Fine Art Photography

How Artists Create Opportunities with Alternative Exhibition Spaces

August 14, 2018

By Conor Risch

Exhibition opportunities at commercial galleries, museums and nonprofit arts institutions are difficult to come by for the majority of artists. Both institutions and galleries mount a limited number of shows each year, and money is a huge factor influencing what gets shown: Commercial galleries have to sell work to stay in business, and most institutions have to sell tickets and memberships, while also courting donors.

In response to these limitations, artists have created their own exhibition opportunities and spaces where other artists can show their work and build community. PDN recently spoke with three artists who’ve created alternative galleries and exhibitions to learn how and why their projects came together, and to find out how they handled logistics such as funding, marketing and hanging drywall.

Melanie Flood Projects: From Living Room to Empty Office Space

When Melanie Flood decided to mount exhibitions in the kitchen and living room of her Brooklyn apartment a decade ago, she was driven by the desire to be a part of an emerging photography scene that, despite its vibrancy, “seemed to exist mostly on the internet.” The lack of in-real-life connection meant a dearth of dialogue, of opportunities to show new work and create community. “Opening up my home just seemed like the best way to participate,” she says. “There were just not a ton of artist-run spaces…for people that were young and were making photography,” she recalls. When she put work on the walls of her apartment and invited people in, “people came and it was more of a destination, and I felt like there was more dialogue surrounding the work,” she explains. “Because it was a home, it felt like people just stayed a little bit longer.” She only sold one piece, but there was no overhead because she was showing in her apartment.

Ten years later, Melanie Flood Projects occupies a space in an office building in downtown Portland, Oregon. She’s sold more work than she did in Brooklyn, but her mission is the same. She maintains the non-commercial space to give artists an opportunity to show work “that they wouldn’t be able to [show] in a commercial gallery,” and to get people to pay attention to that work.

“How you get that to happen is you get critics to come and you get curators to come and you get other artists to come, because that just creates this larger buzz around a person’s work,” she says. Though getting attention from critics and collectors is important to her, “it’s also about artists meeting other artists and building more opportunities for each other, because we can’t just rely on collectors and critics to propel us into the future to make our careers better. It starts more with our relationships with each other. I like to see my space as a bridge where people can meet each other and create new, collaborative relationships.” An artist herself, Flood says working with the people she shows helps inspire her in her own practice.

Courtesy Melanie Flood Projects

From Maria Antelman’s 2017 exhibition, “My Touch, Your Command, Your Touch, My Command,” at Melanie Flood Projects. Courtesy Melanie Flood Projects

Flood works hard on promoting her shows and doesn’t skimp on marketing materials. “I am really not afraid to do marketing and to do social media and to really press all of the exhibitions I’m doing,” she says. She creates print postcards and does Facebook and Instagram promotions, personal emails to people, and she’s also made a point “of getting to know every single person I could in the entire city that has anything to do with art.” She goes to shows, donates what she can to art spaces, and volunteers with arts organizations. “If you’re a member of that community they’ll come [to your shows],” she says. “They’ll come support you.”

Flood says her low overhead has been crucial. Though she’s received the odd grant, she funds the gallery primarily through her own work and money from sales goes back into the programming. She advises anyone who wants to open an exhibition space to look for something affordable in a neighborhood that isn’t cool. “I think that if your programming is good, it doesn’t really matter what neighborhood you’re in.”

Another piece of advice Flood offers for photographers who are thinking about opening their own exhibition space: Find a partner. “If you can have a partnership with someone, that’s really helpful because it does get really crazy organizing a show, finding artists, writing stuff, organizing a photographer to come take pictures. It is nice if you have help.”

Photos © Jeff Ladd/Courtesy of Secret Dungeon Project, and Matt Taber and Scott Nadeau.

A view of Jeff Ladd’s installation at Secret Dungeon. Photos © Jeff Ladd/Courtesy of Secret Dungeon Project, and Matt Taber and Scott Nadeau.

Secret Dungeon: A Collective and a Parking Garage

Photographer Nat Ward decided to start Secret Dungeon Project, an artist-run gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when a storage unit opened up in the garage where he’d been parking his motorcycle. “I thought, ‘Wow, that could be a perfect little project or exhibition space.’” Once he leased it, he started making calls to other artists. “One of my first calls was to Cy Morgan and I said, ‘Hey, you want to hang drywall this weekend? And by the way, let’s start a gallery.’” Other calls went out to artists he thought would be interested in participating. Two years later, Secret Dungeon, which has nine members, has put on 12 exhibitions, and has attracted press from The New York Times and Artnet, and one of their exhibitions was included in Interview Magazine’s list of ten best shows of 2017.

Ward says the primary goal of Secret Dungeon is to build recognition for the artists they show, both in traditional channels such as the art press, and also through “providing a space for the solidification of community around an artist.” One of the interesting things about the gallery has been to see the different artists’ networks, Ward says, and how they intersect and build connections.

A majority of the attention for the gallery has been driven by the artists whose work they’ve shown, Ward says. “When a writer is interested or a critic is interested in the work of an artist, then they come to the space.” The members of the gallery also share responsibility for promoting exhibitions to their contacts and networks.

None of the members show their own work in the gallery. Instead, curatorial decisions are made by consensus during discussions between all of the members, a parameter Ward set up from the outset “because I thought [collaborative curating] would be difficult, which of course it is,” he explains. But it’s also led to great discussions and programming, Ward says. One of the things the members debated early on was whether they were “just going to show pretty stuff and try and get into art fairs,” Ward recalls, or were going to show work that didn’t have a place elsewhere. They chose the latter. Ward thinks the members of Secret Dungeon would “be bored” if they were just presenting work “that we thought was good. Because why have another space that does that?” Once they select an artist, they encourage them to do whatever they like with the space.

Another goal “was simply to have the lowest overhead possible, because we thought that was not the way New York works now, at all, ever. And so it was a challenge to see if we could even do it,” Ward says. It’s been important to “creatively draw on your resources and the resources of your collaborators.” Secret Dungeon incorporated as a business, got bank accounts and business credit cards, and insurance to limit their liability. When an artist wanted to have live music in the gallery, they hired a doorman to keep people and drinks inside. Another gallery owner had warned them that he’d gotten open-container citations because people took alcohol outside during his exhibitions.

Each member also contributes dues each month, so the costs of the space are fully shared, and each member contributes to gallery sitting, installing and taking down shows, and “the rather unglamorous stuff that you have to do to keep it going.”

Disruption: From Pop-Up to Traveling Exhibition

Photographer Orestes Gonzalez was invited last year by the Long Island City Arts Open organization to curate a pop-up exhibition in a temporary storefront space in Long Island City, New York. The positive reception for the exhibition convinced Gonzalez to try and travel the show, which he brought to the Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW), the non-profit art space in Kingston, NY.

LIC Arts Open promotes open studios for artists and organizes a festival each year. Gonzalez had exhibited his work with the organization off and on since their founding nine years ago. For the pop-up show, titled “Disruption,” Gonzalez invited four other photographers to present work with him: Verónica Cárdenas, Kris Graves, GD McClintock and Griselda San Martín. Their projects addressed timely subjects such as immigration and police shootings of unarmed black men. Cárdenas, for instance, highlighted the work done by undocumented immigrants by photographing them doing their jobs while wearing a Donald Trump mask. Graves made photographs at the locations in eight cities where black men were killed by police. And San Martín photographed families who meet at Friendship Park and communicate through a border fence that separates Tijuana and San Diego.

Gonzalez had just four weeks to organize the show, which ran from May-June, 2017. Artists provided framed works and a small amount of money to defray the costs of hanging the show. Gonzalez also spent close to $1000 to cover other costs, such as printing the wall texts.

Working with LIC Arts Open gave the exhibition “great exposure,” Gonzalez says, and the organization’s promotion got local press, including the cable news channel NY1, to cover the show. Each artist promoted the exhibition to their networks, and writer Jon Feinstein (a PDN contributor) wrote about “Disruption” for the Humble Arts Foundation blog, “which gave the show a broader exposure,” Gonzalez says.

After seeing the positive reception the show received, Gonzalez “wanted to give it a longer life.” He created a website and began reaching out to other venues. He sent the information to CPW, “which immediately loved the show,” Gonzalez says, and they picked up the exhibition, which ran there from March to June of this year. Gonzalez says it probably helped that he’d participated in a group show at CPW recently, “so they were familiar with my work.”

Gonzalez advises others who are thinking of organizing an exhibition in an alternative space to “choose a strong theme that resonates with a large portion of the public.”

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