Creating ‘In Manchester’ exhibition

I (Domino) wanted to write an article for you all to talk about the behind the scenes workings of our new exhibition ‘In Manchester’ at Saul Hay Gallery. It would be totally biased if I wrote a review of our own exhibition! So I’m writing a review of the process instead.

(The exhibition is on from Saturday 24th April – Monday 3rd May – open 10:30am to 6pm/ closes 5pm on Sunday/Monday)

It all started in lockdown, before November, before we re-launched Cotton On MCR to now have more of a focus on our events. I knew within the new business plan that I wanted to host an open call exhibition. I first thought that I would hire an empty shop unit type of place. But this comes with the added worry of manning it, and also having to do everything, all the decision making by myself, the hiring of tables, chairs, plinths, lights etc! Then someone suggested I contact Saul Hay Gallery. I had visited the gallery beforehand and met the owner Ian previously, and I knew how lovely a place it was. So I spoke to Ian about working with him and hiring his gallery for this exhibition. We set dates in April in the hope that lockdown would be lifted by then and here we are!

As you may know, working out how we would pay for this exhibition was one of the trickiest decisions I had to make. I wrote articles ‘Open Calls – Should the artist pay?‘ I did Instagram videos and talked through my thoughts, opened it up to suggestions and questions. In the end, and after speaking to a huge array of people from artists, gallery owners, students and people not in the industry, I decided we had to charge a fee for the open call. This did upset a few people, and I totally get that, it’s a difficult decision to make. It was for that reason that we aimed to give something back to everyone that applied. More of that on the ‘In Manchester’ open call page.

So we opened applications, which started off slow! I think after the first week we only had around 4 people apply. However, come the last day, it all went completely mental – you guys like to leave these things to the last minute don’t you?! I think we had 90 applications just on that one day! Overall we had 170 people apply and 454 pieces of art submitted!! As you can imagine, it took so many hours and days to go through them all! But what an absolute pleasure it was, seeing so many incredible artists and artwork, all from Greater Manchester!

In the end we shortlisted 98 pieces of work. This was super tricky to narrow down. But the criteria we worked towards was that we looked for something that was completely different, or super skilled, or just lovely to look at. We tried to make sure we represented a big mix or artists, from students, to professionals, and people who have just started out. And when I say we, I want to thank all those that helped me with the shortlist – Lois, Clare, Eve and Rhianwen, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you!

So Monday 19th April rolled round, and I packed up myself, my tool box and baby Luna and headed to meet Ian at Saul Hay Gallery. All the wonderful shortlisted artists came along and dropped off their work. Luna loved it! She enjoyed all the action and the attention. Ian and myself however felt a little daunted! There was so much work, and some really big pieces too! We had no idea how we would fit it all in, it was a little overwhelming. I have to thank Ian wholeheartedly! I would have totally panicked if I had to do this by myself. That is another reason why booking Saul Hay Gallery was the right decision. Ian loves curating exhibitions and has done so for years, without his help and knowledge, the exhibition would not have worked.

We created a system, a yes pile, a no pile, a large work pile and so on. We started by hanging some of the larger work and then went from there, seeing what works well in relation to each other, what artwork suited what space and so on. We took plenty of tea breaks to keep our mind sane, and we battled on till the evening. It was a very overwhelming, but truly fun day. But by the end of it I was ready for a wine and some chocolate!

Day, 2. More curating and hanging. We had a good plan of where the remaining work would go and so we cracked right on. We tried our absolute hardest to make sure we had a great mix of work and included as many artists as possible. We ticked off paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture, textiles etc. We wanted to make sure this exhibition really did show off a huge array of Manchester talent. Once everything was up and in its place (and hanging straight!) we then had to do all the admin. Marking each piece of work with a number, making sure all the names of the work was correct, editing the plan with all the details, finalising the information on the website and so on!

We also had to inform those artists that did not make it into the exhibition. I found this really hard as it was so tough to lose people. Even in the last minutes I was scrambling round trying to find more easels or wall space! Thank you again to all the artists that came and collected their work.

So as I type I am in the gallery, all complete, and waiting for our next private view guest to come along. It feels amazing to be here, surrounded by so much talent, speaking to so many new people, talking about art. I am so super chuffed with how it has turned out, and so proud of myself for organising this! And yes, I am blowing my own trumpet and I am happy to do so!

In the end we managed to show 50 artists and 71 pieces of work! I am pretty pleased with how much we managed to get into the gallery, and the views so far have said how good it looks and how varied it is. As I have said before, Cotton On MCR want to show that art can be for everyone, you just need to find the art that you like. If you can’t find that here in ‘In Manchester’ then… well, I guess I will just be completely shocked!

So come along, grab a programme and scan the QR codes on it to read the artists statements, and give us feedback. You can also vote for your favourite piece too! We will have the overall best piece competition and the winner will be announced at the end of the exhibition, and a winner of the viewers vote too!

See you all there! We are open this week from Wednesday 28th April – Monday 3rd May.


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