In Praise of the Gallery Invigilator

By Kenn Taylor 

The designer hymens had to be the peak – a work of art by Julia Reodica, part of her hymNext Designer Hymen Series. Having to ‘interpret’ this piece to men, women and children of all backgrounds was one of the more challenging tasks during my time as a gallery assistant – one of the many names applied to those who look after art, the spaces it is displayed in and the people who visit it. After a few months of describing designer hymens to the public I felt confident the old adage of ‘selling coals to Newcastle’ would be a piece of cake.

I worked as a gallery assistant of one form or another for nearly three years through numerous exhibitions in a contemporary arts institutions, and this gave me a perspective on the changing nature of this largely unsung role. In traditional museums and galleries, the role of the invigilator was very much one based around security, protecting precious works of art from the unknown whims of the public. This and perhaps occasionally suggesting where a particular painting – or the toilets – could be found.

In today’s new institutions though, the invigilator, while still fulfilling the role of keeping an eye on things and giving directions to the nearest gents, is also called upon to be interpreter, facilitator, demonstrator, guide and technician.

During my own tenure as an invigilator, my role varied from daily discussions with visitors about how a video projection could constitute art to more unusual tasks, including coordinating community takeovers of gallery spaces, making small animals out of pipe cleaners with children (a high point) and looking after shoes in an exhibition which required visitors to remove them – armed of course with a can of Odor Eaters.

A key task was demonstrating how to engage with various interactive pieces, ranging from huge wooden contraptions to talking sofas. In addition to having to apologise to people when ‘interactives’ failed – as they so often did – to stand up to the rigours of the public interacting with them.

I now have another job in the cultural sector, but memories of my time as a gallery assistant were prompted recently when I visited two exhibitions where the invigilator played a key role in the experience of the artwork.

The first was ZEE by artist Kurt Hentschläger. With this piece, the invigilator’s role involved leading participants into a small, smoke-engulfed room where they were subjected to intense strobe and pulse lights which cause the brain to generate surreal images. It was an exhilarating if extreme experience. The invigilator, while undergoing the same ordeal, repeatedly, was our guide and protector for the duration of our time in this disconcerting space – responsible for rescuing those people for whom it was too much, of which there were many.

The Humble Market project, put together by a mixture of Brazilian and UK theatre practitioners and artists, also saw an invigilators take you on an immersive journey designed to knock you out of your comfort zone. Here, they were responsible for everything from helping you dress up as a Brazilian carnival attendee to asking you searching questions about the nature of existence.

As certain branches of contemporary art become ever more based around the creation of installations, situations and ephemeral experiences, the function of the invigilator has increased and expanded. It has reached the point were this role frequently plays a crucial part in the creation of the artwork itself and certainly the gallery visitor’s experience of it. Depending on how an individual invigilator interprets what is presented to them to deliver, the experience becomes even more subjective for the visitor.

This adds another layer beyond the artist’s intention, audience preconception and curatorial interpretation. Speaking as a former invigilator, the experience of being literally ‘on the ground’ with any given exhibit for an extended period of time also sees you develop a unique relationship with an artwork. You are witness to every inch of detail, all its whims, the effects it has on an audience, its highs and lows.

This relationship can be more intense than that between the work and the artist who created it. This is especially true if the artists involved have had little hand in the actual fabrication or ‘demonstration’ of a piece, rather just the concept. It becomes the invigilator’s role to nurture, care for and present to the world someone else’s baby, whether you love it or not.

The role of the gallery invigilator is an area which deserves more thought and respect, yet is often forgotten by artists, critics and curators, even those who have been invigilators in the past. Currently many institutions under financial pressure seem keen to dispense with paid invigilators, replacing this important entry-level position, where a real understanding of arts audiences can be gained, with volunteers. This risks entrenching elitism in the arts, denying roles to anyone who can’t afford to volunteer for long periods of time.

Perhaps it is time that some acknowledgment be given to the important role that invigilators play in the ‘creation’ of many artworks and perhaps even academic research into the function that this unglamorous but vital job plays in our understanding and experience of so much contemporary art

This piece appeared on The Guardian and Museums Journal in July 2012. 

Learning from the Grassroots

By Kenn Taylor

Having worked with both public arts institutions and artist-led independent outfits, I see that there is much that public venues can learn from their grassroots counterparts.

There are inevitable differences between the two types of organisation. The size, degree of external funding and constitutions of public galleries usually mean that they have more responsibilities than grassroots organisations, especially in these austere times when everything must be justified. However, they are both still in the same business – producing and exhibiting art.

There are some things that artist-led organisations could learn from public institutions, such as trying harder to attract audiences from a wider demographic beyond ‘the art world’, but by and large it seems like the learning should be in the other direction.

Many public arts organisations are far too hidebound by hierarchy and bureaucracy, dominated by endless meetings and managers only interested in delegating all of the ‘practical’ work. Artist-led organisations seem to be much better at flexibility and pulling together. Without legions of assistants and contractors or large budgets to play with, whoever is responsible for, say, the installation or marketing of an exhibition, usually just gets it done with whatever is available. Such circumstances can often make people very creative and I have seen brilliant results produced with very little resources.

Artist-led organisations also tend to be better at sharing responsibilities for the grim and boring work – paying the gas bill, taking out the rubbish, serving refreshments at events. Aside from saving money by not having ‘operational’ staff separate from the programme side, getting involved in such work tends to give people a much clearer perspective on the reality of things beyond the world of creative ideas. Because of this, such organisations are also often better at being on the ‘ground floor’ with their audience, seeing how projects are received, what works and what doesn’t. This lack of separation of day-to-day operations from the creative programme might not be possible in very large institutions, but it certainly is in the small to medium ones.

Grassroots organisations are usually also better at allowing everyone within a team some form of input into the direction of an organisation and its creative output. This not only helps make everyone feel valued, but it can aid in generating new and interesting ideas for programming and subjecting them to the required scrutiny. Artist-led outfits also often have more rotation of those at the top, which helps keeps things fresh and organisations fluid, organic and adaptable. Public institutions meanwhile have a habit of becoming self-perpetuating and repetitious; dominated by the ideas of a few central leaders, often far too focused on what others are doing in similar institutions elsewhere.

The teams within grassroots organisations are also often more successful at working with the wider ecosystem of the arts in any given location, which can help build audiences and provide effective networks for successful operation. Developing links with local designers, businesses, artists and collaborators, means they avoid relying on handing out contracts to remote and often overpriced operators, who may frequently fail to deliver.

Adopting practices such as the above are especially important for smaller public arts institutions which, by their nature, must be more dynamic and efficient. In these times, such institutions have little room for people who don’t pull their weight towards the wider goals of an organisation, or who wish to only exist in some ‘creative’ space disengaged from day-to-day reality. The best small arts organisations already do this, but many more could learn.

This is not to pretend that all grassroots organisations are without dysfunction, hierarchy and ego. Nor is it to imagine that institutions of any kind don’t need direction, or that leaders can’t inspire and drive an organisation to great results. Yet, being a more collectivised organisation does tend to create an interdependent reliance which is usually both more efficient and more effective in delivering goals. A model that could help create more sustainable public arts institutions which can survive and thrive in this new, more pragmatic era.

This piece appeared on Arts Professional in May 2012.

Art and Commerce


Creativity and how it’s paid for

By Kenn Taylor

Throughout history, art and money have always had something of an ambivalent relationship. The role of the professional artist is in itself a product of excess wealth in any given society. Unless there are surplus resources produced to sustain them, such a function cannot exist. In ancient societies, art and culture was produced by members of communities as merely part of their whole existence.

The creation of more intensive agriculture produced a surplus of food, which led to a freeing up of people and resources. This meant that some people could become dedicated to producing art in exchange for sustenance produced by others, paid for those with the power and the capital to commission it. The professional artist had been born.

Art of course is meant to be, and I do believe it is, something that is above the everyday banality of existence. Truly great art; music, films, sculpture, whatever can transcend cultural and political boundaries, language, and the lives of the individual people and cultures that produce it. The ancient Roman and Greek empires and the people who created them are long gone, but we still have all those armless statues to remind us of them.

Yet in the time that art is being created, the money needs to come from somewhere. Art may rise above such things, but artists themselves and institutions that support art do not, there are always resources to be got, bills to be paid. And, usually, those providing the money have had some say in the art, to a greater or lesser extent.

A cursory glance in any art gallery with a historical collection reveals the influence on art of wherever the centres of power and money lay at any given time in history. For centuries the Catholic Church held much of the power in the Western world and had something of a monopoly on commissioning most artistic production.

Later, royalty and the wider aristocracy called the tune. The Medici dynasty that ran the Republic of Florence funded much of the Italian Renaissance. Further on, the mercantile proto-capitalists in the wealthy Netherlands bankrolled the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, with their demand for secular imagery to adorn their homes.

In 19th century Britain, it was the new industrial barons who paid for much of the art. On Merseyside, the Tate, Walker and Lady Lever Art Galleries were originally paid for by Henry Tate, Andrew Barclay Walker and William Hesketh Lever, magnates in sugar, brewing and soap manufacture respectively. All those grand palaces of culture were paid for from the profits made from selling commodities to the new urban masses created by the Industrial Revolution. In Victorian Britain, sponsorship of the arts was a good way to improve your image as more than a businessman. It was an early example of ‘brand association’ that continues right through to today’s Unilever plc, the successor to William Lever’s firm, sponsoring Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall projects.

Later, New York became the post-WWII centre for arts, paid for by that city’s status as the centre of modern capitalism. And, as London took over and became the world centre of ‘casino banking’ after the ‘Big Bang’ that revolutionised the stock market in 1986, those that had grown rich in this brave new world bankrolled much of the ‘Young British Artists’ movement.

This was more of a blip really in the UK though. After WWII, the Government assumed the role of the principle patron of arts, in much the same way it did with health, coal and railways, with the foundation of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. The Arts Council is widely regarded worldwide as a good model of support for the arts, neither directly state controlled and thus subject to adverse political interference, nor laissez-faire and thus entirely reliant on the whim of the market.

However, there is an inevitability of not being able to rely on the state consistently for funding, as the recent cuts in public expenditure has proven. These cuts have created much debate about what or who will pay for the arts in future. The current Coalition Government is keen on more corporate sponsorship for the arts and, in particular, philanthropy from rich individuals, something which has left many people aghast.

Many view state support as purer than corporate support or wealthy patronage, as if it taints the art less. Yet, state funding also has its own issues. It is certainly not ‘innocent’, being paid for of course through the taxation garnered through our capitalist system. Rising and falling with the whims of any given government and subject to the whims of individual Arts Council staff, state funding inevitably has its own agendas, strings and bureaucracy attached that can be very frustrating to creatives.

There is no one perfect system for funding of the arts, but artists and arts institutions must make terms with their role in the wider economy. Art is not, and never has been, totally ‘pure’, the money must come from somewhere, even if that creates distaste in the mouth of people who presumably aren’t struggling to feed themselves or keep an art gallery open and with free entry. Yet, engaging with economic reality doesn’t have to mean producing poorer work. Today, there is a greater variety of ways that ever to fund creative endeavours.

In terms of institutions, a mixture of funding sources is probably the healthiest, as influence from one source or the other is less likely to interfere with the integrity of programming and also leave it less vulnerable to one source of funding drying up. Something that the people running Britain’s wider economy, with its over reliance on financial services, could have taken heed of.

The Tate may be regarded by some as a corporate monolith, but it operates a good mixed model of funding, with Government money now accounting for less than 50% of its income, the rest a mixture of sales, memberships, donations and corporate and foundation sponsorship. Tate’s well off members and supporters help pay to keep its doors open for free and its outreach and education programmes running for the less advantaged.

Although many smaller and regional institutions couldn’t match Tate’s prowess, at the opposite end of the scale, in 2012, Shetland Arts will open Mareel, a cinema, performance and creative industries centre in Lerwick, one of the remotest parts of the UK. Mareel has no revenue funding to support its operation and activity. Instead, they plan to sustain themselves through the ownership and exploitation of intellectual property rights – by investing in the creation of arts projects and working to leverage the value of any content. It will also take advantage of digital communications with live music content captured and broadcast from the venue, giving it an audience stretching far beyond its isolated base. If this can be done in a remote Scottish island, surely some of the institutions in England’s regional cities could take inspiration.

What about individual artists? Again the internet is an invaluable tool for the upcoming creative that was not open to others in the past. The net has made self-promotion far easier. You can sell you e-book or artwork online and cut out the middle man. You can put music or film on YouTube for a potential global audience for free and make your own impressive website that you don’t need a degree in computing to build. Crowd funding, or ‘micro-philanthropy’, via the net is also a new option. is a site that has helped individual creatives and groups to source funding from ordinary individuals to support everything from arts clubs for disadvantaged kids in Peckham to a travel journalism assignment across Europe.

Aside from working as an individual, there is indeed strength in unity, both in operating a more traditional business model such as a limited company, or any number of alternatives. The artists’ collective has appeared repeatedly through history, with mixed success. Many artists’ studios in Liverpool, such as The Royal Standard and Red Wire, operate on this basis of collective management, operation and funding, banding together to provide studio and gallery space, collectivise resources and bid for bigger funding from other sources.

It is also possible to find a balance between producing ‘pure’ work you want to pursue and commercial work that pays the bills. Again, there’s a long tradition of this, William Blake did commercial work as an engraver his whole life to support his own artistic endeavours. More contemporary, here in Liverpool we can see self-sustaining arts organisations like Mercy and the Kazimier who have found a balance between sustainable commercial success while maintaining their artistic integrity, producing work for corporate or state clients or paying patrons and re-investing that back into more ‘purely’ artistic work.

In these austere times, probably more than ever artists and arts institutions must stare their bank accounts in the face, but doing this doesn’t have to mean selling out. All the great art works in history had to, one way or another, make terms with the economic and political reality in which they were created. As Bob Dylan said, ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody’ but, more than ever, it can be on your own terms.

This piece appeared in the December issue of Object of Dreams magazine.

Independent Thinking

By Kenn Taylor

When the arts funding cuts were finally announced last year, there was trepidation in Liverpool as in the rest of the country: what would close? What would be cut back to the bone? There were inevitable causalities, and Liverpool lost the A Foundation, a huge complex of former industrial buildings which had opened in 2006 as an independent contemporary art space.

Yet, it was not the end for the site. Three creative businesses already located in the vicinity; architects Union North, design agency Smiling Wolf and the Elevator Studios complex, got together with building owner, arts’ patron James Moores, to develop a new broader and more sustainable model for the venue. From this, Camp and Furnace was born.

Venue Manager Ian Richards describes Camp and Furnace as a “constantly evolving, independent, cultural destination”. Since it’s reopening a few months ago, it has hosted several club nights, the Liverpool Food and Drink Awards and even Google’s first ‘engagement day’ in the UK. On 16th December, the venue will host a ‘Winter Picnic’ promising ‘fake snow, real food and open fires’.

The ‘business’ end will develop next year, with the opening of a bar and eatery, alongside a hotel with a difference: “Camphotel will be part boutique hotel, part indoor festival campsite,” says Ian. “We will be taking a selection of vintage caravans and re-appropriating them in an ‘outdoors indoor’ setting.”

Though Ian insists the cultural offer is still at the core of Camp and Furnace: “We’ll be rolling out a varied cultural programme over the coming year. Events to watch out for include art installations, exhibitions and performances; collaborative theatre, avant-garde cabaret, comedy and music.”

Based in the Baltic Triangle, which local authorities are pushing as the next ‘cultural quarter’ in Liverpool, the plan is to have the venue more deeply connected to the city’s creative grassroots, rather than operating in isolation as an arts centre. Ian explains: “We’re fortunate to be neighbours with Liverpool Biennial and similarly Elevator studios which is home to numerous creative firms. We’ll be looking to strengthen our engagement with these and others in the city over the coming months, providing them with a place where they can meet, exchange ideas and socialise.”

With the pretty much consistent shortage of funding for the arts in Liverpool, there’s always been a tradition of DIY culture, which has led in more recent years to a more entrepreneurial spirit in the arts. Another example is Mercy, a creative collective which came to prominence during the build up to Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year and has gone on to do commercial design work for everyone from Diesel to Arctic Monkeys. Throughout though, they have also organised their own boundary-pushing arts programme, most recently a series of events in collaboration with the Abandon Normal Devices festival.

Doug Kerr one of Mercy’s Directors, explains the relationship between Mercy’s ‘arts’ side and its ‘agency’ side: “The two sides operate independently of each other, but with the same set of values and principles. Our job descriptions straddle both sides of the business, and each side feeds the other creatively.”

And Doug feels having two sides to the operation does not lead to compromises: “Far from it, we’ve found a way of working that suits all of our skills and personalities and the result is that we’ve got two self-sufficient models. It’s not necessarily right for everyone, but for us we’ve been able to have our cake and eat it – at a time when it’s not easy to sustain an arts organisation. Our general policy is to unify disciplines and encourage collaboration and we feel like it’s that kind of approach which will stand us in good stead in the future.”

Whether we like it or not, the arts are changing from a model dominated by public-funding to something more fluid, and those organisations that are flexible and self-sustaining are the ones that will likely survive and thrive in this changed climate.

This piece appeared in the November 27th 2011 edition of The Big Issue in the North.