Abstraction at the RBSA: Undergraduate curator Emily Robins explains what it takes to put together an archive exhibition

Thirteen artworks, two volunteers, one exhibition. This autumn the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) will present their latest archive exhibition, Abstraction at the RBSA. The show is being curated entirely by two University of Birmingham undergraduate students, Tate Gronow and me, Emily Robins.

I’ve been volunteering at the RBSA for a while now, primarily in their archive department. I usually spend my time responding to archive enquiries from members of the public and updating the museum databases, while also researching and organising collection and archive material. In November 2014 I was offered an opportunity that would be the envy of art history students across the country, a chance to curate in its entirety a public exhibition at a prestigious local gallery. It was, quite clearly, an opportunity not to be missed!

Tate and Emily are pictured here with Joan Woollard's  'The Races', which is one of the Artworks up for adoption. Woollard was the first female president of the RBSA.

Tate and Emily are pictured here with Joan Woollard’s The Races, which is one of the Artworks up for adoption. Woollard was the first female president of the RBSA.

Since January, Tate and I have been working on this rather exciting undertaking. Our chosen theme for the exhibition is ‘Abstraction’ and we began by searching the archive for interesting pieces which fitted that category. We came across a wide variety of works and decided on a roughly chronological approach to the exhibition, charting abstraction as a concept from works in the Impressionist style towards pieces such as Caged Yellow (1996, RBSA) by William Gear, which are fully abstract in their use of line, tone and colour. We were then able to start preparing all the written interpretation needed for the exhibition, including text panels and exhibition labels, as well as marketing material such as articles and press releases.

Initially, I have to admit, I was slightly intimidated by the prospect of this project, but find myself facing each new challenge with enthusiasm, continuing to push myself out of my comfort zone. The sheer amount of written material required for the exhibition was something which I found daunting at first, but, I have now come to enjoy this part of the process the most! My eyes have well and truly been opened to the nitty-gritty aspects of curating and all that it involves, and I am relishing the entire experience.

The RBSA is first and foremost an artist-led charity, and therefore, fundraising remains a core part of the gallery’s ethos. Without the dedication and support of volunteers and donors, opportunities like this, a chance to curate my own public exhibition, would not be possible. Having worked behind the scenes as a volunteer I’ve been lucky to see some of the treasures in the RBSA’s collection which cannot be on display because of their fragile condition. The Adopt-an-Artwork fundraising scheme helps to restore these beautiful works, so that they can go back on exhibition and be appreciated by RBSA visitors for years to come.

We are currently fundraising for some conservation costs of objects in the exhibition, please visit RBSA’s website to find out how you can ‘adopt an artwork’ to support us! – http://www.rbsa.org.uk/collection-archive/new-adopt-an-artwork/

'Seascape' by Norma Rhys Davies, shown here, is in desperate need of conservation in order for it to be included in our exhibition.

Seascape by Norma Rhys Davies, shown here, is in desperate need of conservation in order for it to be included in our exhibition.

While volunteer roles often focus specifically on one particular department such as marketing, conservation or education, this project has allowed us to dip our toes in a whole variety of roles. Each week we are gaining new experiences, skills, and insights, not just on gallery practice but the arts sector more broadly. Although it has been hard work I think we can both agree that we’ve benefited from gaining curatorial experience as well as being involved in less familiar aspects, like public engagement and fundraising. Overall, this opportunity is definitely proving to be a fully hands-on, immersive and irreplaceable experience for budding art-world professionals such as ourselves!

Of course, Tate and I still have much more left to do over the coming months, including the exhibition install, preparations for our opening private view (watch this space for invites!) and a full events programme of talks and workshops to finalise. Look out for further blogs on the Golovine updating you on our progress!

Abstraction at the RBSA opens on the 5th of October.

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One thought on “Abstraction at the RBSA: Undergraduate curator Emily Robins explains what it takes to put together an archive exhibition

  1. Tate says:

    Great article Emily, definitely going to be a stressful few months ahead!

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