Sarah Shalgosky, Curator of the Mead Gallery and the University of Warwick Art Collection, is the latest contributor in our series of behind-the-scenes autumn blogs. Here she argues that a good gallery should always be engaging, and reveals this as the motivation behind all of the Mead’s work.
A few years ago, I gave a tour of the exhibition at the Mead Gallery and the University Art Collection to staff from institutions in Coventry. At the end, they admitted that they had not expected to enjoy it so much. Apart from anything else, as Alan Bennett once remarked: “Art is hard on the feet; how Bernard Berenson could look at a painting for hours beats me”.
However, aside from the physical endurance of trudging around an art exhibition, it seems that there is a worthiness associated with galleries and museums which smothers any flickering flame of enjoyment. Perhaps it dates back to the Victorian period which saw the great age of the founding of civic museums and galleries – with the express intention to educate the working classes. Even today, most people visit a museum or a gallery for the first time with their school.
As a university gallery, it is hard to escape the atmosphere of education – except that Warwick is a research led-university. This means that many of our academics work in a way that mimics the approach of artists. They have an idea, they develop and test it and then they seek to put it out into the world in such a way that it elicits interest. After all, academic research is judged in part on its impact on the wider population.
And that’s what we try to do at the Mead Gallery: we put artists’ ideas out into the world in exhibitions that have a serious premise, that are often the outcome of years of work. But we try to do it in a way that is exciting and engaging.
Engaging is perhaps the key word. We want people to think about the ideas that have been developed and to do that, they need to be relevant and interesting. While we may explore concepts that seem to be the last word in tedium – such as the workplace, the scale of the universe, the prevailing sense of impending disaster in the current climate – we work with artists who communicate these concepts in a rich and compelling way. We aim to make the Mead Gallery a place where visitors are stimulated to join in and play with these ideas and, above all, enjoy doing it.
The Mead Gallery continues in playful spirit with the latest exhibition, The World Turned Upside Down – Buster Keaton, Sculpture and the Absurd, opening on Fri 4 Oct.