• S. Wardell

Watch This Space - The Hope of Indie Art Curating Models

I think I almost regretted wanting to do the Refresh Art Award project again, and by myself this time, until I saw the first two entries this morning. It opened on Saturday, and unlike last time, with a (very) soft and only half-advertised launch, so I wasn’t yet hoping for anything in the inbox.

Then I saw the first two entries and they’re lovely. They’re everything they might have been this year, very introspective and dreamy (are those words real curators use?), and I was in love again.

So once again I’m back to working out how independent curators can put on a decent show that doesn’t bankrupt us but also provides value for artists. It’s not the Holy Grail because I believe it is something defined as well as attainable, and the more experience I have of curating the more I believe this to be so.

It’s more like picking apart a very complicated lump of stringy knots and once again I’m having a go.

Origins of Refresh

The why and what of this is that in 2017, artist Georgina Talfana and I decided we could curate an art show together and actually get the money to do it by charging a small entry fee and offering some value to those who paid it.

We had already installed and curated shows together, so knew that this was okay in principle. We were also relatively solvent and had a system whereby we could collect the entry fees and ringfence them until the show was over, so as things went it wasn’t going to turn out like an accidental Fyre Festival.

With this safety net in place we set off to try and do this project and two years later were curating a wonderful show in the 5th Base Gallery in Brick Lane, London, that was the first ever Refresh Art Award. Painter Lucille Dweck won the first prize of £3,000 and we were also able to give out two smaller prizes as well.

While Georgina is currently concentrating on other personal projects, I had a decision to make about what we always intended on being a biannual and I finally decided to put on Refresh again in 2021. Against the backdrop of Brexit and Covid, who doesn’t need the sustenance of art.

When I say I’m alone, I’m not really alone as if I run it well, the project should be able to pay a few people. Namely a couple of excellent technicians I’ve installed work with before, other judges, and the brilliant Hannah, whom I met when she was interning for another gallery.

I’m excited about it when I see the smattering of entries that have already come in. I genuinely want to promote all this work because art does make the world better, it does save lives, it does help us to fathom out our existence when all else is horror. We really need it now.

Not Selling Art May Help Overlooked Artists

On that note one of the things we always wanted to do with Refresh is make a kind of snapshot of contemporary art now, and show what people are really making. I think that is so important, especially at the moment when many people do not get to show their work because it is so expensive to keep entering exhibitions you don’t get in to, have to frame and ship work etc.

I can only solve a little of that with this model but as Refresh was never truly a sales platform we don’t have to only promote things we think are saleable. One thing I’ve done this time round is completely cut off all idea of sales. So this time we’re going to promote artists’ own sales platforms (e.g websites, Artfinder etc) and the only time we might handle sales is for the people chosen for the final show.

The final show will still involve for-sale work because for artists, it doesn’t make sense to have a physical show where you don’t sell work, but we still won’t be taking any commission. So ultimately, we’re going to be able to choose exactly what we want for the show and not have to fall back on worrying it won’t appeal to the right kind of buyers.

As an artist myself I think that this is one of the biggest advocations for independent curators there is, and also a good reason to try and find a model to facilitate the production of financially viable shows that don’t just have to pander to what looks good in board rooms or the popular categories of landscapes, animals and hyperreal portraiture.

Not that those things are at all bad but they’re consistently the only things that get a platform, so even the best of these often gets drowned in a sea of mediocrity anyway.

While the top end of the art market is a whole different world entirely, for artists making work they hope to engage people with or make a small income from, it’s still really hard to get past the gatekeepers.

Curation is necessary to put things together and help present them in a digestible and entertaining way that enhances the work, but too often the only people who get seen are the ones who do get chosen for shows or selectively curated online. Others who pay submission fees, or list work with project hashtags, don’t get curated so don’t get seen.

With Refresh everyone gets seen. You may or may not agree with our final selection for the show, or the prizes, but everyone who enters gets promoted.

Will it Work?

There are a few other things I’m doing with Refresh that I want to test out this time. The big one is seeing if a small fee for expenses is going to be possible for the shortlisted artist. I still don’t know, so this isn’t part of the advertised package but would be a great add-on if it could be done.

Will I be able to pull this off again? Who knows. The first Refresh Art Award was an amazing thing for us to stand and look around when we finally got to that day, and we had put it on and had it all installed. It proved that it was possible.

Six months later I curated Spaghetti Intaglio, which you can read about in Impact Printmaking. A much smaller show but it also worked from the practical point of picking apart that financial knot.

If you want to keep up with how the project unfolds, the best place is probably social media @refreshartaward on Instagram, facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Pinterest in particular was under-used last time but has a permanent gallery of all our shows and all our entries on it, so you can support the artists and discuss the selection process yourself.

If you like the idea of independent curation and trying to rebalance things so that artists get value when they engage in these curatorial projects, please help spread the word. We’re going to need every single entry to put this on, but if it can be done here again in 2021 it will prove that artist-centred curatorial projects should really be the norm in order to make our industry more economically accessible.


Spaghetti Intaglio

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