Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Lay of the Land Interview - Mark Devereux

Last month we caught up with curator Mark Devereux and AirSpace Gallery exhibitor Victoria Lucas to speak about the collaborative relationship between practitioner and facilitator. AirSpace Gallery is committed to providing opportunities for external curators to work with the organisation and our space - and the exhibition Lay of the Land by Victoria Lucas was selected from a nationwide open call for curatorial projects.

Positioned between the artist and gallerist, Manchester-based Mark Devereux Projects (MDP) provides professional development for creatives. Through tailored programming, the organisation assists in getting artists to the next level of their careers. Established in 2013, MDP has worked with a range of multi-disciplinary practitioners and in 2017, it has been facilitating Lucas on a series of shows, amalgamated under the project title, Lay of the Land (& other such myths). As founder, Devereux discusses his role as a curator as well as MDP's overarching aims to build a supportive arts infrastructure.

SO: What sparked the start of MDP and how did you build it up into a business?
MD: I studied at Staffordshire University – Photography BA and Fine Art MA – and it was in my first year of the masters that David and Andy set up AirSpace Gallery in a big old pottery warehouse. It showed me a different way of working – not just thinking about me as an artist, but me as a facilitator. When I finished the MA, I moved to Manchester and set up an organisation called Blank Media Collective. It was an opportunity to get my own work out there, but then it turned more into curating work with artists, and a great chance to learn. It was very much about showcasing the output of emerging artists straight from university, as well as hosting lots of projects and events – like poetry nights, readings and exhibitions. Through a process that developed across six years, I found that a curatorial role working with artists and on the production side was the thing that I really enjoyed.

I started stepping away from my own practice and began to think about what were the most important things to me; what were the things that were really missing; what were the things that I enjoyed doing. And it's working with individual artists. When we [MDP] curate exhibitions, it's important to really understand an artist's practice from the first meeting, all the way through to making the work shine. I concentrated on the commissioning and funding route, rather than the commercial gallery side of things. Here, you can take more risks and do project differently. We're coming up to five years of MDP and its really solidified into a strong support for artists to help them to do what they want to do. We're always learning, bringing in people to help and advise us, and it's forever changing, depending on each artist and their requirements.

It's really important that I understand what it is like to be an artist. I didn't practice long as an artist, but my wife is an artist, and so are my uncle and mother in law. I understand the pressures and the things that artists have to do these days. They have to be fluent and eloquent in marketing, business, finance and funding, and it's a lot to do – it can really drain the creative side of things. John Cleese's talk on creativity speaks about the different modes that artists put themselves into: what I want to do is to help the artist to make the very best work, and if that happens, that's my job done – that's where I get my excitement and satisfaction from.

SO: How does the collaborative process work between MDP and artists such as Victoria Lucas?
MD: When we first start working with an artist through the Represented Artist Programme at MDP, we sit down and go through all of the experiences and projects that they have done in the past and start discussing how we, as MDP, can fill in some gaps and provide new opportunities – maybe take some risks and offer things that artist may not be able to get. This could be applying for bids, project funding, logistics or marketing using both my own and my colleague Jack's experience in arts management, curation and mentoring. This frees up space in the artist's mind, enabling them to focus on and continue with their work and ideas. We feed into that support with critique and suggestions from a curatorial level.

VL: And because I'm an academic as well as an artist, my time is split between teaching, my research role there and all the other administrative tasks that come with self-employment. Through working with MDP my time is freed up and I've been able to invest more in the making of the work.

SO: Mark, what first drew you to Victoria Lucas's work? And what made you want to work with her?
MD: I'd been watching Vic's work for a long time – watching in the background, as curators do – and became familiar with it during my time running Blank Media Collective, where I was getting to know artists in the region and across the North. When we began working together, I felt that MDP was in a position where we could support her practice and that we could add something to it. Initially, it was very much about ensuring that the collaboration was right, so we sat down and talked about her practice, the elements that we could offer and how we could go through those stages to get her to that next level. I remember one of the first things that we spoke about: Vic had a list of galleries that she wanted to exhibit at and on that list was AirSpace Gallery. I'd worked with them in the past and when the curatorial opportunity came up, we put in an application.

VL: It's quite a dynamic relationship, and it's not the same in every project. For example with the SOLO Award, I invited MDP to be part of the project after I received it externally through applying. It [Lay of the Land] developed into a bigger project and it was a really big opportunity that I wouldn't be able to do fully myself because of the demands that I have in the other areas of my career.

SO: AirSpace Gallery gives you the freedom to curate the space. It gives you a freedom that not every organisation would give you. How has the experience been for you working with AirSpace again?
MD: It gives you that flexibility and opportunity to go to them and say this is what we'd like to do. Glen[AirSpace Director] has been really good in feeding in ideas and responses but he very much wants us to make the decisions, and use his experience and guidance only if needed. It provides a nurturing environment where you can be more free. Lay of the Land at AirSpace is very much all of Vic's ideas, and she's put together all of this research over a long period of time. Through AirSpace, it has been realised in the best possible way, with no limitations.

VL: It's been brilliant working up to the show and having those workshops and conversations with Glen; having him involved in the filming on the brownfield sites and his overall support and input has been great. It's always good to work in teams and have different inputs at various points in your career. AirSpace is really good at providing the support and help you need to develop as an artist.

SO: How do you see the professional relationship developing from here?
VL: It's been a good, intense six months: we had the SOLO award show in January, the HOME exhibition in February, this one at AirSpace until June, and alongside that I've been working on other presentations as well. Over the next six months – until the end of 2017 – I need to focus on my PhD. We're having time out for me to more research and a lot of reading, which will feed into the work and future shows for 2018.
MD: In the meantime, I'm going to be doing the background research, planning and logistics.

SO: Who are the other artists that you work with? Do you always support practitioners at a particular level – emerging, mid-career or established? Or is it a whole spectrum of artists?
MD: It's mixed really; I always struggle with those terminologies as it's hard to put someone down to one of those. Generally, we work with artists who have been out of university for a while and those in which we can see something that we can help them push forward. We look for an artist who is committed to their practice, is excited about what they do and are able to work in collaboration – a word that is important for what we do.

We run from project to project – so when Vic has six months or so out, we'll have another busy six months with another artist or two. In terms of other things that we've got going on – part of our ethos is about professional development; supporting artists to further their practice in the way that they want to do it. Alongside the Representative Artist Programme we have a scheme called Studio Book, which is an eight month programme with artists from around the country. They get lots of mentoring, workshops, critiques, and masterclasses, and work towards a small commission or exhibition opportunity. We bring in curators from around the UK to give their feedback. And again, as with the Representative Artist Programme, we're bringing in a breadth of ideas and responses to keep pushing those artists forward.

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