Bryan Memorial Gallery Executive Director Mickey Myers spoke to the Vermont Watercolor Society on the topic of artist/gallery relations. She was on a panel with Rob Hunter of Frog Hollow and Edward Bank of Gallery NorthStar at Killington Mountain Lodge on May 22, 2016. Following are her prepared remarks in response to questions provided by the Vermont Watercolor Society.
On behalf of Bryan Memorial Gallery, thank you for inviting my participation and the opportunity to bask in the rich focus of the VT Watercolor Society once again.
32 years ago, Bryan Memorial Gallery was founded as the Mary Bryan Gallery in memory of the artist by her husband painter Alden Bryan. They had arrived in Jeffersonville, VT in 1939 to participate in an intensive winter painting workshop led by the legendary Charles Curtis Allen, and they never left. Buying a dairy farm, introducing milk pasteurization to the area, establishing a bakery, a cafe, an inn, and a fine dining restaurant, Alden Bryan was never idyll, while Mary painted daily, even before she drank her morning coffee.
The purpose of the gallery was to show the original works of artists who came to the area, at the base of the other side of Mt. Mansfield, to paint landscapes. Alden said the unique value of the area for painters was that the paintings composed themselves. An inventive hanging system in the gallery allowed works to be installed and removed quickly, as Alden catered to artists who lived elsewhere, which included just about everyone, and tourists coming through the area. It is fair to say that Alden did not immediately envision the gallery’s popularity as a cultural destination, nor the need to double its size within the first 10 years. Nor did he care about practicalities such as storage space and a shipping area. It was the splendor of the camaraderie with artists, giving them a place to show their work that thrilled him.
When Alden died in 2001, the decision to continue the non-profit gallery was made by a Board of Directors, and a more typical non-profit profile emerged: a membership structure, annual giving campaigns, an annual fund raising event, silent auctions, sponsorships, donations at the door and all other such means. That Board decided to continue the primary mission of showing New England landscape painting, and while that distinction has broadened, it dominates today.
The Bryan remains a non-profit, a membership gallery. The first and foremost way to get its attention is to join. At $40 per year it’s a low rate for which there are approx. 400 members at any given time, mostly artists, and also many supporters and volunteers. The exhibition schedule takes place over 10 months with January and April dark.
Annually, There are 5 major juried shows in the Main Gallery, though occasionally there is an historic show like the upcoming ROBERT DOUGLAS HUNTER AND HIS STUDENTS, which was curated and invitational. The Middle Room shows are largely invitational, one person shows, based on ongoing relationships with artists, most of whom we already show in some capacity. . There is one major installation in the East Gallery per year and that is The Legacy Collection. It is made up of the gallery’s best-selling artists and award winners from the prior year. This year approximately 20 living artists and 6 deceased artists make up The Legacy Collection, and that work is refreshed 3X a year, and the artists are guaranteed representation for 11 months. And then the cycle begins again.
Each year, the gallery shows approximately 1,000 paintings by 300 artists, all of which are also posted on the gallery’s website and then archived on line for at least another 5 years.
So in short if you want your original artwork work to be considered for exhibition at The Bryan: 1) join as a member, 2) participate in the jury process and 3) show up when accepted and 4) if your work sells or perhaps better stated, if the gallery’s representation of your work is mutually beneficial, a more permanent relationship evolves.
In a circuitous way Bryan Memorial Gallery’s juried exhibitions are semi-curated shows. A theme is chosen by the show’s curator working with the gallery’s exhibitions committee. A Call to Artists is issued to our members, and a jury is chosen on which the show’s curator is one of the participants. The artists themselves select what they submit, and from those submissions, a show is assembled. In essence the curator’s work is teamwork, and in the end, the vision of the curator designs the exhibit.
That is why, you may rest assured, sometime your better work is not chosen for a show, not necessarily because it isn’t considered good, but because it does not expand or match or enhance or embrace the curator’s concept for the show.
There is also the issue of the audience which in our case is about 5,000 visitors per year, about 50% are Vermonters and 50% are from all over the country and the world. For the Vermonters, the concept of exhibits – fresh and new ways to look at art – gets them coming back sometimes several times a year. For the visitors, Jeffersonville as a cultural destination is a conceptual experience. No matter what we’re showing, they want to see it as long as it assures them, they are in Vermont.
At this point, I want to tell you about an experience I had a couple of years ago as an artist, when Nathan Suter, who succeeded me at Helen Day Art Center in Stowe the Executive Director, came to visit my studio. He was in search of work for an invitational exhibition on printmaking, and without much conversation, he selected 6 of my works for the show. I was somewhat dumbfounded because I would not have chosen those 6 pieces and wondered why he had, until I went to see the show.
The works he selected grew within the companionship of the other works by other artists he had selected. Nathan knew exactly what he was doing, and what statement he had to make – a statement I could not have seen coming from the confines of my own understanding of my own work. I learned again from Nathan and my participation in that exhibition what the role of the curator can be, especially when he has vision – to expand you and me, the artists, beyond what we know we can be.
Another way in which the concept of curator can work for you is to be your own curator, which happens when you work in series. It is something I encourage seriously, because of what I see happening to artists who do work in series and how it enhances their own understanding of their own work. The concentration required to do the same image not only once, but again and then again, can open the window to your own creativity in a way that is unparalleled in my experience. The experience of looking with new eyes at a scene you’ve seen before, as Monet said, “requires great courage,” and that courage that is almost always rewarded. So within the range of your theme and variations you can look at your work with the kind of objectivity that a curator or a juror brings to your work. It is freeing and is as close as I can recommend to sharing with you the curatorial experience and teaching yourself how your works live up to your other works. Comparing yourself to yourself is always illuminating.
One of my own most vivid experiences with a jury took place with the In A Pastoral Setting exhibition at Shelburne Farms, an exhibit I always coveted participating in, and finally I got myself together to submit. Before putting the slides, (remember slides?) in the mail, I got a phone call from the organizer asking me to be a juror for the show. Well, as honored as I was at this invitation, I really wanted to be in that show. So I turned down the invitation to judge, suggested a good friend to take my place, which she did, and expected to be a shoe in. Wrong again! My friend did not tell me why my work was rejected, but I learned from that experience that pure desire or expectation is not enough to get into a show, and that even putting what one considers one’s best work forward, or work that has been popular elsewhere, or that your spouse loves, or that has been published, or that is sought after, are not enough to guarantee acceptance by a jury.
There is also another word I’d like to introduce into the equation of how an artist gets their work in a gallery and that is the concept of balance. A gallery has to be as balanced in what it presents to the public as the artist has to be in what he or she presents to the gallery. A range of price points, sizes, seasons, moods – an inventory in which there are choices to be made always strengthens an artist’s presentation of their own work.
So finally, I asked Bryan Gallery’s staff if they’d share with you what makes for dynamic gallery/artists relations, and here are their questions. Not answers, but questions.
- Is your work growing and/or have you exhibited many similar works, or this work in many nearby galleries or is the imagery all over the web? The thought being that our jurors really get around and they are always looking for imagery that excites and awakens rather than imagery that is repetitious or overly familiar.
- How recently have your updated your materials, such as your website, your artist statement on the VWS website, your images on your membership pages?
- Are you prices the same everywhere, even at your open studio?
- Do you complain that sales of original works have been overtaken by your sales of reproductions?
- Have you filled in the tags and the inventory sheets with the same information that you provided to the jury, or phrased another way, between acceptance by jury and installation of an exhibit is not the time to change your titles or raise your prices.
- Is the cable on the back of your painting secure? Is the frame about to fall apart or does the frame overwhelm the work?
- Have you provided a high resolution, focused, cropped and correctly labeled jpeg image of the work you have delivered to the gallery? Or has the gallery offered to photograph the work for you?
- If you want your packing materials saved, have you labeled them?
- Are you interested in the works of other artists in the gallery or only in your own?
- Do you feel you know better than the curator as to how to install your work and if so, do you articulate this in front of other people, including customers?
- Do you make appointments to see the gallerist or do you just drop in expecting their full attention?
Finally, I would like to go back to why it was Alden Bryan established our gallery as one of the clues to what works for us. There was a thrill for Alden in the camaraderie of other artists. He loved to paint, to discuss art, to socialize and to support, and while those of us at the gallery today do not emulate his style, we love his agenda. Good artist/gallery relations always begin with conversation about the work, and about making the work, about what opportunities are ahead and how to prepare for them. When we can place a piece of art within a context that strengthens it, it thrills us as much as when an artist trusts us enough to share their dreams and their goals.