How To Design A Photography Gallery
Daniel Jewesbury considers the changing requirements for photography galleries and the recent experiences of those designing them.
by Daniel Jewsbury
Once upon a time the design of photography galleries was (one imagines) a fairly straightforward affair. The photographs exhibited would be smallish, framed with a mount, and black and white. The requirements to show them properly were some white wall space and some lighting. Depending on the size and nature of the institution, there might also be provision for some darkroom or studio space in the same building. Then, perhaps at around the same time photography began seriously to be considered as ‘fine art’, the use of colour became more widespread, and the prints became larger, and the frames or mounts changed. Galleries needed bigger rooms, and walls needed to be washed with even light rather than selectively illuminated with individual spots. At a certain point, presumably because photography became so accepted as a part of the mainstream of fine art, some galleries of photography felt the need to show photography in the context of other artforms; video and other lens-based media needed darkened spaces, and perhaps seating; eventually photography was just one medium in a whole range of image-based or even sculptural forms that required new provision in terms of storage and loading, and installation.
Arguably there are a now a number of different kinds of photography gallery. There are still those, many of them, attached to an idea of photography primarily as a craft, perhaps linked to a camera club, maybe located in an arts centre, with a requirement for darkrooms and a room where a class can sit and discuss each other’s work. But between that venue and the gallery or museum of ‘contemporary photography’ are a host of other spaces which can all be called, in some sense, photography galleries. These may or may not accommodate practising photographers in some kind of studio or darkroom or computer lab; they may be a series of evenly-lit white cubes, or they may be flexible spaces with fully controllable lighting and carpeting and provision for audio-visual materials (whether for video art, or for ‘screening programmes’ associated with a particular exhibition); they may be fitted to museum specifications, with full climate control or double-height walls or the capacity to show the largest three-dimensional works imaginable. In other words, the question of what a photography gallery needs to have is increasingly hard to distinguish from what any other contemporary art space needs.
The refit of the Photographers’ Gallery in London has been designed by Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, who have some experience in the area, having designed Dublin’s Gallery of Photograpy in 1996. With that gallery largely predating the widespread uptake of digital technology, and also the expanding of the field of photography into ‘visual media’, it’s useful to consider how it meets current demands. Director Tanya Kiang commends the work the architects did in what was always a very constrained footprint, but points out that some contemporary shows would simply not fit in the gallery: "they wouldn’t get through the door, or through the lift or round the corners". And whilst the move to video has not been impossible to accommodate in the gallery, the space certainly wasn’t designed with such work in mind, and simple factors – even the placement of electrical sockets and windows – make some spaces hard to use for anything other than 20 x 24 framed prints. Kiang points to the trend for offsite projects and to the potential for the gallery to open out into Meeting House Square, one side of which it occupies; but she argues also that the existence of the building rather demands that it be used. "Big industrial spaces are great, but what are you doing with the gallery meanwhile?"
Other factors, easily overlooked, that might be pertinent for the designers of a photography gallery today – which are still, in all their many variants, predominantly ‘clean’ spaces – are the accessibility of basic services (do you need to call a contractor and close the gallery to change a light bulb that’s nine metres above the ground?) and also the amount, and visibility, of wear and tear in a building that (with any luck) sees a high footfall in a small space. Kiang cites both as concerns with the Gallery of Photography.
The visibility of the gallery itself to the passer-by is obviously a major concern. The increasing privatisation or deregulation of the formerly public streets and open spaces that new arts centres typically overlook will inevitably change the way in which these buildings come to be seen by their potential users. Is the gallery made already inaccessible by its siting behind some unfriendly concrete landscaping, or do the other uses of a square – free concerts, street markets and so on – intrude into the supposedly quiet, contemplative spaces of the gallery? Art galleries are now an integral part of the package that any city has to be able to offer in order to compete effectively for (perhaps illusory) tourist income, and as such there are many demands that are placed on a gallery by local administrations or public funders: some, such as the requirement for buildings to be universally accessible, are clearly necessary but can nevertheless have an influence on the amount of space available for exhibition, and the way in which that space can be used. The point is not that this influence is necessarily detrimental, simply that it’s not dictated by the needs of the work being exhibited. Other demands are more nebulous and arguably altogether extraneous: the building must be ‘welcoming’ or must offer an ‘experience’, the art must be ‘accessible’, the gallery must offer workshops for disadvantaged groups, there must be a bookshop and café which demonstrate that the gallery can find innovative ways of generating income; and so on.
The Impressions Gallery, founded in a Georgian premises in York in 1972, moved to a new space in Bradford city centre in 2007. The gallery was ‘purpose-built’ but the main build and the fit-out of the gallery itself were the work of two different architects. Director Anne McNeill points out that the plans of the original firm were overspecified for the needs of Impressions: "We didn’t need huge loading bays and so on". A local practice, SMC DTR:UK, was appointed to carry out the internal work. Whilst they’d not worked on a gallery project before, their experience with public spaces and schools gave them valuable insights into the way in which people would use the building and move around it, says McNeill. "This wasn’t a big museum, and it needed to be a people-friendly space. The way in which we imagined people would move around is pretty much how they actually do."
Significantly, as Director of one of the most recent purpose-built photography galleries, McNeill stresses Impressions’ commitment to the photographic image as the core of its exhibitions programme, and argues that the region is well-served with spaces that can accommodate the broader remit of digital lens-based work. The Impressions space is adaptable, and can be reconfigured to show video, but is essentially a single, large, linear space. McNeill says that this gives her the freedom to programme reasonably-sized retrospectives from mid-career artists (such as the recent Joy Gregory exhibition, Lost Languages and other voices) or substantial group shows (Bringing the War Home, reviewed in Source 65).
McNeill also states her desire to keep the photography gallery an uncluttered space; the current exhibition by Murray Ballard makes use of QR tags next to the images, which visitors can scan with their smartphones if they want to download other material – interviews and texts – that would otherwise have to be installed or displayed in the gallery itself.
Most of all McNeill emphasises that photography is still, for all its transformations and revolutions, "a very democratic artform; the building should reflect that". We are told that the era of large capital projects is over. If there is indeed a place for such a thing as a ‘photography gallery’ in the age of convergent, ubiquitous media, then perhaps it is, after all, a fairly simple space. We won’t find out for ten or fifteen years how the megamuseums and arts centres of the boom years weather, and how their audiences rate the ‘experiences’ they offer. But presumably photographs will continue to be hung on walls, whether as industrially-scaled posters or handprinted sheets of 16 x 20, mounted behind perspex, tacked up with designer pins or sandwiched between glass, Daler board and hardboard.