, using devices familiar from social media.  Works are grouped around a central artwork into ‘constellations’, connected by similarities in form and content. ‘Word clouds’ are created for each constellation, and each artwork is ‘tagged’ with appropriate words.  It is a novel way of actually showing, rather than just telling, how seemingly disparate can artworks relate, and how artists influence each other.

DLA Piper Series Constellations at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2013 Photo: Roger Sinek © Tate

DLA Piper Series Constellations at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2013 Photo: Roger Sinek © Tate

The layout of Constellations also encourages an active role from the audience, with the constellation created around Henri Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader, for example, displayed as a ‘forest’ of paintings.  Artworks are suspended in innovative ladder-like frames so that as the visitor weaves throughout them, new juxtapositions between works are constantly created.  There is also the added bonus in this installation of what Manacorda amusingly referred to as ‘art historical pornography’, in which the painting backs complete with installation notes are revealed to the public.

Tate Liverpool is also actively prompting questioning from its audiences in its temporary exhibitions programme.  Art Turning Left was a recent exhibition examining how left-wing values have affected artists’ practices and art production.  As with Constellations, interpretation and layout were key to this approach.  Wall texts were shorter than usual, often posing direct questions such as ‘How can art infiltrate everyday life?’ and ‘Does participation necessarily deliver equality?’  Visitors were encouraged to form their own responses to these questions, in a departure from the purely instructive text panel.  The Office of Useful Art was positioned in the galleries as an open space for public activity and debate around the themes of the exhibition.

Keywords at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2014 Photo: Roger Sinek © Tate

Keywords at Tate Liverpool, installation view 2014 Photo: Roger Sinek © Tate

The current show on display, Keywords, is based around the 1976 book of the same name by Raymond Williams, a kind of dictionary of short essays about words pivotal to our understanding of culture and society.  On the gallery walls, in place of interpretive text panels, keywords such as ‘violence’, ‘theory’ and ‘unconscious’ are painted in a looping script and, similarly to the word clouds in Constellations, visitors are left to make their own connections between these and the adjacent artworks.  It is an invitation that might seem intimidating to some visitors, particularly in an exhibition with such an academic bent, and Manacorda stressed the importance of the gallery’s Visitor Assistants in engaging visitors.  Tate Liverpool is clearly keen to both actively challenge and empower the public to co-create knowledge, and through its experimentation to create a viable alternative to the didactic art museum.

Beyond the Campus research network at the AHRC Creative Economy Showcase

April 9, 2014 1 comment

The findings of a research network looking at collaborations and partnerships between universities and the creative sector have been showcased during the AHRC Creative Economy Showcase that took place in London at King’s Place on the 12th of March.

Researchers and creative practitioners working with the AHRC-funded network ‘Beyond the Campus: Connecting Knowledge and Creative Practice Communities Across Higher Education and the Creative Economy’ presented a specially commissioned film, graphic illustration and results of an online debate at the national research dissemination event.

Led by Dr. Roberta Comunian (Kings College) and Dr. Abigail Gilmore (Manchester) the network has been exploring collaborative partnerships and relationships between Higher Education and the Creative Economy in the UK and internationally, and what policy makers, funders, local agencies and other stakeholders within the sectors think of them.


Premiere of the film ‘A Love Story’ by Alys Scott Hawkins

At the Showcase, the network presented an animated film, Love Story, by visual artist Alys Scott-Hawkins, which tells the tale of two protagonists in an academic and creative partnership – Claudio and Hedda – and their trials, tribulations and successes. The film explores the main themes of the network through the narrative of love, romance and relationships.

Abigail and Roberta explain: “This project was not just about presenting the Beyond the Campus research in different ways by using animated film – it allowed us to consider the different things that matter in the collaborative process, to both creatives and academics (and the institutions they work with), and discuss ways of making the process smoother and more productive.”

“Work between the creative sector and universities isn’t simply a case of getting the technicalities right: we also had to take into account different timetables and systems, as well as the different values we each bring to the creative process.”

The outcomes of a tweetchat themed around on the relationships between higher education and the creative economy, which took place on Valentine’s Day, were also presented as concept visualisation and illustration produced by data illustrator Robin Schneider. Hosted by Claudio and Hedda (the two stars of the film), the tweetchat generated hundreds of tweets from targeted audiences.

The film and social media campaign proposes that the relationship between higher education and the creative economy is rather more human, both intellectual and emotional, than simply being a technical matter of knowledge transfer or exchange. Both of these creative elements have been commissioned specially for the AHRC Showcase and are themselves the product of collaborations between creatives and academics.

The film ‘Love Story’ is now available online at http://bit.ly/1cYvHU1

More information can be found also here http://www.creative-campus.org.uk/love-story-project.html

Concerts for the People – music education in Manchester’s Histories, Thursday 27th March 6.30pm

March 24, 2014 1 comment
Public engagement and education in music in Manchester's history

Public engagement and education in music in Manchester’s history

This event is the culmination of the AHRC Cultural Engagement project, led by the Institute for Cultural Practices and involving Sian Derry, James Hume and Tom Scriven, three early career researchers from Music and History. The researchers will be giving papers on what they discovered about the history of music education in the city from the perspectives of the great Manchester institutions and societies, exploring networks, repertoires and approaches from the 19th and 20th century.

We will also be hearing these histories through musical performances of relevant repertoire from Simon Passmore & Tom Verity, and from the Sing City Choir, who will be performing songs from the Broadside ballads project, commissioned by Brighter Sound and led by folk singer Jennifer Reid.

The programme on Thursday 27th March starts at 6.30pm and takes place in the historic Halle St.Peters in Ancoats, 40 Blossom Street, M4 6BF

Refreshments available.

No need to book ahead – but to reserve a place contact abigail.gilmore@manchester.ac.uk or phone 01613061661

Interacting with Heritage Site: How far is too far?

March 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Put ten people in a museum gallery with one object, and they’ll all react differently to it. One object, ten different preconceived notions of what it represents. One artifact, ten separate opinions about its meaning for current and future generations. One thing, multiple responses. And really, that’s a good thing. Multiple interpretations of a single object add layers to its history and narrative. Museums have even developed programs centered around the idea of finding new, creative ways for visitors to interact with objects. Often these include multimedia displays, artistic workshops, and special guided tours.

But what happens when visitors interact with an object that may prove harmful to the object itself? Museums attempt to mitigate this possibility with security measures: display cases are locked, exposed objects are surrounded by stantions, invigilators periodically patrol galleries, alarm systems and CCTV cameras are installed. These methods only prove sufficient in controllable environments, however. What does one do in the case of an object–or monument or heritage site–that is completely exposed to its visitors and the elements?

The Great Wall of China was built in the 14th Century during the Ming dynasty as protection against northern invaders. It stretches from Gansu Province in the west to the Bo Hai Sea in the east, though its expanse is not continuous. Several areas of the Wall have been eroded away, or simply have not been adequately located. And despite popular belief, it is not visible from space.

A popular activity for Great Wall tourists is to carve names and messages into the Wall’s rough stones. Graffiti is rampant all over the Wall, but it seems to be concentrated (at least from my own observations) in the watch towers. The messages people may write are different, but everyone who carves his or her name reacts to the Wall in the same manner: it is an object through which one can be immortalized, just as it has been.

This has caused significant destruction to the Wall itself. Imagine removing a Ming dynasty vase from its display case and visitors scrawling their names all over it. Most people would be appalled. Yet the Great Wall seems a different object simply by nature of its exposure and expanse. Why do people react differently to museum objects rather than heritage sites? We are socially trained to behave according to specific mores in museums; why do heritage sites fail to have the same effect? The Guardian published this article, which states that the Chinese authorities are planning to introduce prepared areas where tourists can graffiti the Wall, either physically or through multimedia. Cynically, I do not believe this will make much of a difference; I imagine that the next generation (or even the current) of tourists will be enticed to graffiti the areas of the Wall now deemed “off-limits”.

Assuming this is an uphill battle that can never be won, is it necessary to prevent tourists from interacting with the Wall via graffiti after all? Should we give in to the inevitability of vandalism and instead focus on creating the same inherent social training via heritage site visits as we do in museums? After all, until attitudes are changed, behaviors will remain much the same.

Picturing the Museum: Should photography be permitted?

March 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Friday night I went to a concert on campus. It was standing-room only and my ears are still ringing, though whether from the rib-rattling bass lines or the hundreds of people singing along with the band, I’m not sure.

Concerts are interesting spaces that draw together people with perhaps absolutely nothing else in common except music taste. Different personalities and walks of life are united by the performers on stage, who themselves know nothing personal about the fans before them. It’s like a family gathering, except it’s made up solely of really distant relatives whose names you can’t remember for the life of you. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of camaraderie that fills the room.

At least, until this happens:

The new concert-viewing experience. Photo courtesy of Krista Goodfellow.

Now suddenly, instead of watching your favorite band on stage, you’re watching your favorite band on stage on someone’s palm-sized smart phone screen. Sometimes if you’re really lucky, you’re watching the band on someone’s phone on someone else’s phone, because inevitably there are more people using their phones in front of the person in front of you, who captures the preceding phones on his or her phone. It’s like gig Inception.

As much as friendly camaraderie might rule the concert, it’s difficult not to feel the least bit impatient about a phone in your line of sight. The same frustration crops up in other public arenas as well, museums not being the least of these.

In a blog post titled “Museum Photo Policies Should Be As Open As Possible“, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History Executive Director Nina Simon implores museums to consider why they have the photography policies they do, and to ask themselves if the policies are visitor-focused. She cites five reasons why museums may restrict photography in certain galleries (or museum-wide), one of which is “aesthetics of experience”; some visitors may find other visitors taking photographs of objects or art distracting, or they may feel it undermines the true value of the piece.

Simon contends that by allowing visitors to take pictures within the museum, the museum is empowering its audience to “memorialize” its experiences, as well as interact with the museum on different terms. Additionally, public museums hold objects and art in trust for its audience, making their visitors co-owners of their collections. If museums restrict what the public can or cannot photograph, then that co-ownership is undermined, perhaps unfairly.

Of course, there are inappropriate times to take pictures in galleries, especially if photography would cause harm to a piece of art or an object. But protective and licensing contingencies aside, is there a legitimate reason why visitors should not be allowed to take photographs in the museum? Are the preferences of a few justification to restrict the actions of all? Museums promote enculturation; we are taught to behave in certain ways when we walk through the doors, and we adhere to those social norms without much thought. Is this another “lesson” that the museum must teach us? Personally, I agree with Simon on this point: photography in museums not only allows visitors to document their experiences in ways meaningful to them, but it can help promote the museum through social media. Naturally not everyone will interact with the same object in the same way, but restricting how people can interact with the museum isn’t benefiting anyone, and it may actually harm the museum’s reputation by making it seem elitist.

I’m interested to hear others’ takes on the subject. This is an ongoing debate, and it won’t be approached the same way in every museum. When you visit museums, do you photograph what you see? Why? Do you think photography in museums is permissible, or is it a distraction that should be replaced by some other form of experiential interaction?

Interpretation Matters! Interview with Dany Louise

February 25, 2014 Leave a comment

interpretation matters iconI’ve always believed that writing matters. Words are important; the ones you choose, the order you put them in, the subtle effects they have… and I seek out allies who feel the same way. That’s why I recently spoke to Dany Louise about her Arts Council funded project Interpretation Matters.

The project is all about written interpretation in art galleries; the indispensible interface between audience and artwork. Whatever live events and interactives you offer, the majority of your visitors will come into contact with labels, text panels and booklets.

As a writer Dany understands the skill involved in writing about art in a way that is accessible and enlightening for a broad audience. But it was her personal experience as an audience member that sowed the seeds of the Interpretation Matters project:

‘I’ve been visiting exhibitions for years, and I’m someone who is drawn to the writing as well as the artwork. I look at the art, then I look at the writing, then I look back at the art, then I think about it. But what I’ve noticed… not every time; there is a lot of really good writing out there… but often enough I’ve noticed myself thinking; oh, that’s not really worked for me.’

Dany was quick to point out that what she wants from written interpretation – insight into key concepts and artists’ thought processes – won’t be the same for everyone; we all have different preferences and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But then it’s even more surprising that written interpretation is virtually absent from national discourses on gallery practice.

‘I’ve also been involved in the arts funding system and arts management for 20 years, and my overwhelming impression is that written interpretation has been overlooked in favour of other interpretation techniques. And that’s partly to do with the way national policy and funding has been emphasised, but I’ve never seen a funding bid that said; ‘we want to look at how we do our written interpretation, and find out if we’re doing it the best way, and talk to our audiences about how they find it’ etc.’

So, why is it so difficult to get right? Why do we see so much ‘artspeak’ on the gallery wall?

‘I’m aware of how difficult it is when you’re immersed in the artworld to put yourself in the position of the audience member – any audience member, old, young, educated in art,  or not – it’s difficult to find ways of talking about art that doesn’t use that kind of insider language.’

As Dany enumerated all the different professional interests involved, it became apparent to me what a contested site the little interpretation label is. Traditionally it’s been the domain of curators, whose job it is to think and write about art in quite intellectual ways; problematising, juxtaposing and opening up new and unexpected insights. Education departments come from the opposite end of the spectrum, with an audience-focused, pedagogically-driven approach to writing about art. Marketing writing is different again, aiming to bring new people into the gallery. And of course there is the artist: ‘They’ve put however many years’ work into refining and defining their creative ideas, they want those ideas to be properly represented– but it can be very specialist stuff.’

‘It’s a matter of negotiating all these different perspectives to come up with a final text. And that’s really hard. I think probably a lot of teams don’t have the time and resources to really bottom it out.’

This is where Interpretation Matters comes in; the project aims to provide spaces for professionals, audiences and artists to share what works for them, to start talking about written interpretation. For example, the professional workshops Dany will be undertaking with her project partners, including the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool, and De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

‘We’ll be taking some time out to look at all of these issues. We’re going to sit in a room, we’ve got four hours, let’s talk about your current process and what you want to achieve, and figure out how best to do it.  Of course we won’t work it out in one session, but it’s about starting a process.’

And this is much wider than agreeing how to write text panels; it’s about defining ‘organisational voice’.

‘So, it’s not about putting any one professional perspective on the spot, it’s about asking; how do you want your organisation to be perceived through the written word? And how is that expressed in very specific language? What phrases do you think represent the ethos of the organisation? And what phrases work against it?’

This really struck chord with me; the apparent minutiae of the words you choose to include on a descriptive label has a direct relationship with much wider organisational mission and values. It reminds me of the organisation-wide ‘letting the story lead’ strategy at MOSI that I wrote about here. But what speaking to Dany really emphasised was the importance of seeing the issue of interpretation in the round, acknowledging the different, even opposing, viewpoints and objectives, and taking the time to reconcile them into a public interface that works for everyone.

After a year of research and development, the Interpretation Matters project will be kicking off in a big way over the next few months, with an art-text exhibition at the Bluecoat, publication of the Interpretation Matters Handbook and workshops to explore written interpretation through organisational voice and audience need.  Plus development of the website into a dynamic and collaborative discussion space for audiences, artists and professionals.  There are a number of useful resources already available there – I especially like Writing Matters; five common pitfalls to avoid when writing about art for the public!

Dany would love contributions, comments and involvement from anybody, individuals or organisations, interested in the visual arts. Interpretation matters, doesn’t it? Let’s kick-start a national conversation about those little words with big meanings.


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