Bringing Art to a Non-Traditional Space

Whether I’m hanging someone else’s artwork or designing a project of my own, one of my greatest joys is connecting with people who haven’t had many opportunities to experience or interact with art. Although it’s often easier to install an exhibit in a pristine gallery setting, I find it much more rewarding to bring my work into unexpected and non-traditional spaces. I have been able to successfully installed artwork in many such places, from churches to nursing homes to libraries to public parks.

Bringing artwork into a non-traditional place comes with two primary challenges. The most obvious is that of working around existing structures and spaces that are often less-than-ideal for installing and viewing art, and that often will continue to serve a variety of other functions while the exhibit is in place. A less obvious, but equally important, challenge is that of approaching and working with individuals and institutions who have very little background in hosting art-related events. While many artists  don’t want to deal with inexperienced people or organizations, I’ve found most to be genuinely well-intentioned and open to learning. Good communication is often all that’s necessary to make for a positive experience on all sides.

When I started my residency at the Guild a few weeks ago, the director, Dan, approached me about creating some kind of artwork in or for the community church here in Plain — just the kind of project I get excited about. Inspired by both the natural environment and the upcoming season of Lent, I thought back to an old idea that never developed beyond a few small prototypes — an outdoor installation of black fabric sails that slowly turn in response to the changing wind. My vision for this project is to create a meditative space for sorrow and grief: a place where mourning is welcomed and accepted, and sadness is invited in.

Yesterday Dan and I went to meet with the church pastor, to go over the written proposal for this project. Because I am working with an organization that doesn’t typically host art events, and because my planned installation doesn’t look much like “church art,” I wanted the proposal to be as clear and straightforward as possible. In addition to explaining the project concept and title, I also wrote out a precise description of the size and form of the project, and included an itemized budget for the cost of materials. The written portion of the proposal concluded with a brief artist biography. I also included a simple project sketch depicting three of the hanging sail forms with a couple of viewers to give a sense of scale.

The meeting itself was short and sweet, in part because I had done my preparation work ahead of time in creating the written proposal. The pastor agreed to the project almost immediately, and had good insights about which spaces would be best for the art and also readily accessible to community and congregation members. After reviewing my budget, he was also willing to cover the cost of materials — a great help to me.

It does take more energy and involvement to bring about an art exhibit in a non-traditional space, and I fully understand why many artists become frustrated or disillusioned with the extra work and planning required. But for me, the reward is incredible. I am bringing this project to people who may never have visited an art museum, heard the term “installation,” or even peeped through the window of a gallery storefront. That is very cool, indeed.

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About Sarah Jane

Working artist, university professor, community educator. Currently living in community at the Grunewald Guild, Leavenworth, WA.

6 responses to “Bringing Art to a Non-Traditional Space”

  1. anne says :

    Great blog! Funnily enough I was doing the exact same exercise today! The location, not used to art exhibitions, and needing also to be used by community groups during the time of the exhibition, influenced a couple of changes to work and layout. Ultimately i think these changes will enhance the exhibition’s overall impact for the better.

    Good luck with your work and looking forward too seeing some pictures.

  2. Sarah Jane says :

    Ooh, you’ve piqued my curiosity about your project, Anne. What is the exhibit and what is the space where you are installing it?

  3. anne says :

    Hi Sarah, were at the proposal/raising funds stage so can’t really say where, but its a great space. its in a beautifully restored Listed building in Scotland, so can’t change or attach anything to stone walls, used for things as diverse as art groups, poetry readings, yoga & woodworking classes.
    since last summer I’ve been collaborating with a poet and this would be my first solo show and an exhibition I’ve curated myself. Im 18 mths out of art schoo

  4. anne says :

    ….art school and really looking forward to the whole experience.

    My drawings and ceramics respond to the seven poems my collaborator has written. It has been a great journey, it has challenged how we both work and we’ve had a lot of serendipitous meetings and events happen on our way. Most of all I’ve made a great friend and met a lot of fabulous people on the way.

  5. Sarah Jane says :

    Wow, Anne, that sounds like a wonderfully rich collaborative project — what a great way to challenge yourself to keep creating during that fragile period just after finishing school. So many people really struggle during the first couple of years, but it sounds like you’ve been growing & flourishing! What is the timeline for your exhibit (assuming it does move forward as planned)?

    I once hung an exhibit of big abstract paintings that coordinated with a poetry reading. The work wasn’t created as an intentional collaboration, but the painter & poet were good friends who had shared a lot of dialogue about their creative processes over the years. It was a really rich experience, and so amazing to see a number of literary types exploring an art gallery for the first time as well as some visual-arts types attending their first poetry reading.

  6. anne says :

    Hi Sarah, the timeline would be six month from go ahead.

    for three months in advance of opening we plan to deliver one workshop a month and generate some publicity and audience, then the exhibition would be in place for a month with opening and other events to engage the local and tourist community.

    I like the idea of the Two creative communities coming together. I love to see the reaction of the audience and hear their stories

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