Tristram Aver has been Exhibitions Officer at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery since 2009. Having worked on this annual exhibition since he started work at the Castle, it is fair to say that Aver has a full understanding of Nottingham Castle Open; its highs and lows, the role it plays in the local art scene, and the developments over recent years. Aver is also an artist himself. His prominence within the local contemporary art scene perhaps lends further insight to his role as Exhibitions Officer. I wanted to find out what he considers the importance of the Open, and what he thinks is different about the exhibition this year. Photo: Alexander Martin
[Jennifer Gleadell] Tris, there has been a lot of talk about how different the Open is this year – can you tell us what changes you have made and why?
[Tristram Aver] As many Open-submission style exhibitions have cropped up in the region recently, not only amongst the larger institutions but also in the smaller spaces too, the Nottingham Castle Open had to adapt in order to prevent repetition. The Castle Open has always responded to regional trends and the artists it serves, partly explained in this essay by Nicola Gauld .
The main changes are the website and free online entry. Applicants seemed frustrated with paper-based applications in the past and I, in turn, was limited by the amount of information I could supply with print (not to mention associated costs of production, mailing and processing). A website seemed the next logical step for the Open whilst finally dragging it into the digital age. With the economic situation in the forefront of my mind, submission fees are a possible barrier that would prevent people from applying; some artists, such as our judge Emily Speed, have a ‘no entrance fee’ rule for when they apply for opportunities (see her [A-N] article here). As the website now generates data-entry tasks automatically, I felt the fee was no longer necessary.
I have also changed the prize structure so the Panel will chose the Grand Prize winner from within the context of the exhibition; the previous voting system from slides was flawed and often met with some resistance. This year we introduced the Nottingham Castle Purchase Prize – an opportunity for an artist to gain the accolade that a public museum holds their work. Finally, we have removed the option of including a CV with the submission, in order to reassure applicants that selection is anonymous.
Castle Open 2011. Photo: Anthony Hopwood
[JG] As a curator at Nottingham Castle, what would you say is the Nottingham Castle Open’s role within the local contemporary art scene?
[TA] Year upon year I have the wonderful privilege to see what artists are making, how they talk, how they develop, and what topics they are responding to. The exhibition should mirror this, not in a generalised sweeping survey of Midlands activity, but in a focused showcase of the strongest practices that can span all disciplines. The Open should be relevant, it should be now. The Open creates a dialogue with the individual exhibitors and forges links between them that no other exhibition can offer.
Castle Open 2012. Photo: John Hartley
[JG] What do you think makes Nottingham Castle Open different from other opens?
[TA] We try to be transparent with all stages of the exhibition, from how the work is presented and how it is selected, to how we stage the final show. I wanted to remove any perceived notion of pre-selection or bias. By not considering the CV of the artist, removing all personal information completely, the competition is only selected based on the strengths of the work submitted. I felt this was important to highlight as clearly as possible to make the Nottingham Castle Open stand out from the rest.
Our website now gives lots of advice about entering and understanding Open-submission exhibitions (not just our own) supported by the article written by WeLikeArtists.com, meaning the applicant can make a fully informed decision whether they wish to apply in this competitive field.
The Open has been created and adapted with the artist in mind – it should be as attractive as possible (through prizes and opportunities), as open as possible (by making the selection process clear) and without too many restrictions (we are a listed public building after all!). It has grown in stature over the years, now having a national reputation amongst artists, and more importantly, is widely endorsed by the applicants themselves.
Castle Open 2012. Photo: John Hartley
[JG] It strikes me that the independent panel of judges is one of the defining features of Nottingham Castle Open – how do you decide who is going to judge?
[TA] We invite professional makers, curators, artists, writers, directors and experts who have little or no link to the Midlands. This means they can cast an impartial view over the selection. It is important that they are experienced, knowledgeable and diverse in their tastes. Another important factor is that the judges often have shown in, contributed to, or run exhibitions of this type, so they fully understand what they are being asked to participate in along with the platform the exhibition creates. I tend to target specialists in a field that I feel may be underrepresented. For example, I noticed a low applicant pool of artists working in Fine Art Photography last year and invited Simon Roberts to the panel with the intention to attract more photographers. It worked, especially for Grand Prize winner David Severn. This year is no exception, Holly Slingsby and Emily Speed will hopefully draw more performative and cross-disciplinary works to the exhibition.
Castle Open 2011 Performance by Simon Raven
[JG] The display is always so diverse, with something to enjoy no matter what your artistic preference. What would you like to see in this year’s Open?
[TA] Exactly that really; a wide, exciting and diverse range of work, especially from artists I may not be aware of, or from a developmental point of view, those I haven’t heard from or seen for a while.
Interview by Jennifer Gleadell
Stirring the Swarm, 2011, installation by Anna Collette Hunt, winner of the Castle Open Solo Show Prize 2010.