Small Faces was a key turning point for Solent Showcase Gallery in the move to becoming a socially engaged, participatory gallery space. It was an experimental exhibition that ripped up the rule book around curatorial control, adopting instead a democratic approach based on social networking practices within communities. The exhibition came from a discussion between Adult Programme Co-ordinator Gillian McIntyre from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada and Curator Kate Maple around how to dissolve barriers to engagement with institutions that exhibit art. The access issues experienced by the Art Gallery of Ontario and those of Solent Showcase were not dissimilar, both can seem inaccessible for a variety of reasons.
Small Faces intended to open up the gallery in a new way that made it clear that everyone was welcome through the actions of gathering the work itself, before anything was even hung on the walls. We created an open exhibition with a promise that ALL works would be exhibited. We didn’t just invite, we reached out and embarked on several months of advance workshopping and engagement and employed local artists and community leaders to connect to their own networks across all areas of the city. We produced art packs for schools, we visited local art societies but also focussed on local groups who felt that they were not creative and didn’t usually see art as something they could participate in. We made the easy to submit to by asking for postcard sized artworks with no frames required.
Risk taking was at the forefront of this exhibition - we had no idea how many submissions we would get until the final deadline, no idea if we would even have an exhibition to show! What surprised us all was that we have over 7,000 submissions full of beautiful portraits from people from aged 4 to 84, of all abilities and walks of life; images full of personal stories of people representing themselves or those they loved, admired, missed or lost. Our challenge was to create a contemporary art installation that resected the uniqueness of each portrait and also visually transformed the gallery into a visual spectacle that celebrated the huge impact of 7,000 miniature faces.
The exhibition, the participation and the consequential visitor numbers, transcended all our hopes and expectations and set the bar for a new way of working with communities for the future of the gallery. Here are some extracts from a letter that Southampton resident Angela Chicken wrote to us that sum up the responses that we had to the show:
“I was deeply moved to see that so many people wanted to participate, to see a wide range of representation in terms of age, gender and race, it felt far more representative of the city than most galleries.
“I feel that this exhibition proves that if you ask us and you don’t put too many obstacles in our way, we love to engage and furthermore there is some great…desire to come out to place.
“From the bottom of my heart I thank you all for making this possible. I hope other cultural providers can learn from what you have done and I hope you will be inspired to create some other projects in this vein.”
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