Saturday, January 14, 2017

How To Land Work In A Museum

Placing artwork in museum collections is a long-term goal of many photographers, and for good reason. A museum confers respectability, archival filing, posthumous storage, and possible viewing and scholarship opportunities for your work. Museums are great gigs all around. 

OK, Fine. But how do you get your images into a museum? What are some tricks of the trade? As a photographer who has installed a shit-ton of work in museums —some of which remains on display— I get this question a lot. This simple answer is that it's not easy. In fact, becoming museumified can be a formidable task. But with hard work, perseverance, and a little luck it can be done.

What follows are a few simple tips for photographers that I've developed over the years. Note, these are not guaranteed methods. Situations vary. But for most photographers and most museums they should lead to successful submissions. In my experience these are the only methods with a proven track record. Other ways may also work, but I've found them much less reliable.

1. Submit materials appropriate to the venue. In order for your submission to remain on a museum's walls, it must look like part of the surrounding show. Don't just install photos blindly. Instead you should cater your work to a particular exhibition's display context. For example, if a museum is showing large black and white photographs, a smaller color print is likely to stand out, and will probably be removed by the authorities. Museums often post information online regarding exhibition specifics. A little background research will potentially pay off with a display of longer duration. 

2. Night or Day? Think carefully about when to submit work into a museum. The advantage of a daytime submission is that most museums are open during normal business hours. During daytime you should be able to enter the museum easily with your artwork carried in a small portable container like a mailing tube or protective fileboard. Once you're positioned in the interior, the artwork can then be deployed. The disadvantage of a daytime submission is that museums can be crowded during the day, and this can make it difficult to avoid observation during your submission.

A nocturnal submission is completely different. The chief advantage is that since the museum will be empty, you'll be under less direct surveillance, allowing for potentially easier installation. Of course you should be aware of surveillance cameras and take precautions to avoid them once inside the building. But if proper measures are undertaken, night hours generally have less eyes on you. The disadvantage of course is that you'll need to break into the museum to gain entry. This might require the skills of a locksmith or strength coach. It could also place you in legal jeopardy if you cannot convince a jury that you're making an artistic statement. To see more about artistic statements, please see Tip #9.

3. Don't be afraid to reach out. The odds of a successful submission can be greatly enhanced with carefully planned teamwork. Your friends can create a distraction while you install, or vice versa depending on particular talents of the group members. In the unfortunate event that your submission is interrupted by authorities, an escape to the exit is often easier with the help of accomplices.  

I realize that asking friends for help may feel uncomfortable at first. Many photographers do not like to delegate or put themselves in the vulnerable position of depending on others. In my opinion this is a mistake. Open your heart. Open your arms. Reach out for that submission hold and you'll find that most friends will be happy to pitch in for an important task like submitting to a museum. If your friends seem reluctant, make sure they're aware of museumhood's potential financial benefits for all involved. 

4. Technique. While submitting your work, the primary technique is to remain inconspicuous. If submitting during the day, dress as a normal museum patron. If submitting at night, dress in darker clothing. Choose an uncrowded wall space for your submission which has plenty of room. Position your piece so that it follows the spacing, height, and theme of the artwork already on display (see Tip #1). When submitting your piece act quickly and naturally to minimize the probability of detection. After submitting, exit the museum in a prompt, orderly manner.

5. Less is More. Excess images will call unwanted attention to your weak ones, while a smaller quantity is more likely to remain on the walls undetected by the authorities. Keep it simple. Choose just one or two of your best images for submission, then get behind them with all your artistic cunning.

6. Identify Your Work. This step may seem obvious, but many photographers neglect to sign their prints or otherwise establish a traceable link of authorship. In a conventional exhibition this fault might be overcome because artworks are generally accompanied by identifying captions. But unless you plan to install a caption facsimile with your artwork —an inefficient (See Tip #8)  and potentially reckless step— you'll need a signature or stamp on the back. This will help the authorities credit the piece after your installation is discovered. 

7. Be Authentic. Your work should clearly express the purpose behind it. In the case of a museum installation, the purpose is to be installed in a museum. Don't ever forget that. Your submission as an artist should reflect that goal honestly and directly, through choice of materials, subject matter, presentation, and historical references.

8. Be Efficient. When submitting your work to a museum, time is of the essence. A difference of just a few minutes can make the difference between your piece hanging proudly on the walls of a world class museum, or you being led away in handcuffs. For this reason efficiency of planning, thought, and action are crucial for a successful submission. When submitting your work, do not get bogged down. Plan parking, staff movements, security complications, and all physical handling ahead of time. To gain efficiency it may help to plan and practice the installation in a private setting before the real thing. Only move to the museum setting after you feel you've achieved peak artistic efficiency.

9. The Artist Statement. Most successful submissions are supported by a well-reasoned artist statement. This statement should explain the idea behind your piece and the process of creating it. Ideally it will frame the work in an art historical context. The good news is that, in the case of a successful submission, it's likely that you've already done most of this work already. That's because the submission itself is the statement. Your work is in a museum, at least for now. Fuck the doubters. You made it. That's your statement and you're sticking with it. I advise against making any other artist statements before first consulting with your attorney.


mikepeters said...

Yes! Off to MOMA I go. Tonight.

I appreciate this sage advice, you're the gift that keeps on giving.

Gary said...

Let's all get together and do a group show. Excellent advice here Blake. It sounds a lot easier than I previously thought. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

EZ said...

Once, in 2006, I removed all the art work in a gallery, built an installation - and had my one-man show the next day! It was in grad school, and each of your points was carried out fully and carefully. Bravo, Blake! It does work!