Curating the Winthrop Gallery

Article by Susan Donahue of Winthrop Gallery

Every six weeks, the three members of Winthrop Gallery’s curatorial team: Laura Karcher, Tamera Abaté, and Teri Pieper along with Paula Christen, who arranges the front window hang a new show and refresh the gallery. Any or all of the 23 artist members of the gallery bring their new work in on the day before the curators get to work.  On “hanging day”, the curators remove all the art from the front room of the gallery and place it on the floor in the second and third rooms to be absorbed into the rest of the gallery.  Then, they arrange the new art on the floor of the front room and make their curatorial decisions. Out of this chaos, they decide what art should be hung where.  They work as a team. 

There are only a few rules.  Teri believes that the walls should not be too full or too empty.  They aim to make the gallery cohesive throughout by distributing the various mediums in specific arrangements.  The gallery displays paintings (acrylic and oil), watercolors, mixed media, photographs, hand woven baskets, wood working (both small items and hand-made furniture), blown glass, and pottery.  The curators don’t know what will sell, so they apportion the art being shown fairly among the artist-members.  They are exacting about this and count each artist’s displayed work to even it out.  Artists, on the other hand, cannot touch their works once the curators place them in the gallery.  Artists set their own prices.  If a work sells, that artist can fill in that empty space with another of his or her art works.  There is a back stock in the back room to replace sold art.  Curators can reject art, but they rarely do.      

There are a couple of tricks.  According to Teri, they use a formula for hanging that is consistent throughout the gallery and helps achieve the cohesive look they want.  They establish an eye-level center line that is 60″ from the floor, then place a singular piece so that it straddles that line equally, or if there are two paintings, each is equally on either side of the line.  Tamera points out that they won’t hang a bird or horse heading into a corner, and they wouldn’t hang a hot pink abstract photo next to a still life tomato.  In other words, they want the pieces to complement one another.  To Laura, curating the gallery is like a puzzle.  She thinks about compatible styles, colors, textures, patterns and mediums.  They all step back and consider how the rooms “flow”.  As a viewer, is it comfortable to move your eye from one area to another and from one work to another?  

Once the front room is set, they move on to the rest of the gallery.  Almost every gallery space, almost every two-dimensional work is relocated to a new spot with new neighbors so that the whole gallery feels fresh and new.  The curators each take a wall or an alcove and then, in consultation with the other curators, select from the art that has been laid out on the floor to hang in that particular space.  They attempt to present a professional art gallery space that has professional artists displaying their art.  They prefer this model to other co-op models in which each artist has a specific amount of square feet all in one location.  To these curators, this model produces a “chopped up” feel.  The curators want a well-integrated experience for the customers where transitions from one piece of art to another are pleasing.  They believe sales are better when the customers feel like they are in a professional gallery setting.  They must be right about this because the Winthrop Gallery has been a successful co-op gallery for the last twenty years.

It isn’t an easy job.  It takes the three of them working from about 8:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening to do all the hanging.  They do the 3-D work after lunch.  Paula comes in at noon to curate and arrange the front window.  She wants to attract attention from the street so that someone walking by will come in out of curiosity and look further. She likes to make the front window look like a scene akin to a retail scene.  She doesn’t want to have that “stark” gallery feel.  She wants to give energy and even fun and to respond to the season.  When she comes in at noon, she can pick what she wants for the window.  She is given free rein in her choices.  The art in the window needs to tie in to the theme of that show and to alert customers that new art has arrived.  She uses props: a large canvas splattered with paint as a kind of table cloth for the window’s shelf, or milk cans, corn stalks, fall leaves, wrapped packages hanging from the ceiling or lights in the winter.  She can’t block the view of the gallery from the street, but wants to give a taste of what’s inside.  The window has to look good from the front on the street and from the back once you are in the gallery.  It takes her 3 to 4 hours to do the job, including hunting in various basements and garages and the Dollar Store for props. 

All the curators like to observe the reactions of the customers to the display. They often get positive reactions from customers with smiles and soft conversations when friends view the works together. The curators observe laughs when something amuses the viewers or gasps because someone thinks something is beautiful. Often people will ask questions about technique or process.  The gallery attracts many visitors to the Valley.  Some customers are invested in the gallery and return often to see their favorite artists’ new work.  The curators want to make the gallery look as good as they can make it look.  They want to honor every artist’s work.