Case Study - External Exhibition

Phil Barber, School of Design and Creative Arts


In semester two last academic year, 2022, as part of Part B Module ACB114 Locating Fine Art Practice, I led students through a process of first exhibiting internally, utilising empty spaces in the studio, the fine art gallery and bookable installation spaces, and then, crucially, an external exhibition, occupying a disused retail unit in The Rushes shopping centre in Loughborough’s town centre. The retail space was transformed into a two week long public exhibition which formed part of the students’ submission for their module. Emerging from two years of covid disruption, the shows became a catalyst to reenergise studio practice, encourage physical making and collaborative group work - aspects of the student experience that had be greatly reduced during covid. The exhibitions not only kickstarted the transformation of the studios back into a vibrant hive of activity, but also encouraged the students to reengage with each other; to play, explore, discuss, share and collaborate. The external exhibition introduced students to ideas around audience, presentation and public work. It also built a bridge between the university, campus-based experience, and Loughborough itself, encouraging students to meet members of the public, share their work and consider audiences outside of their cohort. Members of the public, too, were able to see student work for the first time, to meet students and staff and develop a better sense of the university and the Fine Art degree.  

1. Background 

Exhibitions provide the catalyst for a number of beneficial student activities. Public exhibitions, by extension, introduce more opportunities for challenge, discourse, diversity and critical engagement. Externality can be a crucial tool when encouraging students to think about their work in a wider context. Externality and its importance when building creative curriculum and pedagogy formed part of my successful application for Senior Fellowship of the HEA in the form of case studies related to practice at other institutions. I have experience leading students through public exhibitions in ‘found spaces’ (winning a Sceptre Award for best alternative use of a retail unit in 2017) and encouraging student led activity and decision making in these contexts. I was aware of the needs of the module, Locating Practice, and keen to support the students in understanding wider contexts, audience and presentation strategies. I was also aware of the ramifications of recently lifted covid restrictions and the ways in which these restrictions had negatively impacted students engagement with the course, studio culture and wider community.  

2. Methodology 

I introduced two exhibitions into Module ACB114 Locating Practice. The first was an internal exhibition, the second, some weeks later, was an external exhibition set in a disused retail unit in The Rushes shopping centre in Loughborough town centre. The students exhibited twice during the module, completing both tasks and presenting different work in each show. The internal exhibition happened in week 3 and the external exhibition happened in week 10, inviting reflection, critical engagement and planning between the shows. The external exhibition featured a private view, attended by students, staff and members of the public. Students attended the show, articulated the ideas behind their work and met members of the public. Students managed the install and take-down of the exhibition with support from staff and were tasked with curating their own work, making decisions about presentation and installation themselves and with support from others. Evidence of each show along with reflections about the decisions they had made were submitted as part of the module submission for assessment.  

3. Issues 

Organising and curating a show of over 60 participants off site has multiple challenges. Transportation for larger art works had to be secured and the skill of staff to mediate between students competing for space or struggling with the task was essential. Working with external partners presents challenges regarding access, health and safety and expectations. Again, the skill and experience of the wider staff team was essential here. Communication is important as is flexibility – reacting to changes, problems and challenges quickly and efficiently tackled many of the issues we encountered. This project was completed with no budget. Careful negotiation with the unit owners convinced them of the mutual benefits of the show. However, having even a small budget to work with for materials and promotion would have been hugely beneficial. There overall ‘finish’ of the show could have been improved and a number of issues with install could have been more quickly and efficiently resolved.  

4. Benefits 

The benefits of this activity were broad and multiple. Post-covid, the students had initially struggled to reengage with studio based practice; regular making, regular attendance in the studios, discourse and collaboration. The exhibition - particularly the external exhibition - provided the catalyst for making, introduced a need for collaborative activity and organisation, encouraging students to reengage with the studio community. This sense of community was crucial to encouraging a culture of discourse and critical discussion. It also provided a platform outside of the university for students to exhibit, bringing with it considerations regarding public facing work, new audiences, meeting the requirements of an external partner and professional exhibition standards. Work with members of Loughborough’s community outside of the university was incredibly valuable, as was interaction with members of the public during the exhibition. Students who had, just months before, found themselves uncomfortable when reengaging with the studio community and attempting to share their ideas were now confidently discussing their work with members of the public, learning to articulate themselves, represent the university and communicate their intentions clearly. In terms of the requirements of the module, Locating Practice, students were able to better understand audience, wider contexts for their work, presentation strategies and exhibition standards.  

5. Evidence of Success  

The studios and student community were visibly transformed by the process – it was evident that making increased, attendance increased and that students became more comfortable in discussion. The external exhibition was very well attended and a ‘buzz’ amongst the students was palpable. Nearly a year later, Cees de Bont, noted that students still talk to him about the exhibition and the positive impact it had on them. One student noted that the exhibition ‘made me think about how other people see my work’. Another student stated that the show ‘made me feel like a proper artist. Now I’ve exhibited properly I feel like I could do it again on my own’. Another commented that ‘I feel like my friends who don’t do Fine Art finally understand what I do. I feel proud of my work’. Beyond the immediate positive impacts of the show, evidence of success was noted by staff contributing to following modules in the next academic year. It was evident that the experience and  emergent learning outcomes were something that the students were able to take in to Part C, bringing with them a more developed sense of practice and a more coherent idea of how their work might develop toward the final exhibition at the end of the year. Staff identified this difference in relation to the previous year of Part C students. Beyond the institution, staff at The Rushes shopping centre were very pleased to see an empty unit utilised to create such public interest. They noted that it brought footfall to the area as well as solving the problems associated with the appearance of an empty unit. The exhibition was the first use of this empty retail unit for these purposes, inspiring other parties to use the space this way, such as Charnwood Arts who have gone on to occupy the space with their own show.  

6. How Can Other Academics Reproduce This?  

This strategy is applicable across multiple disciplines and subject areas. Externality manifests differently in different departments but broadly, taking on a task that involves interaction beyond the institution is highly beneficial. Encouraging students to lead discussion on this, embracing the challenge of working to these deadlines, to these external expectations and briefs, encourages community, critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative practice. This activity can be framed as the centrepiece of a particular module, adding drive to delivery, a sense of urgency and a tangible ‘outcome’ beyond hypothetical exercise. Locating this activity in local community is also beneficial, providing opportunity for interaction and discussion with stakeholders and a sense of contributing locally, building links between the town and the university.  

7. Reflections 

I am currently running this project again with a show proposed for May 2023 in the same retail unit. This time I have tried to give the students more ownership of promotion and branding. Last year this aspect of the exhibition could have been improved. As a pilot project the show was perhaps promoted too late and too narrowly. With more confidence now in the process I feel that there will be advantages to making the promotion process, as well as the installation process, an aspect of consideration for students; More opportunity for discussion, debate, collaboration and contextual research. This will lead to an increased sense of ownership of the project for the students and so greater investment in the whole process. Our relationship with the owners of the unit has strengthened an on reflection this was an important aspect of the success of the project. The Rushes staff were accommodating and friendly, facilitating our use of the space and recognising the mutual benefits of the project. There is room to develop more of these external relationships with local community and strengthen the bond between the university and the town. Securing a budget for these projects could also improve all aspects of the process, from promotion to presentation.