By Saskia Scott
How we view and experience art can be framed by the context of the gallery in which the art is presented. More often than not, this takes the form of a white cube. We enter a gallery expecting to experience art. In the case of contemporary art, we frequently walk into a gallery expecting to find art that pushes the boundaries on what we think of as art. So what happens to art---particularly this boundary pushing art---when we take it from that context and put it into a different space? Such as, for example, a hospital.
As the 2016 recipient of the Arts in Health Gallery Mentorship, I was given the opportunity to work part-time over twelve months on the TeamKids Gallery and Exhibition program. This program is presented across four corridor gallery spaces in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, North Adelaide.
There is significant evidence to support the benefit of art in a health context. However, what I’m interested in discussing here is a broader question: how does curation in a non-gallery context such as a hospital differ from a gallery context? And do the specific skills and approaches learnt in arts in health translate to better curation in other contexts? This article will focus on the benefit to the discipline of art curation, and specifically my own contemporary curatorial practice, from working in a health environment.
As part of the Mentorship, I curated a major exhibition for the Women’s and Children’s Hospital that opened in late May 2017. The exhibition, Natural Wonder: Documenting the world around us, features the work of Maxie Ashton, Christopher Houghton, Bernadette Klavins, and Ellen Portell. Through their art, the exhibition brings observations, contemplations, and the natural world into the hospital space. The exhibition aims to inspire the viewer to pay closer attention to their environment and the wonders to be found there.
Curating for a hospital corridor gallery has a unique set of practical constraints, and this informed my decisions in curating Natural Wonder. The corridor can only accommodate two dimensional, wall-mountable work. Further, the exhibition can only be hung in a long line down the length of one wall of the corridor, rather than creating a space where the art surrounds the viewer as is commonly the case in a traditional gallery. For reasons of infection control and the safety of the art, framed work is preferred. Weight is also a limiting factor for the work, as the gallery hanging system and hospital risk assessment prevent the display of work that is too heavy. This can significantly limit the size and framing style.
These practicalities aside, the most important distinction between the hospital and the gallery is that working in a non-traditional gallery space means that people don’t choose to view the exhibition. In the case of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, people are ordinarily there as a patient, to visit a loved one, or to work. Viewing the exhibition is incidental. This translates to a broad and diverse audience and, in the case of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, a younger audience. Working in this space, I feel a stronger curatorial responsibility to consider how the art could make the viewer feel.
With this in mind, in curating Natural Wonder, my rationale was to present exciting contemporary art with an environmental focus that also contained elements that children could easily connect with. This point of connection could be the subject matter or the method of making. For example, Bernadette Klavins created drawings by taking rubbings---much like the ones I did in primary school with coins and leaves---from the cut cross section of a tree felled in a local park. The documentation and mark-making evident in Bernadette’s work draws attention to the subtle variations and repetitions in the lines of the wood created by the chainsaw and the wood’s natural grain. I was struck by the similarities between the logic, focused attention, obsession, and wonder that children give the world and the approach of all of the artists I included in Natural Wonder.
The parallels between Klavins’ method of making and childhood art experiments also led me to include children’s activities. These children’s activities appear as wall text, and in the exhibition catalogue along with the more traditional curatorial essay. Through these activities, I provide children with the hooks to engage them in the work and clues to help them understand its meaning.
The hospital context also has an impact on exhibition design. This can be as simple as considering the practicalities of the exhibition hang: how tall is your audience? In the Women’s and Children’s Hospital we tend to hang slightly lower. A large portion of the viewers will be children; many other patients and visitors use a wheelchair.
A ‘white cube’ gallery space doesn’t challenge us to work outside of the norm. It doesn’t challenge us to centre the viewer’s experience and needs over the tropes and conventions of the art world. Working in a health context, the art is decentred in favour of the needs of the audience. The Mentorship pushed me to work outside my art world comfort zone and as a result I’ve had to work harder to seek our new artists, make new connections, and generate new curatorial approaches.
Natural Wonder: Documenting the world around us will be on display in Gallery A (Ground Floor Zone A---near Allied Health entrance and Hospital School) until mid-July 2017.
For more information visit the TeamKids Website or email email@example.com
Saskia Scott was the 2016 recipient of the Arts in Health Gallery Mentorship. The Mentorship is supported by TeamKids (Women’s & Children’s Hospital Foundation) in partnership with the Helpmann Academy and provides an opportunity for an emerging visual artist or curator to work part-time over 12 months on the TeamKids Gallery and Exhibition program under the guidance of the Arts in Health Manager, Jill Newman, from the Women’s & Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Applications for the 2017 Arts in Health Residency are open until the 28th of July 2017. For more information see the Helpmann Academy website.