Presentation in Alternative Gallery Spaces

by Keeney Swearer

Kelsey Gordon, senior art major at Kalamazoo College, curated the Biggby Student Show at the Kalamazoo College Upjohn Library running through May 31st. The Student Show at Biggby’s encounters the challenge of showing a diverse set of works and combining many different artistic practices in a nontraditional gallery space that is essentially a distracting coffee shop. The show was non-juried and contains the work of student artists from all experience levels. All of the works are two-dimensional. Included in the show are photographs, oil paintings, watercolors, and acrylics. The works depict a range of subjects from self-portraits to landscapes.

There are advantages to a coffee shop setting. The show is hung and displayed in a location that allows it to be imagined by the viewer as if it were in a domestic setting. The coffee shop is designed to give the customer a domestic “living room” feel. This design was likely chosen to encourage customers to stop and perhaps buy another cup of coffee. Unlike gallery settings in which people enter, view the artwork and then leave, this location is one in which people are already conditioned to pause and sit. People enter this synthesized domestic setting expecting to drink coffee, do homework, or talk with others. The chairs and lighting bring closer the idea of a home than a gallery, allowing the viewer to more easily imagine the work in his own home. The work is not the primary focus, but lives in the background of the coffee shop, allowing the work to connect to the viewer in a less direct way than if the viewer were focused on the work alone. This context creates a less formal situation, but possibly allows for a thoughtful and more extended encounter with the work. Either way the environment creates a different relationship between the viewer and the work that contrasts with the contemporary “white cube” gallery location. Such white walled spaces, might not allow viewers to empathize with the work as much as this comfortable setting. [1]

While this coffee shop location is clearly not a formal setting, like the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, neither is it a space like the Exquisite Corpse Collective space at Park Trades Center. The combination of works on display mirror this in-between feeling in interesting ways. Some like Aileen Gallagher’s untitled watercolor, are very traditional portraits. Others, like Shelly Hu’s untitled photograph, exhibit experimental techniques. These are the works of students who are still trying to find a way to add their own commentary to the continuing dialogue of art. In this way the works connect traditional and contemporary practices because experimental pieces interact with more formalist work. Bringing together these two contrasting types of pieces leave us in a middle ground reflecting the campus coffee shop setting, as something in between a formal gallery and experimental working gallery.


Biggby Coffee Shop, Back Wall, Left Side, May 2012. Photo by Keeney Swearer.


Having a show in a coffee shop creates several kinds of problems. One problem is the way in which people interpret work hung in this type of location. The work must battle against simply disappearing into the interior design of the building. Unlike a gallery space, marked as a place to view art, this location results in visitors that would not necessarily be thinking of art when entering the building. The multi-use space requires consideration on the part of the curator about how the work can be hung to bring the viewer to the point of thinking about the work in a critical way instead of just passing it by or briefly gazing at it. The curator highlights certain pieces by using the space between windows to frame them or placing large works in more open areas to allow the space on either side to frame the work.


Biggby Coffee Shop, Overall View, May 2012. Photo by Keeney Swearer.


Lighting presents a second problem. The work itself is going to be lit and hung differently in a coffee shop environment. The lighting is not direct or even, the spotlights are not hung specifically for the show and as such, some works are lit perfectly and others have no light.  The back right wall ends up being very dark because of the absence of windows while the left wall depending on the time of day can be blinding for the viewer. At certain points the lights seem to be aimed at the work and at others the lights are pointing the complete opposite direction. The space also has four windows and so the works nearer the windows are better lit than those in the corners. Differences in lighting are a direct example of the side effects of this space being used for other purposes.

One of the strengths of the show is the fact that the work is curated in such a way as to balance the diversity of work. No part of the gallery seems weighted to a medium or subject: abstraction sits next to realism, landscapes back each other, portraits are across from each other. The pieces work well together. These works lead the viewer around the room. When the viewer first enters he sees a variety of work. On the back wall there are photographs, watercolors, and acrylics. As one gets closer the walls on either side show their work, photographs and oil paintings to the left and more watercolor and oil to the right. The curator spread out the mediums and chose not to group any specific style. Because this is such a small space there is not enough room to create a narrative. Instead the only option is to spread out the work so that the viewer’s eyes move around the room and are led across the walls instead of becoming stuck in one location.

This show illustrates the complexities of works being located in a nontraditional gallery space and what that means for the work on display. Despite offering viewers a comfortable location that might encourage them to engage with the artwork, the coffee shop location adds challenges. These comfortable spaces distract, and interrupt what would otherwise be a successful show. This show illustrates problems of hanging, lighting, and placement. Ultimately the artwork does not always hold the viewers’ attention; there are a variety of legitimate distractions inside this space. It is clear from the selection and arrangement of the work as a group that the curator was working to make these diverse pieces come together. Unfortunately the successful interaction between the works does not extend to the space.


[1] David Carrier, “The Art Museum Today,” Curator 54, no. 181-9 (2011): 7.





2 thoughts on “Presentation in Alternative Gallery Spaces

  1. Pingback: Really Suffering for One’s Vision: A review on Emily May « comment with a K

  2. Pingback: Abandoned Reality: a Review of Screenprints by Mark Andrew Morris at Fourth Coast « comment with a K

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