By Frances Guy
Since 2015 I have been working on an exhibition ‘Arp: The Poetry of Forms’, a retrospective of the European artist and poet Hans (Jean) Arp (1886-1966), with the guidance of Arp scholar Professor Eric Robertson from Royal Holloway, the University of London. This has been in collaboration with the Kröller-MüllerMuseum in The Netherlands, the first venue for the exhibition from May to September 2017, and more recently Turner Contemporary in Margate, the site of my placement.
It was important to find a venue in the UK for the exhibition, both for my professional development as a freelance curator and as evidence of the impact of Robertson’s research in the public realm, but also because Arp’s work is not as well-known in this country as that of many of his European counterparts. My research showed that the only major survey of his work in the UK had taken place in 1962 when a touring exhibition went to the Tate Gallery. In autumn 2015 I approached several potential partners in the UK with the exhibition proposal and in February 2016 the team at Turner Contemporary in Margate confirmed their interest.
Turner Contemporary was one of a group of new art galleries to open in 2011, including The Hepworth Wakefield where I worked between 2009 and 2015. Both Turner and The Hepworth were part of wider regeneration strategies using culture and the legacies of their artist namesakes to encourage tourism and investment in their locales. Whereas Wakefield’s fortune had declined in parallel with that of the coal mining and textile industries in the north of England, Margate had experienced the deprivation and neglect concomitant with the downturn in the seaside tourist industry in post-war Britain. Now, six years after opening, it is possible to see new independent businesses in the Old Town that have developed in parallel with the gallery, although there is still evidence of the town’s dilapidation a few hundred yards further into the town centre.
Another important context for both galleries was working with local audiences who had been identified as having a low-level engagement with culture. This was a key discussion point in conversations with the team at Turner about the need to engage with their core community as well as more culturally-literate visitors from London. Their Director, Victoria Pomery, acknowledged the risk posed by an exhibition devoted to a relatively unknown artist of the European avant-garde. To mitigate this, the exhibition chosen to run alongside Arp as a more populist counterpart consisted of ‘My Bed’ by Britartist Tracey Emin together with selected paintings by JMW Turner.
Account of activities
I organised my placement with Turner around key points in the development of the exhibition and meetings held in either Margate or London with Sarah Martin, Head of Exhibitions and my placement mentor, as well as others involved in the project’s delivery. Most of my work was conducted from home apart from the two weeks of installation leading up to the opening of the exhibition on 12 October 2017.
Key tasks consisted of writing publication and exhibition texts, identifying replacement loans for works that were not travelling to Margate and recalibrating the exhibition for display at Turner Contemporary. I also contributed to fundraising, marketing and press campaigns, and was involved in knowledge exchange events with the wider team, intended to develop rationales for showing Arp in Margate and ideas for the wider programme.
It has been fascinating to see how the team at Turner worked with the exhibition and developed themes to use with visitors as part of the wider public programme. Links were made between the work of Turner and Arp through the inspiration they took from the natural world, and Arp and Emin through the use of everyday objects and the role of the unconscious mind in their work. The pairing was an inspired choice, maximising the popular interest in Emin to draw in audiences who otherwise would not have encountered the work of Arp. In addition, the Learning team initiated activities drawing on the processes with which he made his abstract sculptures as well as the everyday items depicted in his artworks and experimental poetry. As a result I feel that the exhibition achieved one of its key aims, to introduce Arp to new audiences and inspire a new generation.