Behind the glass doors

A look at how artists prepare to showcase their work at Union Gallery

Union Gallery Director Jocelyn Purdie says the amount of time needed to prepare an exhibit depends on its complexity.
Union Gallery Director Jocelyn Purdie says the amount of time needed to prepare an exhibit depends on its complexity.
Photo: 

Walkling into Union Gallery with its pristine walls and perfectly hung paintings can be deceiving — it takes hours of gruelling labour to obtain this perfection.

The gallery releases two calls for submissions annually on Nov. 15 and March 15. Gallery staff assemble a selection committee to sift through the applications.

Emily Turner, BFA ’12, is about to present her first exhibit at Union Gallery on Nov. 8. She said the biggest shock of gallery showings is the paperwork required.

“A lot of us in the [BFA] program aren’t used to doing it,” she said. “We’re used to doing our art and then presenting it to the class, instead of having a really involved process.

“The package you have to sign is quite long, it’s several pages.”

Turner and fellow artist Lianne Suggitt applied for an exhibit at Union in February. She said they found out they would be presenting their work, The Sins of Our Fathers, in early April. The first deadline for all their paperwork was Oct. 13.

The artists must sign a contract, write their artist statement, send out a press release, update their curriculum vitae (CV), plan a reception for their exhibit, prepare an artist talk and finish photo documentation.

Turner said she spent more time doing the paperwork than actually creating work for her exhibit, which she said only took her about two weeks.

She said she knew as a Queen’s BFA student that she would have an exhibit at Union.

“When you’re in first year you’re told about Union,” Turner said. “Coming into fourth year there’s an expectation that you’ll have a show in Union. Last term they had a little presentation on how to apply to Union.”

In order to present at Union you have to be a member of the gallery and pay the $10 student membership fee.

“I wasn’t a member till last week till they told me to pay my membership fee,” Turner said. “I think most [BFA] students are members of the gallery, I was just too cheap to do it.”

Union opened in 1994 after Queen’s students raised $340,000 for an on-campus gallery. It started with the 940 sq. ft. Main Space with a smaller Project Room added in 2003.

The gallery functions with a 10-person operating board of eight students and two full-time staff.

Laura Stewart, BFA ’11, was a member of the board last year.

She said the hardest part about creating an exhibit is all the minor details.

“Making sure that everything’s even,” she said, adding that if spacing between labels are uneven, it can ruin the professionalism of the entire show.

“That’s one of the things you never even think about,” Stewart said.

The gallery changes exhibits roughly once a month and staff usually have four days for preparation.

Stewart has presented two exhibitions in the gallery. The painter said deadlines at the gallery are difficult, and once a brochure was made for her exhibit before the work was finished.

She said she struggles to create on a deadline.

“Sometimes when you’re uninspired you can’t work on demand if you’re not feeling it,” she said. “At least with me, my process is very time consuming because I use varnish layers between the paint so I had to let them dry.”

She said there are many aspects of putting an exhibit together that she never considered. Stewart said it took a week and a half to prepare a group exhibit in February, including walking five panel works to Union on a windy day. Before artists can present their work they must first prepare the gallery, including fixing any holes in the walls. “The one thing that was a really big pain in the ass ... was a big paragraph [on the wall],” Stewart said. “We actually had to use our finger nails and scrape off the vinyl lettering for our show and that took forever. Then I had to take a whole bunch of white paint and clear off the markings.”

For some artists, the installation of the work is the easiest part. Celia Piper, a mixed media visual artist in Kingston, presented a large drawing on paper at Union in June.

“The biggest challenge for me was how I was going to present it because I usually work by painting on canvas and hanging isn’t really an issue,” she said. “But this was a large piece on paper.

“The struggle was debating which way it would work best.”

Piper said she debated displaying her piece behind glass or making a frame, but she ended up using clips to hang it from the wall.

“That was the smoothest installation ever,” she said.

Union Gallery staff stood on a ladder with the work while Piper adjusted the lighting. “It was just a matter of getting it centered on the wall. Having just one piece made it easier.”  

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.