A decade ago, I was working on my M.A. in Arts Management at Birkbeck College and it was time for my class to do internships. Fellow students would be attaining experience in theatres and museums. As I was already a paid assistant in a London art gallery, I wanted something more. The journey I subsequently travelled brings to mind my favourite childhood poem by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
I put together a proposal to curate an exhibition, nowadays called a ‘pop-up.’ The project was given the go-ahead and I started planning.</div>
I offered the show to a New Yorker artist friend who accepted straightaway. He was to finish a series of drawings and paintings and would have a mate arrange the crating and shipping of pieces. Boy, we didn’t have a clue on the latter!
After leafing through spaces to hire in printed publications, I confirmed that the show would be held in the basement of an existing gallery in Park Walk, Chelsea. Much to my surprise, no spaces had taken the name The Chelsea Gallery, so I provided this in listings.
I won’t go into much detail about the challenges we faced in presenting drawings without any budget for frames. Let’s just say that my solution involved copper pipes, sheets of acrylic and bull dog clips which gave an industrial presentation in keeping with the images and also, thankfully, kept the paper intact.
The biggest hurdle was that we needed the art pieces. The morning of the private view, we discovered the reason why the crates had not yet arrived. They were stuck in customs. I spent six hours on the telephone talking with customs brokers and couriers, and learned about paying VAT on art imports.
It soon became clear that the pieces would not arrive before the private view commenced – however at a push, they might be delivered before it ended. So I planned for an action-packed unveiling during the opening. And goodness me, it was terrific when the paintings eventually arrived. We uncrated and hung the pieces, wine glasses in hand and to cheers all around.
Ultimately, as with so many speculative commercial art exhibitions, I lucked out. An art collecting couple so happened to pop into the gallery on that rainy spring evening and made an offer on one of the large paintings. Not having prepared how to negotiate, the artist and I gave far too big a discount, but nonetheless, the show broke even.
The particularly ridiculous moment arrived 10 days later at the end of the event, when the couple was collecting the piece. We hadn’t thought about climbing down the mountain, in that we didn’t have packing materials on site. The gallery wouldn’t give us any of their bubble wrap, and we only had 10 small scrappy bits. These were taped together, stretched round the painting, and the messy bundle was handed over. My lasting memory of that afternoon is watching the painting being driven down Park Walk, sticking out of the sunroof, bubble wrap blowing in the wind.
Had I not learned so many lessons in that work experience adventure, I wonder how I would have pulled off my next show three years later, a pop-up over two floors that was rated number one exhibition of the week in The Times.