Exeter Stowage featuring work by John Goodwin

Portable art and ideas – the Stowage exhibition in Exeter

Stowage is an exhibition of small-scale artworks in the shop windows of Exeter’s West Quarter. One of the curators, Gabrielle Hoad, reveals the thinking behind the show and reflects on the results.

Stowage is about storing things in tight spaces, about making ideas portable, luggage-sized, able to move from place to place. It’s a collection of art built in and around old-fashioned sweet jars that brings together artists and retailers in sometimes unexpected conjunctions.

The idea for the exhibition evolved from pragmatic considerations as much as creative ones. My co-curator Felicity Shillingford and I wanted to build profile for grassroots visual arts activity in Exeter by bringing together artists from different parts of the country. Specifically, we wanted to tap into Felicity’s networks from the North West, where she lived for many years. After researching empty shops as potential gallery spaces, we decided that active retail premises might be a more accessible and interesting option… and that led us to Exeter’s West Quarter. We felt the area’s history and range of independent shops would provide rich source material for the artists. It also meant we might reach a wider audience than the one that normally finds its way into gallery spaces.

The brief to commissioned artists was simple: to make work in or around an old-fashioned sweet jar. We chose this familiar shop item to stand in for the gallery vitrine – the glass case that separates the ‘work of art’ from the real world. It was small enough to appeal to retailers (whose window space is cramped and precious) and meant that we wouldn’t face enormous transportation costs when moving work around the country.

What came back was an enormously diverse range of work. We have, for example, reflections on the exploitative elements of the sugar industry, miniature sculptures that draw on the idea of the ship in a bottle, and the results of a collaboration with the knitting community of Heavenly Yarns. Most works are designed for daytime viewing, but Magnificent Morse Mints consists of two jars that communicate with each other after dark using pulses of light.

The retailers of Fore Street and New Bridge Street have been enormously positive about the project. However, this doesn’t mean that installing the art has been straightforward. People have clear ideas about what constitutes worthwhile art… and about how much their normal shop displays should be compromised by its presence.

We decided as far as possible not to impose the trappings of galleries such as plinths and stands, but to use what came to hand in the shops themselves. So Brian Fowler Computers lent us a hard-drive box to bring Andrea Zapp’s piece up to eye level while Megan Calver’s jar stands on a little block of Langans foam.

Every combination of shop and work has presented a different set of challenges, from the practical to the purely aesthetic. While some pieces seem almost camouflaged by the hectic retail environment, some – such as John Maxwell Goodwin’s mirrored jar – have come into their own. Placed in a sparsely furnished hairdressing salon at the busy junction of Fore Street and Bartholomew Street West, it not only reflects the passers-by, but also offers a wry comment on the preening that takes place within.

Once installation was complete, curatorial and artistic control had to be applied very gently or relinquished altogether. While we did everything we could to arrange the exhibition as we wanted it for its launch on Saturday, April 17, it has quickly evolved into a community collaboration. Shop staff have taken ownership of their pieces and adapted the displays.

Has it been a success? As a means of getting people to engage with contemporary art by encountering it as part of their everyday lives – definitely. From the minute the jars went in the shops, people started talking about them. We also hear that it’s persuaded a few art lovers to engage with shops they’d never used before!

This is an important first step in building stronger connections between Devon visual artists and the wider national community. We didn’t secure all the funding we’d hoped for, so couldn’t pay for all the artists to meet in Exeter, but we have at least built the foundations of future collaborations.

You can catch Stowage in Exeter’s Fore Street and New Bridge Street until Friday, May 14. It then tours to the Barnaby Festival, Macclesfield in June. A guide giving locations of all the works is available at participating shops or online at on the Found Space site

(image: You Can Take the ‘X’ out of Exeter, but you Can’t Take the Exeter Out of the ‘X’ by John Maxwell Goodwin in the window of tma2, the hairdressers as part of the Stowage exhibition)

Gabrielle Hoad

Gabrielle Hoad is an artist and co-curator of Stowage

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