"Using the non-gallery route"

I am a painter who came late to the dedication of art. I had from an early age worked at it but had not found "discipline". As a mature student I enrolled at Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design in 1995 with the intention of pursuing a diploma in fine art. I was fortunate at that time to meet a tutor who understood my quirky visions, and who gave me great encouragement. Her advice, after a pass with distinction from foundation year, not to continue to diploma, and to concentrate on workshops with her proved to be the right road for me; and I developed my own language. The time came to exhibit; firstly in a group show in a gallery, which was fine and worked well.

I suggested we move the show to another place, such as Galway. However, the group thought a move from Cork to Galway would be too arduous. I decided then to try on my own behalf to put up a solo show in Galway. I had little or no idea how to go about it ! I knew the commercial galleries to be a closed shop for rookies so I opted not to approach them. I made an appointment to visit University College Galway, and was lucky to be given a date to show there.

Everyone else seemed to know the amount of organisation necessary for such a road but I certainly didn't.. so I started at the beginning and learned the hard way. With a gallery such as UCG one is just given the space, and everything else is up to you. At that time there was no fee for that space, which was a big consideration. [Am not aware of the current situation]. Firstly some extra work was needed, which I did. Had it all framed. Compiled an invite list and hand wrote the invites. Arranged insurance. This all meant money, money, money... colour invites and cards to have printed; and the show had to be personally invigilated, so three weeks' stay in Galway. All advertising was up to me, mainly postering in shops etc. done on the trot around the city, and hoping someone might come and take a photograph, or even mention the exhibition...

On the day of the opening the paintings hadn't all been titled, there was no price list ready, and no written handout about the show. I was beginning to lose the plot with all that had to be done but I found a printer who took me in hand, and somehow the necessary material was produced. There was also wine to be procured and a table set up, and the work had to be hung. Brían Bourke was opening the show, and to my great joy he came along that morning and helped hang it. By the evening I was so done-in I didn't want to attend, and maybe no one else would come anyhow? On the night the gallery was full, and the atmosphere convivial. The wine flowed and I drank myself calm. The work sold well and I covered my expenses.

Then to open competitions, accepted by some, not by others, but kept trying.

I had a short time studio in Temple Bar Studios, and an offer from a commercial gallery for a solo. Great. No slogging except at my own work, everything taken care of efficiently for me by the gallery. Good relaxed opening but very few sales.

I have family history of Kilmainham Gaol and was offered a year's residency there, to which I travelled each week day from Ashford in Wicklow. The OPW made available a bursary which covered my residency (travel/materials), a solo exhibition, catalogue and luxury reception. With the bursary I was also in a position to buy a 10' x 20' shed, which is my studio. I was also given a "secretary" who did all the things I might have had to do myself. The show was built around both my late mother, who was a prisoner at Kilmainham for six months, and the previous history of the Gaol. I was the first son/daughter of a prisoner to have a residency and solo exhibition at Kilmainham. Kilmainham Gaol, like UCG, is not a commercial gallery.

Research for Kilmainham inspired a look at the judicial system in Ireland, prompted by an offer from Tinahely Courthouse Arts Centre to show there. This proved an interesting period of research, visiting court sessions throughout the country, and in particular many visits to the Four Courts. Chats with barristers, and visits to the un-public inner sanctum in the company of one, with whom many cups of tea were had.

A year later I had work ready for Tinahely Courthouse. That venture went well and I sold some. An Art Centre offers a better percentage deal than a commercial gallery, while their work input on the artist's behalf is approximately equal.

Following Tinahely, I approached the Law Library, with the same show. The Law Library works on the same basis as UCG; one is given the space and the rest is up to you. Expense again... another catalogue, reception, and travel each day. This one ran smoothly as by now I was becoming pretty handy at this game and could see the pitfalls in advance. This was a great success and nearly sold out.

The ramblings above are to prove that by taking another approach - including discovering alternative exhibition spaces - and with a lot of hard work, and with some degree of a gamble, one can side-step the commercial galleries and their large fees.

It is advisable, when given access to exhibit in a public space as above, to offer a piece of work to the host, which is appreciated, and which is advantageous to the artist.

Sally Smyth 2005