Hi, I’m Brett Lockwood, a 3rd year student of BA Photography at Plymouth College of Art. For many art students the final year of higher education involves an end of year show. Visiting Galleries as much as possible is a necessity to help ideas flourish on how to disseminate your own work. I have been actively doing this in my creative life for the past 3 years, visiting galleries from London to St. Ives. Although, the best opportunity I’ve had recently was right on my doorstep, at Plymouth Arts Centre.
On the 17th March 2017 my cohort and I visited Plymouth Arts Centre (PAC) to experience the Malcom Le Grice exhibition, Present Moments and Passing Time. I was amazed by the art works projected and hung on the walls. I started to explore the questions of how they were presented and why? I wanted to know the logistics and the ‘behind the scenes’ of this exhibition. So I spoke to Ben Borthwick, Artistic Director at PAC, and Lucy Rollins, Assistant Curator, who after a quick and inspiring conversation invited me to assist in their upcoming exhibition Land/Sea from artist Mike Perry. This was a fantastic opportunity for me, to gain first hand experience of being within a curatorial team. Also Mike Perry’s work carries a strong theme of environmental concerns such as deforestation, explored in his series: ‘Wet Deserts’. This resonated heavily with me as I also base my work around the seemingly invisible battle of climate change.
Day 1 – 22nd March
I was making my journey into town towards my day of volunteering at Plymouth Arts Centre. I had no idea what to expect! All I knew was what Lucy told me: ‘We won’t give you any rubbish jobs.’ But how can any jobs be rubbish in a gallery?! I like to stay optimistic. I was welcomed at the front door by a smiling Lucy. We went straight upstairs into the office where I was introduced to the rest of the team – more smiling faces! With my optimism sustained, I sat down next to Lucy. Straight away Ben caught my eye and asked me to come to the opposite side of the desk where he was working. Ben was trying to decide whether white walls were better than grey for Mike Perry’s work and wanted a second opinion from me. I was swaying more towards the grey for thematic reasons, although, I said: “It’s hard to tell on a small Mac screen”. Ben agreed and motioned me to follow him down to the theatre. We projected Ben’s digital model gallery, one with white, one with grey onto the big screen. We flicked back and forth and had an in-depth conversation of why grey was better than white for the images. We landed on grey!
Instantly, I found myself feeling valued and part of the curatorial process. I thought it was a pretty big deal that Ben, having worked at the Tate Modern for almost a decade, appreciated my opinion! I went back up to the Office to assist Lucy in a few graphic design jobs, one in particular was to take a colour profile sample from one of Mike Perry’s images to use it as the colour for the title of the work. A job neither of us knew how to do. Nonetheless, I said I’d play around with it while Lucy continued with other work. With a little tech-savvy improvisation I managed to pull it off! This was another moment of many when I felt valued and respected as a team member.
Throughout the rest of the day, I met some great people involved with the production of the exhibition. Steve, the front of house manager briefly showed me the ropes on what goes into each room. Steve is the ‘DIY guy’ as I’d call him, heavily involved with hanging, painting, measuring, electrical etc. This was something I was really keen on learning, I’ve never had that experience in a place where it absolutely mattered like a Gallery.
Day 2 – 24th March
The main event for this day was to receive Mike Perry’s prints and objects from the courier, it was easy to find jobs to do for a few hours until the art arrived. I spent the majority of the morning assisting and observing Steve in the ground floor gallery also doing small jobs with Lucy that mainly involved lifting. Lifting happens frequently whilst working in a curatorial team, so be ready for that if you’re wanting to volunteer!
The courier arrived, at the point of seeing what he had in the back I was astounded by how massive the wooden crates where. Even more astounded when the team and I needed to carry them through the narrow front door. It was heavy, it was awkward but it was well co-ordinated and good fun! I wasn’t lying when I said lifting had a big part to play. We moved the crates into the ground floor gallery. I finished off the day with some painting on the second floor using the grey that we decided upon. A seemingly easy task but a steady hand is required to make sure I didn’t get paint where it shouldn’t be as I got closer to the ceiling and floor.
Once the day was over, Lucy suggested I come back in for when Mike Perry visits the space to discuss the order of certain images to be put on the walls. I took this invitation as I saw this as a chance to talk to him personally about his work and experience, maybe even ask him to review my own work.
A Hiatus to London
During my time away from the Arts Centre I travelled to London to measure up the gallery space that my cohort and I would be showing in during June. I felt really confident within the space from my recent experiences and I was done within the hour.
I also visited The Photographer’s Gallery and The Tate Modern where I found myself more alert to the curatorial aspects of each exhibition, rather than just the art within the space. I believe this way of further enquiry (the way it was hung, the colour of the walls, order of imagery/art) will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Day 3 – 30th March
I had been in to help the Arts Centre 1 or 2 more days before this date, although this day stood out as important. This was the day when Mike Perry came into the gallery to discuss the order of some of the images with Ben and Lucy. It was Charlotte (another volunteer) and I’s job to listen to instruction. To move and switch the image order, also to hold them up to the wall to give Ben, Lucy and Mike an informed opinion on what worked well within the space. It was really interesting to listen to them talking and seeing the different thought processes in action until they hit a strong end result that they were all happy with. This process was repeated in each room until we hit the room of ‘Wet Deserts’ which had 3 large and weighty prints to be hung on the walls. Steve and I began to measure up the wall space to make sure they would be level. I also had time to talk with Mike about his work, environmental issues and he even reviewed my work followed by some valuable advice for not only my current project but also for the future.
Once Steve finished up, it was time to lift the massive prints onto the wall, which was a 4 or 5 person job. Steve and I lifted the frame from underneath; whilst Charlotte and Mike were making sure it’s hooked on both sides. Within the space of an hour all the images were sitting happily on the wall looking absolutely fantastic!
Everything needed from me on that day had been completed but I decided to stay around just for a few little jobs; tidying, moving containers etc. Also to engage in conversation with the artists at PAC that have their foot in the door of the artistic industry and also that are very approachable.
Day of Opening – 7th April
The exhibition was due to open to the public from 7pm. This was the final time I felt so involved in the whole process. Lucy rang me during my day asking if I was able to come in for a few hours to clean the glass and frames of the prints that had been hung up. So I did, I spent just over an hour from bottom to top cleaning all the artworks, it was surprisingly therapeutic! It was also nice to be so close to the pieces to see the really fine details. This was a great time to think about my work and how I’d like them to be displayed as it was relatively quiet. I finished up just before the private staff viewing hosted by Mike Perry as he walked us around his work and went into detail about each series.
Following that was the public show which was absolutely booming, it was so gratifying seeing so many people in one creative space that the team and I worked so hard to create! It was such a great feeling and was a sure-fire way to network and grab some useful contacts!
To anyone who would be interested in volunteering at the Plymouth Arts Centre, take some advice from me: just go for it!
The staff are extremely friendly, hard working and fun people who are willing to help you, as long as you’re willing to help them! Work hard, do as much as you can to nourish your own experience and it will pay off greatly, they might even ask you to come back as they have done with me!
This whole experience from volunteering at the Plymouth Arts Centre has been so enriching and essential for my artistic career. Thanks guys!