The Rooftop Photography Collective (part of the BSAA programme) installing an exhibition in Clerkenwell

Making mistakes and taking risks: Necessary to forge your own art career?

Art Starters | Blog | Uncategorized
19 September 2022
by Susan J Mumford

Our founder Susan sometimes talks about how her years as an art dealer, gallerist and advisor resulted in her losing the temptation to attain an M.B.A. Her ‘induction by fire’ path resulted in fast learning, the experiences of which helped her to understand that you always need to be ready to think on your feet. Enjoy this personal story written by Susan. 

I recall the period when 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.

I offered the show to a New Yorker artist friend who accepted straight away. He was to finish a series of drawings and paintings and would have a mate arrange the  crating and shipping of pieces. Goodness, we didn’t have a clue on the latter!

After leafing through spaces to rent 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.

Susan taking the risk of being banned from the venue. We’re still curious to know what was behind that door though…

I won’t go into much detail  about the challenges we faced in presenting drawings without sufficient budget for frames. Suffice it to 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 (which is of great importance to savvy collectors).

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 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.

Key take-aways:

Be willing to make mistakes, or shall we say, learnings. And learn fast! 

When taking risks, be sure that they’re survivable. 

Make the most – or in my case, an event, out of a change of plans. 

Think about and discuss with collaborators how you’ll handle negotiating, such as a percentage, amount or value exchange that will be offered. 

Prepare for the whole show, including having proper wrapping materials that are ideally environmentally-friendly!

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