Commissioning artists' moving image

Published January 2022

Curators Eoin Dara, Ellen Grieg and the committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios respond to five set questions on the subject of commissioning artists’ moving image’. They share their experiences and knowledge about various aspects of commissioning with you in writing below.

Contributors

Eoin Dara is an Irish curator living on the east coast of Scotland. He works as Head of Exhibitions at Dundee Contemporary Arts and has recently been collaborating with and learning from artists like P. Staff, Alberta Whittle,Tako Taal and Rae-Yen Song and writers like CAConrad, Quinn Latimer, Christina Sharpe and Isabel Waidner. He is the curator of TULCA Festival of Visual Art for 2021, and a trustee of Outburst Queer Arts Festival and Art Night London.

Ellen Grieg is a curator based in London. She holds the position of Senior Curator at Chisenhale Gallery, where she has curated solo exhibitions by Yuri Pattison, Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Paul Maheke, Banu Cennetoğlu, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Mandy El-Sayegh, and Ima-Aasi Okon, among others.

Rhubaba Gallery and Studios is a registered charity and artist-run organisation that provides an annual programme of exhibitions, workshops and events. Rhubaba was established in 2009 to offer studio provision for recent graduates and to create a space dedicated to the production and presentation of contemporary art. Rhubaba’s gallery and studio spaces recently closed but they continue to run an online programme and support artists. In 2022 they look forward to partnering with venues in Edinburgh to deliver their programme in person again. Rhubaba is run by a revolving Committee who are in turn supported by a Board of Trustees made up of creative professionals including artists, curators, educators and academics.

How do you and your organisation make decisions about which artists are invited to make new work with you? 

Eoin Dara: Over the last few years we have been shifting the gallery programme at DCA in different ways to make space for voices that have been underrepresented by the dominant culture to date. This practice of trying to amplify what has gone unheard before or highlighting what is missing from certain narratives, informs our research at all times, which in turn leads to our making decisions about who we might want to work with.

We work with artists at different stages of their careers, sometimes offering early career artists their first major exhibition in a UK institution, whilst elsewhere working with more established artists who may not have exhibited widely within Scotland. We develop around four projects a year. Usually at least two of these shows are new commissions, and within any given year we tend to strike a 50/​50 balance between championing work developing in the UK and work developing internationally. Our exhibitions are curated to engage and involve diverse audiences here in Dundee whilst at the same time contributing to wider discourse far beyond the east coast of Scotland.

All of the above collectively form the parameters within which myself and my colleagues research, plan and execute our projects in the galleries.

Ellen Grieg: In my role at Chisenhale Gallery, I often work with artists for a one to two-year period on a new commission that is presented as an exhibition in the gallery space. I work with these artists to support them on the research and development of the commission, as well as production and installation. This commitment to time and to developing ways of working unique to each artist’s needs informs how I make programming decisions. At Chisenhale Gallery, we commission and produce up to four or five commissions a year and fundraise for each project in its entirety.

I am always researching artists’ work, having conversations with artists and thinking about how art can respond to a given context or concern. When programming at Chisenhale Gallery, I think about the possible texture’ of the yearly programme. I use the word texture as a way to think through the similarities and differences in each artists’ work — from their material practice to the concerns and ideas that their work speaks to — and how their work might sit in conversation with one another. I also hope to work with an artist who is open to testing out new ways of working in whatever medium they are using.

I try and always remember that what we do as artists and art workers is to explore an alternative reading of a situation or a narrative; to disturb conventional ways of reading or receiving information. I try to have a broad and open approach to the way we make programming decisions and one that is quite experimental. We don’t often say no to an idea or a method of working and see where that will take us.

The committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios: Decisions regarding the selection of artists are made collectively. As a non-hierarchical committee any programme or commission proposals are first discussed and then unanimously agreed upon between the committee members before any invitations are sent to artists. As an organisation we are particularly interested in supporting and programming local early career and underrepresented artists that are making exciting contributions to discussions within contemporary art.

How much does online research inform how you select artists for your programme? 

Eoin Dara: (Pre-COVID-19) I would visit projects across the UK and further afield as much as possible to inform my research. Particularly when it comes to moving image work in gallery contexts, there are so often particular methods of display that the artist has crafted and considered (whether simply pertaining to the kind of projector/​monitor/​sound system the work is playing on, or whether the moving image material is set within a more complex installation or environment) and I want to ensure my experience of the work is exactly how the artist would like me to view it.

However, for projects that I can’t get to see in person I often do try to find a way to view material online. I might do this by contacting the gallery it is showing at and asking if there is a screener on vimeo or similar that I could watch or contact the artist directly to ask the same.

This year, a great deal of my research has necessarily moved online, and I’ve been very grateful for the considered digital platforms that have been created by organisations such as LUX,​BFMAF​, and​aemi​, as well as some beautifully curated online programmes like​TRANSMISSIONS​and​Isolation TV​.

Ellen Grieg: Online-driven research is increasingly important. I prefer to meet artists in person and see their work in real life, especially if their work speaks directly to material concerns and methods. However, the internet is an amazing source of knowledge and is often a place where I am first introduced to artists’ work. Online research can really open up borders and barriers that had been restrictive previously.

An artist’s website, or online presence (be that through their gallery, if they have one, or social media channels) is a very generous way to start to understand someone’s work. For example, resources like LUX are a brilliant way to learn more about artists working with film. During lockdown, I’ve been overwhelmed by how many art institutions and organisations have reacted to the restrictions by reconsidering how we distribute and consume time-based works. In doing so, we’ve seen really interesting, experimental and open-access approaches to the circulation of artists’ film and sound-based work, as well as how these works are contextualised online.

The committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios: Online research has become an integral part of our curatorial and programme research. We use various online platforms to connect with the work of artists both locally and internationally. As we aim to support the work of emerging and underrepresented artists and communities, we often find online research to be beneficial in reaching artists who may not have had opportunities to present work within a gallery or on a major public platform in Scotland.

How do you approach working with an artist on a new commission of moving image work?

Eoin Dara: Conversations with artists for new commissions at DCA typically start at least 18 months in advance of a show opening. This is for a multitude of reasons, but most of all it is so that we are able to carve out time to really understand what an artist might require by way of support in order to create a new body of work. Each conversation with individual artists is then completely unique. We don’t have a set way of working on moving image projects and try to mould ourselves as a team each time to meet the individual needs of the artists we’re working with.

This can mean relationships developing in lots of different ways. We may be directly involved in location scouting, casting, prop making or production planning for some works, whilst in others we may simply be a sounding board for the artist, feeding back and talking through rushes, edits, drafts, and different kinds of work in progress. Closer to the time of exhibition, our technical team works closely with an artist to plan the display and physical manifestation of works in the spaces. We’re also lucky to have colleagues with a wealth of film expertise working in our Cinema programme, who are always happy to support and consult on film and video projects in the galleries.

Ellen Grieg: Once we have agreed on the conceptual approach of the work, in conversation with the artist we set out a work plan. This work plan includes a timeline for a research and development phase, as well as the production and the post-production of the work. I work closely with the artist on the research and development stage, to ensure any new developments or changes are translated into what is required in the production and post-production phases. For example, we think through what kind of support the artist and their collaborators might need: is there training that we need to undertake? Is there any specific research that needs to be done that can be supported by a residency? Is there a mentor that the artist would like to speak to? What type of technical support do they need etc.?

I also set a fundraising strategy and targets for the organisation to work to. Working in partnership with other organisations, like Spike Island in Bristol, who Chisenhale Gallery has a long-standing artist film co-commissioning strand with, helps us develop a supportive structure for the artist to work within and generate more funds to develop their work.

The committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios: We leave our invitations to work with us open as we do not require a specified outcome, however, moving image is often a popular medium that the artists we work with explore. For example, when inviting artists to develop work as residents, both our Artists in Residence for 2020/​2021 made the decision to accumulate their research into moving image works, exploring various filmmaking techniques in this process. This was self-directed, with support and development coming from mentors and collaborators selected by the artists.

Eoin Dara: When we invite an artist to make a new commission at DCA, we are presently able to offer a fee of £3,000. This fee goes directly to the artist and is entirely separate from all other elements of a production and project budget.

Further to this will be a production budget for the new moving image work. These figures change depending on the scale of the piece and the labour involved over the course of the project. This money is given to the artist to manage themselves, with as little institutional interference as possible.

Further to this again is a separate budget for manifesting the work in the gallery spaces. This may go towards building walls, painting areas, carpeting, creating installations, etc. This money is often managed collaboratively between the artist and our technical team at DCA who work closely together to produce and fabricate elements of the show.

In a broader sense, over the course of working towards a show at DCA, artists will be compensated for all related travel and expenses costs, including per diems for any time the artist is on site with us in Dundee. We do not have a history of commissioning work for online purposes only and have no immediate plans to undertake this sort of programming.

Ellen Grieg: At Chisenhale Gallery, our fee for commissioning a new work for its presentation in the gallery space is £3000. This fee is reviewed on a yearly basis. At present, artist fees for short online commissions range from £400-£1000 depending on the scale of the commission.

The committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios: We advocate for fair pay for artists and are keen to provide a rate for new commissions that reflects the labour, time and resources required for the artists to produce an outcome. Given the size and budget of our organisation, our rate for a new commission would range from £1500 – 2000; with additional fees provided for research, development and production to reflect the size of the project. A moving image commission for presentation in a gallery would not be given a higher fee than one presented online.

How might artists build new relationships with curators, especially if they aren’t able to meet in person? 

Eoin Dara: I’m finding that there’s absolutely no straightforward answer to these sorts of questions at the moment, as the world that we find ourselves in remains so ungraspable.

At DCA we’re always open to hearing more about artists’ work, but we simply don’t have the capacity to respond to unsolicited proposals and requests to exhibit within the programme. However, we are more than happy to receive updates from artists to inform our research and carve out time every few months to look through materials we have been sent. In this vein, artists can send on any information on their work to email hidden; JavaScript is required

Otherwise, I really believe that curators and programmers in salaried roles have a greater responsibility to respond and react in this moment to make sure we are still exposing ourselves to new work and new artists, whether through digital programmes and platforms, or through other means of research online. In this respect, it’s more helpful than ever to be able to access up-to-date information on artist’s websites etc. and to be able to contact artists easily if need be.

And then whilst we can’t safely gather at the moment in the ways that previously sustained and nurtured us, I’m finding real value in being able to participate in new conversations and gatherings online. For example, we’ve moved our​DCA reading group​online, where we open up an informal and welcoming space to discuss queer and/​or feminist writing that’s connected to our ongoing research in the gallery programme. Through these conversations alone since March, I’ve come into contact with several interesting new artists who I had not known previously.

Ellen Grieg: Whether due to geographical distance, or in response to social distancing restrictions that we are currently experiencing, keeping a dialogue with artists and other art workers is really important. I am always open to receiving emails from artists about their practice or specific projects that they are working on, as I am keen to be introduced to new work. Social media is a good tool to use to build networks and maintain conversations also.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve been involved in a few studio visits online and they have gone well. I guess we are all adapting to this situation and getting more used to remote working, and the modes of communication we need to foster, until we can share space again.

The committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios: Interacting with our programme at Rhubaba would be our recommendation for artists looking to build a relationship with committee members. Attending our events via Zoom, and engaging with our reading groups or educational activities (which the committee will always attend and often facilitate), provides artists the opportunity to meet and speak with us. While having an online presence can be helpful for us to find or see your work, engaging with our programme, open calls, and events is the easiest way for an artist to establish a relationship or dialogue with our organisation.

Please note that these responses by Eoin Dara and Ellen Greig were originally written in October 2020, after various periods of lockdown. Pandemic-related delays meant that their answers weren’t published at the time. The committee of Rhubaba Gallery and Studios responded to these questions in November 2021.



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Supported by On & For Production and Distribution, an initiative co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union