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engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists

Director's Forward

Cite this article

Jane Sillis
Director's Forward
engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists
Pages 4-5
Editor: Barbara Dougan
Spring 2016
Published by engage, London

I have particularly anticipated this issue of engage 37, focused on artists’ commissions and residencies. I have a background both in commissioning artists and in gallery education, and believe there are commonalities between these two areas of visual arts practice which contributors to this Journal explore from a broad range of perspectives. I first encountered public art while coordinating Art Within Reach at AIR Gallery, London in 1984, an exhibition about public commissioning and residencies, areas that had been blossoming in the UK since the 1970s. The exhibition also featured work from the groundbreaking education programmes at Ikon Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery, which specialised in residencies and commissions for artists in schools. The inclusion of material from gallery education programmes in an exhibition about art in the public realm, demonstrated how closely these two areas of practice mirrored each other at the time. As Education Officer at Ikon Gallery in the 1980s I worked with artists throughout the programme and initiated a residency and commission for performance artists with galleries in the West Midlands. Later, I directly used the skills and knowledge I had gained at Ikon to inform my work in the early 1990s at the Public Art Commissions Agency. Here I commissioned artists to create art in the public realm, working closely with communities in inner city Birmingham.

Gallery education taught me the importance of planning and consultation, of ensuring high quality experiences for participants and artistic outcomes, and of establishing clear boundaries and expectations, particularly for stakeholders, participants and funders. All skills and experiences I deployed while commissioning art in the public realm. I led the education and community programme at Whitechapel Gallery in the second half of the 1990s and then in the 2000s worked for Look Ahead Housing and Care, which supports homeless people. Here I commissioned artists as part of capital programmes as well as running a participatory arts programme. With Look Ahead, I not only employed the qualities, skills and knowledge I had gained as a gallery educator, but engaged the same quality of artists as at the Whitechapel Gallery, which helped to foster increased respect for the arts programme. Look Ahead’s arts programme was absolutely allied with the mission, ethos and strategic plans of Look Ahead and had a strong advocate in its Chief Executive, who cared passionately about the arts.

In their article in the Journal, Bec Fearon and Marie-Anne McQuay describe how the Alexandra Reinhardt Memorial Award (ARMA), artist residency and commission at Bluecoat, Liverpool, furthered its core mission by bringing together the organisation’s curatorial and participatory practice. engage has been managing ARMA since 2012, a programme initiated and supported by the Max Reinhardt Charitable Trust. ARMA - in its current iteration - acknowledges the very close ties between gallery education and public art commissioning, which confirms engage’s core ethos and interest in integrating learning and curatorial work in galleries to the benefit of audiences and participants.


engage 37

engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists

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