Interview With curator Bren O’Callaghan: Manchester Open 2020
Last week we met with artist and producer Bren O' Callaghan, curator for the acclaimed HOME Gallery in Manchester. His current project is an epic art competition open to all the residents of Manchester, the Manchester Open 2020. There are £10,000 worth of bespoke prizes to be awarded, and a chance to be exhibited in a professional gallery, no matter what your previous experience.
Bren told us a little more about the competition, and his advice for emerging artists.
Tell us a little more about the Manchester Open 2020...
It's open to all artists - whether you consider yourself to be a professional or just a hobbyist, a regular visitor to galleries, or have never set foot in one. There's no theme – this is chance to exhibit a piece you've been working on for 2 years, or something you've done for this competition. It's open to paintings, photography, sculpture, mixed media, spoken word, performance art - anything. It will culminate in an exhibition at HOME which will run for eight weeks from January, where 500 selected entries will be showcased. We often have people who would love to submit work for an exhibition, but can't give the time due to other commitments perhaps as a parent or a carer - this competition is for them.
How are you reaching out to artists in Manchester?
We currently have a team of volunteers who are visiting all the boroughs of Manchester, in local libraries and community centres to raise awareness and receive submissions from artists who would like to submit work. They can even help artists upload their work on to computers; we don't want to exclude artists who may have limited digital skills. We especially want to reach out to those people who wouldn't usually think an exhibition was for them. No-one should think they're not an artist.
What about the prize?
Five artists selected by a panel will be awarded £2,000 which will be used towards development - whether that’s new materials, opportunities to learn new skills, rental of a studio space. We hope to follow the artist over the course of two years, perhaps even working towards their own exhibition. We'll also be professionally photographing our exhibition, with the view that in the future this could potentially be made into an art book available to buy.
What are you looking for?
I’m looking for something that surprises me. Not an imitation of someone else's work, but something that is authentic to that artist. We will be judging the competition completely blind, with just a sentence or two describing the artwork and nothing else. So we won't know your qualifications, age or background; it will just the be the strength of the artwork.
There’s also a specific award targeted at older entrants. Why?
The bOLDER Greater Manchester Prize will be awarded to an entrant over 50, and was proposed to challenge the concept that an ‘emerging artist’ also has to be young.
It's not just about starting art when you're younger, it's about supporting artists from the ‘third generation’ too.
Is anything off limits?
The gallery will be open to everyone to visit, but there's nothing off limits as such. We've had all sorts of exhibitions at HOME; for instance one artist came and did bum prints – she painted the bums of nude models in the gallery who created imprints as part of the artwork. We had parents bring children to that – some covered their eyes – others pushed them to the front. We can't police this exhibition; we'll offer a disclaimer on the door and people can make their own decisions.
What makes a successful artist?
There's really two sections to this. First, there's the monetary side of things. Very few artists can make money by just being an artist. You need to diversify. That's the reality of it.
Success is also about personal fulfillment. Be true to what you want to do. It doesn't matter if you are a fine art painter or you make embroidered blankets - there's a lot of snobbery around the term 'art,' and so I like to call it creative practice. Just get out there and do it.
What’s your advice for artists who want to promote themselves?
Too many artists wait for the perfect moment – whether that's a competition to win, or having their work in a 'classic' idea of a gallery – the kind of place serving canapés in a glossy building . Create your own opportunities. Create your own exhibition. Do it, don't wait for the right moment.
Participate in the cultural community too. I get asked a lot, how do I meet curators and the people I need to meet? People think it always happens in an artificial way, perhaps in a gallery space – get out there, just be natural, be present, and smile. Ask questions! Participate. You have to give to receive. Don't sit at home – contribute to the creative economy and justify funding the arts.
It’s about standing out too. For example, when I'm speaking to art graduates I always say 'don't tell me you like art and films - be specific about what you like, and don't like. If you hate that why do you hate it? I always say, in the end, grades don't matter. I don't want to know who got a distinction in this and that – I want to know whose been doing blogs and reviews, whose been setting themselves apart.
Have you got any tips for staying productive as an artist?
Being an artist is like sewing a field. You can't keep reaping from the same field and expect it to deliver year on year. Surround yourself with creative practice, and not just the kind similar to your own. Don't just see films you know you're going to like, or exhibitions of work like your own. Challenge yourself, get outside your comfort zone. Art can be quite a selfish practice – do something not about you. Establish a need and interest in a public exhibition of work. You never know where inspiration will come from.
The Manchester Open 2020 runs from Monday 15 July and closes on Monday 7 October
Read more about it and enter your work on the HOME website.
The final exhibition will run from Saturday 18 January to Sun 15 March, 2020.