ERC 2018 – Panel Discussion: Working with living artistsChaired by Kate Parsons (Tate, United Kingdom)

Much of my work involves working with living artists as we usually have one exhibition a year working with a contemporary artist(s) in one form or another. I was keen to hear the different views from the panel members and it soon became clear that there was a real breath of experience across the panel from the commercial art world to art shipping to international museums. It was chaired by Kate Parsons, Head of Collection Management at Tate. 
We as registrars can often be the main contact for artists whether they are exhibiting work at our institutions or if their work is being considered for acquisition. Artists can find working with institutions very different from their normal practice and can sometimes struggle with a sense of fighting institutional bureaucracy. The main thrust of the discussion was around how registrars can help artists realise their projects while balancing needs of the institution.
How registrars can enable the process of working with an artist during an exhibition?
  • Working with a living artist is a privilege and an opportunity. Benefit of having the artist there to have conversations to create a dialogue and a shared understanding of what is important. These can help an artist navigate the bureaucracy of an institution (don’t let the bureaucracy frighten them off by being too rigid) and enable problems that might arise to be more easily resolved.
  • The goal is to make the artist happy and to help them realise their vision. It is important to trust this vision and make a commitment to it. If they are not satisfied this would be a fail for your job so you need to keep working to get it right.
  • Remember that artists are human. Put yourself in their position. They are under pressure to create good work for the exhibition. Talk to them about their work. Show that you are engaged and there to make it happen. Be aware that their mood might change over installation.
  • Research the artist in advance, for example talk to a tech who has worked with them in the past. Try to predict and source the right equipment and materials.
What type of restrictions/parameters should be built into contracts?
  • How does an institution manage risk when an artist is working with unconventional materials and methods?
  • Artist contracts can be involved. Take it in stages, could have 3 or 4 stage contracts. It is a process. Ensure artists are given intellectual and creative space. Understand the integrity of the artist’s vision and balance that with any constraints.
  • No should never be the first thing to say. Important to ask what are they trying to achieve before thinking about saying no. The artist might not have the only solution. Look for an appropriate work around. Importance of dialogue and consultation. 
Challenges when acquiring works
  • Consider if a work(s) made for an exhibition might be acquired in the future. Ask the question at an early stage. Sometimes need to allow experimentation to happen during the creation stage and deal with the question of acquisition later.
  • Non-permanent materials can be a real challenge when works are acquired. Have a process to consider acquisition candidates and issues that might arise in the future.
  • Consider what the artist’s intent is. Does the artist want the work to survive/are they happy for it to evolve? It is fine if the artist intent is not for the work to survive. Consider what a lifespan for the work might then mean. Have discussions with the artist about how to replicate in future. Be clever about replaceable elements, source them at time of acquisition.
My main take-away is the importance of dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!

Alison Duke, Collections Manager, The Foundling Museum