Here’s ten, er, thirteen Tips for Commissioning Site-Specific Installations from Kim Davenport, director of Rice Gallery. In her more than ten years running the all-installation all-the-time gallery, Davenport has commissioned installations from over 50 artists. She has brought in legendary figures like Judy Pfaff and helped launch the careers of young artists like Alyson Shotz and Phoebe Washburn. Davenport’s tips are essential reading for arts professionals as well as artists with installation tendencies.
A work that looks spectacular in a photograph may be much less so in person. Installation is about moving through space and thus has to be experienced. Before you invite the artist, see the work.
2. Consider John Q. Public.
Be mindful of your audience. Your aesthetic may tend toward the minimal, the political and the obtuse. If you adhere strictly to this diet, however, your audience will starve. People are hungry for beauty, meaning, humor and magic.
3. Remember the kindness of strangers.
Keep in mind that what you are doing is made possible through the vision and generosity of others, some of whom may not love contemporary art, but think what you are doing is important. Make it worth their investment.
4. Know where you both are coming from.
Be sure the artist and curator share the same definition of “installation.” The genre is defined in many ways; some artists consider a small pile of material placed in the middle of a room to be an installation. At Rice Gallery, installation is understood as the visual transformation of a 1700-square foot space.
5. Think of inviting an artist as a job interview: call references.
Talk with colleagues who have worked with the artist to get an idea of whether you think you and your co-workers would enjoy living with this person 24 hours a day for three weeks, because that is how it will feel.
6. Arrange a visit.
A site visit is essential; measurements, floor plans and photographs cannot convey what it feels like to be in the space. It is important for the artist to meet the gallery staff and to get a sense of the city in which s/he will be working. Create an itinerary that contains all travel information, confirmation and telephone numbers, and a schedule of how the time will be spent. Email it to the artist well in advance of the visit.
7. Get it in writing.
Everything large and small that will be involved in the installation’s plan, cost, construction, deinstallation, documentation and dispersal must be included in a Budget and Letter of Agreement. The signed LOA is a legally binding document that clearly spells out both parties’ obligations. Sit down with the artist and read it aloud, point-by-point, answering questions and making sure that everything is understood.
8. Know your limits.
When dazzled by the work of a fantastically wild artist like the late Jason Rhoades or Christoph Büchel, seriously think about whether your institution can handle the boundless, unpredictable nature of this type of work. You want it and it may be worth it, but do you have the stomach and the resources to pull it off?
9. The creative process is just that.
When you commission an artist of great stature like installation pioneer Judy Pfaff, you do not have to worry about what’s going to appear in the gallery. However, a talented yet less experienced artist may need guidance. Ask for sketches, plans and a model. Discuss these and ask for revisions or more ideas, if necessary.
10. It takes a village.
Creating a large-scale installation is not unlike putting on a Broadway show. The artist directs and works alongside gallery staff, freelance preparators, painters, craftspeople, technicians, volunteers and others, all of whom make it possible for the artist to realize his/her vision. Line them up in advance.
11. Can I bring . . .?
Often , it takes an assistant. An artist’s assistant can mean a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. Bring in this person; he or she will be company for the artist. Think of the nights you will be able to go home rather than take the artist out to dinner.
12. There will be many Learning Experiences.
Be prepared for those unusual challenges, which despite your careful planning will arise. An example: finding a machine with a really big hose to suck seven tons of wet sand out of the gallery. Over the weekend.
13. Let go.
One of the most thrilling things about site-specific installation is its temporary, ephemeral nature. This can be hard to accept. Chop it up, recycle it and begin again. It is always new and ultimately, always a leap of faith.
A museum professional for over twenty years, Kimberly Davenport has been director of Rice University Art Gallery since 1994. She developed the vision and artistic direction for Rice Gallery and serves as its curator. She is a National Peer of the Design Excellence Program administered by the Office of the Chief Architect, United States General Services Administration, and in 2007 served on the GSA’s National Design Awards jury. Davenport is member of the University of Houston Public Art Committee, and is vice-president of the board of the Houston Museum District Association. She holds degrees from Maryland Institute College of Art and Yale University.
Check out our first Ten List, Clint Willour’s wise and witty Your Portfolio and You.
All images courtesy of Rice Gallery.
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