© Jennifer Schwartz
In December 2010, photographer Lori Vrba debuted her series “Piano Farm” at a one-night public display mounted in a largely unrefurbished 19th century home in New Orleans. The pop-up exhibition was inspired by her dealer, Jennifer Schwartz of the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta, who had urged her to “stir [up] some attention” during the annual PhotoNOLA festival. Edward Hébert, director of A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans, agreed to curate the show, and introduced Vrba to friends who lived in the upper floors of an 1855 house in the Treme neighborhood. They agreed to let Vrba take over the ground floor for what she hoped would be “an out-of-the-box, blowout event” that would attract PhotoNOLA attendees, workshop teachers and portfolio reviewers as well as local art patrons.
The plan succeeded beyond Vrba’s expectations. Close to 300 people attended the opening, and Vrba sold several prints. But what delighted Vrba the most was how she felt when, moments before guests arrived, she finished installing her black-and-white prints, mounted in custom-built frames with small lights inside, in the house’s ballroom-size parlors. Vrba says the colors in the crumbling plaster walls matched the tones in her prints. “It felt seamless. The imagery was part of the house and the house worked with the imagery.”
Like other photographers who have mounted pop-up exhibits, Vrba found that hanging photos in a space not designed for displaying art presented numerous logistical challenges. But as other photographers and curators are discovering, pop-up exhibitions offer a way to present photos in a new context and lure an audience that might not seek out photography in a gallery.
Bringing Images to the Community
A desire to communicate with people affected by Hurricane Katrina was the primary reason photographer Jake Price decided to project documentary images onto the wall of the lower Ninth Ward levee two years after it had breached. Price edited images he and 13 other documentary photographers had shot in the weeks after the flood, and set them to music and ambient sound recordings to produce “Eyes on Katrina,” a 40-minute multimedia presentation. “I’ve never been comfortable just showing up, shooting and leaving” the scene of a news story, explains Price. “I wanted the citizens [of New Orleans] to have their say, tell me they like the work or they don’t.”
On the second anniversary of Katrina, when the presentation was first projected, residents of the lower Ninth Ward were still displaced or living in FEMA trailers. “The story had died down at that point, and predictably the media had moved [on]. I wanted to remind the media that the people of New Orleans still mattered.” He didn’t seek a permit to use the space, he says. “We went out and projected.”
Price, founder of the Seen/Unseen project, which has organized projections shown at Fovea Exhibitions in Beacon, New York, and at New York City’s Bubble Lounge, supplied the projector. Two photographers who had images in the show, Alan Chin and Stanley Greene, helped gather equipment, including chairs, extension cords, a generator (lent by a couple in the neighborhood) and gasoline. New Orleans-based photographer Andy Levin helped publicize the event.
Residents and press gathered to watch the projection, and Price says, “For the most part it was well received.” The photographers were asked to show “Eyes on Katrina” again in 2010, on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, at a commemorative event residents were holding. The more recent showing was projected on the side of a newly rebuilt house, and benefited from a supply of electricity as well as food and drink.
Attracting a Varied Audience
When Janene Outlaw, former photo editor-turned-independent art dealer, held a pop-up exhibit at a luxury apartment in Manhattan’s West Village last March, she envisioned a one-night event to bring together people from the worlds of art, photography and real estate. “Like commerce meets fine art meets funky party,” she says. A friend of Outlaw’s is a broker for Town real estate, which sells high-end properties. In the current economy, several luxury homes were sitting empty. Outlaw suggested using an unoccupied space to exhibit photographers she wanted to help, showing off both the space and the art to potential buyers. Town liked the idea.
Among the available spaces, Outlaw rejected one with high windows and little wall space, but then saw an apartment that was close to ideal, with “high ceilings and gallery lighting,” she says. In keeping with the non-traditional space, she chose three artists who use photography in unusual ways. John Patrick Salisbury embeds his images in acrylic, and then mounts them on brackets that project from the wall. Saskia Hahn blends her paintings and photos digitally, and outputs the results as digital prints. Outlaw also showed an animated film made from still images by the photography and filmmaking team of Marcus Palmqvist, Frode Fjerdingstad and Igor Zimmermann.
Outlaw spread word of the exhibition through photo editors, art directors, arts patrons and friends in the media; Town invited brokers and potential property buyers who also had money to invest in art. Outlaw hired a DJ and served Champagne. “I was shockingly pleased with the feedback and interest,” including inquiries about the artists and requests to organize shows in other spaces. Afterwards, Outlaw and Town decided to keep the art up for weeks, and bring individuals through for private tours, which generated further sales. Outlaw’s next pop-up exhibit will take place on the top two floors of a $30 million historic townhouse in Manhattan. She has also been asked to plan a show for a real estate developer in Ghana.
To Outlaw, showing in a free space offered her freedom. “When you have a gallery that has overhead, you’ve got to show what sells,” she says. “Yes, we wanted to sell the work, but getting out our vision was what was important to me.” Outlaw also liked showing photos in a domestic setting. “Something that might seem avant-garde and strange seems more livable or familiar when you see it in a home.”
Making It Work
Turning a home into a gallery presents several challenges. Outlaw advises anyone organizing a pop-up show to remain flexible, especially when it comes to designing the exhibit. “Once we were in the space, there were [selections] we eliminated or changed.” She notes, “You might like something when looking at JPEGs on your computer but when you’re in the space, you may say, ‘We need the bigger one.’”
Another decision that a pop-up organizer has to make, Outlaw adds: “Do you want to hire a professional art handling company?” To keep the show inexpensive and maintain control, she chose art she could carry herself. For the larger installation in the townhouse this spring, she says, she may hire outside vendors.
Preparation is important when organizing an outdoor projection, Price says. “We made sure things were working [the] day before.” Chin adds, “I’ve learned the hard way to always test everything multiple times, and have back-up equipment.”
Price says with experience, he has changed the way he edits multimedia projections. “I prefer to keep projections to 30 minutes, and show about five photographers. It’s much more manageable and coherent that way.”
In regards to mounting her pop-up exhibit in New Orleans, Vbra says, “I can’t stress how difficult it was.” When she first toured the historic home, with its holes in the floor, old paint and dim lighting, she recalls, “I knew the house was its own character. That’s cool, but it’s intimidating.”
Back home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she showed cabinetmaker Mike Dulude sketches of how she wanted to frame and illuminate each piece. “I knew the frames had to work with the house” and its 19th century details, she says. Electrician Joey Hall rigged a small light inside each frame. In October, Vrba measured the rooms and decided where pieces would hang. Days before the opening, she drove all the art in a cargo van from her home to New Orleans, and then worked to clean the space.
Vrba was concerned that the character of the house would overshadow the work. “I don’t like to look like I’m trying to dress up the imagery,” she says. However, when she saw the completed installation, she felt the show in its entirety worked as a piece of art.
“That show completely changed how I think as an artist,” Vrba says. She currently has a solo show at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, which seemed like “just a big white piece of paper.” So she decided to take over the whole gallery, hanging new prints that she mounted and framed especially for the show.
Vbra quotes her friend photographer Keith Carter, whose praise for the New Orleans pop-up show validated her approach. “He said, ‘In photography today you have to surprise people, and what you are doing with installation and presentation is surprising people.’”