The artists of The Letchworth Open and some of his colleagues asked Kris about life, art, Letchworth and how you curate an exhibition of 300 artworks !
You seem very invested in Letchworth, how did you find yourself in the town curating for the gallery? Stuart Sapsford, Executive Director - Communities, Culture and Heritage, Letchworth Heritage Foundation
The easy answer is that I live here so I’m invested in the town as I want it to be a great place to live, where my son and his mates can grow up with lots of cool things to do, somewhere to be proud of - rather than a place to leave when they’re all old enough. The long answer, in terms of the gallery and the wider arts community is that I believe the time is ripe for regional art scenes to break from the shadow of the capital and develop their own identities, economies and ecologies and I’m determined to prove that point on my home turf.
Like others we came to Letchworth after living in London for years in the hope of being able to afford a house and a bit of space to start a family yet still have commutable access to London, where most of my work was. In an effort to meet people from the town I went out looking for arty folk and soon discovered a wealth of talent and a ton of art facilities and institutions. I don’t have many talents but one of them is definitely bringing people together (usually around a pub table back then) and me being me I immediately started thinking of projects we could put on here and, by virtue of being a loudmouth, word got back to the Heritage Foundation and I guess that’s how I ended up at the gallery!
Why was it so important for the Letchworth Open to go ahead? Paul Davey, Arts Officer, Broadway Gallery
Sometimes you need to look both ways. Sometimes you need to carefully and sensitively plan your next steps. Other times, like now, you need to close your eyes and run forward regardless of the consequences. The exhibitors in the Open aren’t just artists with a work on the wall, they’re our community, our patrons. It’s not our gallery, it’s theirs! The show, for many reasons, had been postponed since June and the last year hasn’t exactly been fun for anyone so what else can we do? We move forward. The show must go on. What’s wonderful is that, because of the restrictions, everyone has been even more determined to make it a success. It’s not just another exhibition, it’s OUR exhibition and we’re gonna make it work regardless of a pandemic or meteor strike or nuclear war or alien invasion or whatever life throws as us next. We’ll just keep adapting, we’re creatives remember? So we move the show online, take it out to the streets with the Letchworth Open Windows project…you can’t stop us!
It’s interesting there was no selection process - unusual for an Open Call. What made you change this? Anna Fairchild
There was originally going to be a selection process. We had a panel of judges ready to go and the plan was to select 20 - 30 from all the entries. Then 2020 happened. I received a lot of emails from artists who let me know how important it was to them to be able to be creative during the lockdown, how it helped them express themselves, or gave them something to do away from all the worrying news. Some said that the Open had given them something to focus on, a little light at the end of the tunnel, something to look forward to. Well, what kind of a monster would I be if I said ‘sorry, you haven’t been selected’ after all that? This is no time for a contest, it is, however, a time for communities to come together to support each other, and that’s what the Open became. And guess what? That’s what it’ll be EVERY year from now on as we’re gonna have to make it an annual celebration aren’t we?
Are you an artist yourself? If so can you tell us about your work and art style? Linsey Ashley
As I like to say ‘I don’t get my hands dirty’. Being a curator is a full time job and with a toddler at home I don’t get much time for my own creative pursuits sadly. I did originally want to be an artist but then moved into art history and then galleries and never really went back to it. There are still some paintings of mine in Mum and Dad’s loft…mostly of girls in Riot Grrrl bands from the early 90’s so it’s probably best they stay there (younger readers can google that).
As for being creative though, I was in bands for most of my life and still enjoy playing music if I get time. I gave up the band thing just before I turned 40 though, as you can’t be cool in your 40’s. Only one man has managed it - points to anyone who knows who that is - I plan on starting again in a few years, you can be cool again when you’re 50.
My question is how do you go about deciding which paintings to hang together? Do you have a practice run digitally or lay them next to each other physically to try it out? Nicki Greenham
Haha! Good question - how do you go about making sense of 300 completely different artworks in the Letchworth Open? By theme? Subject matter? Colour? Weight?? I had ideas before we began to install but soon threw them all out while we were unpacking the work. Someone once said to me ‘the only way to do it is to do it’ and that popped into my head so, frankly, I just started hanging and hoped that some semblance of order would spring out at me while I ploughed through the chaos! Some things made obvious sense, the more representational landscapes seemed to want to live together, likewise the monochromatic works and the photography. As I carried on I started to notice some rhythms, patterns and shared tonal qualities that could connect the dots but, in this case, it was better to just let it happen rather than thinking or planning too much.
I never work things out digitally, or even in cardboard models as I’ve seen others do. I have a rough idea but I find it pays to not be too rigid with your thinking, the works will tell you where they want to go. Different artists bring different energies to a space so it’s important to know that what might work for one won’t necessarily work for the next. With solo shows I actively encourage the artist to decide where everything will be placed and only intercept when I absolutely disagree, so I act as a facilitator rather than a dictator, giving guidance where appropriate - it is their story you’re there to tell after all. I thought better of this with the Open though, with 300 artists we’d have never finished!
Do you suffer from self doubt? Paul Ambler
Of course I do! Everyone does don’t they? There are a lot of people in the art world who, although they won’t say it explicitly, will judge you if you’re not from the ‘right’ school or the right background…if you look, speak, act or dress differently from the accepted norm…this was a problem for me for a number of years and really knocked my confidence but then I realised something. These people who seemingly set the rules, whose opinions are held in such high regard are..well…just some bloke…just some lass…and from that point on I didn’t really care. The beauty of art is that there are no rules, you can create the world that you want, on your own terms.
Which artist inspire you to keep working so hard as a curator? Zoet
Well that changes every day. I’m always looking at artists’ work and constantly intrigued by someone. At the moment I seem to be steering towards less ‘showy’ artists. Ones that quietly and diligently work on their practice regardless of outside pressures. This last year I, naturally, have been interested in artists that look at working with communities, shared histories and nature. As for hard work, it isn’t hard when you love it.
What is the best thing about working in the gallery and if you could change one thing about the gallery what would it be? Jo Franks
The best thing by far is you guys! Working with artists is such a privilege, getting close to the creative source! Before the pandemic struck I’d always be darting in and out of artists studios. I often find it sad to take the work away from them, studios feel like the natural home of artworks rather than some shiny white cube, fingers crossed I’ll be back at it before too long. As a curator you’re always limited by things like time, money and physics! So the shows you put on never quite manage to match the fantastical ideas you have in your head. So if I had to change one thing I suppose it would be me…I should chill out. Oh…that and the lights…the lights suck.
Do you think that digital art is as valid as traditional ‘painting’? Nick Dittrich (END Artist)
How do you think the pandemic has changed the role of art in provincial towns? Liz Harrington
Well, for a start they’re not ‘provincial’. Provincial means you’re outside of the centre of something and how can you be outside of something if you can’t leave? We’re on the inside dude! We ARE the centre now. And so is Hull, and so is Exeter, and so are the Shetlands and so is every art scene up and down the country and around the world. The thing about the pandemic is that it’s given these art scenes an opportunity. I’m not saying we should be closed off, far from it, but we can all look to attract the audiences, the collectors, the critics that would normally head to the big city for their art fix. That’s why the Open is so important right now, it’s our chance to solidify our art scene, make it recognised and tell the world about it. That’s why I’m always banging on about us all supporting each other, pushing everyone to follow each other’s social media, trying to get everyone involved. Now is the time to make something really special, build an army of artists in the town…we’ll be unstoppable!
Creativity and culture have been so important to everyone stuck at home over the last year. Could you tell us about some of the creative and cultural things you’ve enjoyed during this time? Kate Roberts
Well, if you’re hoping for some intellectually challenging recommendations you’re in the wrong place I’m afraid. Like most of us this last year I’ve been consuming things that offer a bit of escape. Between work and a toddler I just just have time or energy to focus on anything too taxing so, as I’m the first up for the interviews, I’m going to set the scene by being as honest as possible. I’ve been buying a lot of books, and not reading them, instead I’ve been watching TV and listening to music. At our house it’s usually Numberblocks, Teletubbies or, the excellent, Hey Duggee but, post-bedtime, I’ve been re-watching Cheers in its entirety. Hey, I was a fan during its first run so it’s comforting to me, like visiting old friends. Talking of old friends from the early 80’s, Star Wars The Mandalorian is, to me, the greatest television ever produced. So…nostalgia basically.
As for music, I thought I’d try and put together a playlist of the things I’ve been listening to this last year, usually on my way to and from the gallery via my phone. I’ve tried to be honest here and picked the tunes that have resonated with me, lifted my spirits or given me the energy to keep things moving. It might get a bit crazy in parts but give it a listen anyway!