As part of the Work Placement module of my Art Gallery and Museum Studies (AGMS) postgraduate course, I applied to be a ‘Pop-up gallery assistant’ at Waterside Arts Centre (WAC), Sale. Having noticed the recent trend for ‘pop-up’ everything- from restaurants to hairdressers- I thought this would be a good opportunity to expand upon my experience of volunteering in art galleries and get involved in an increasingly popular form of art display. Alongside the appeal of the project’s quirky nature was the fact that I could input into a range of procedures, both administrative and practical, throughout the ‘pop-ups’ lifespan, as well as witness its results. Some of my numerous tasks included artwork selection, process planning, communicating with artists and institutions, installation, curating, retail processes, artwork collection and delivery, invoicing, and evaluation, plus much, much more.
The ‘Pop-up gallery shop’ was to be one of ten events, bearing the moniker WAC10, programmed by WAC to celebrate its tenth birthday, and would run from 26th November to 13th December, open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 11am-5.30pm, or until 8pm on Thursdays to coincide with the pre-Christmas late-night shopping frenzy. The project was situated in a disused retail unit in The Square, Sale’s shopping centre, and displayed handmade arts and crafts from Greater Manchester artists, both to view and purchase. In their approved Arts Council funding bid, WAC strongly emphasised their desire to use WAC10 as a way to engage with a wider audience and increase local involvement in culture, therefore I thought it was incredibly fitting for the gallery-shop to ‘pop-up’ in the middle of Sale’s shopping centre at this time of year (even if it did mean hearing a dated compilation of Christmas songs on repeat!).
With items ranging from bespoke jewellery to handmade cards, and a ceramic set of Beatles figurines to a life-size wicker cow, the contents of the shop didn’t fail to draw unsuspecting passers-by into the unit, and certainly resulted in some interesting conversations! With these unusual catalysts for conversation, alongside the infectious festive spirit, several customers not only engaged in conversation with members of WAC staff running the space, but also frequently began exchanging personal anecdotes amongst themselves. Though these were sparked by the contents of the ‘Pop-up’, they were not limited to this, nor the broader field of art itself, but often spiralled into political discussions or tales of shared memories of Manchester, which was a recurrent theme in the works on display. Though these might be considered diverging from the main focus of the project- art and culture- I did not see it in this way, but instead saw it as a demonstration of the social potential of the creative arts, something I found so intriguing I centred my reflective report on the recent revaluation of art as a tool for both economic and social regeneration, using the ‘Pop-up’ as a demonstration of this.
The unusual hybrid nature of the gallery-shop didn’t just provide me with the chance to hear funny stories from interesting characters, but actually materialised a number of topics already covered by my AGMS lectures. From the debates surrounding the merging characteristics of museums and department stores, to the current heightened sensitivity towards the inclusivity of museums, and from the discourses surrounding high vs. low culture, and art vs. craft, to exhibition design, taking part in the placement not only provided me with practical experience but also fostered a clearer understanding of often seemingly abstract ideas by seeing their practical application and witnessing public opinion.
Hearing the shopping centre’s ‘ho-ho-ho-ing’ Santa all day was painful, but it was worth it!