Modern Art Oxford

“Our overriding value is that artists have to be paid as professionals because they are producing forms of visual knowledge and experience in the world, and they have to be paid and valued for that.” Paul Hobson, Director

About Modern Art Oxford

Founded in 1965, Modern Art Oxford is a visual art gallery which commissions and presents exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. It has a national and international reputation for the quality of its exhibitions and accompanying community and education programme. In recent years, it has expanded its programme to include film screenings, talks and music events. In December 2014 they will open “Love is Enough”, an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller, which brings a major exhibition of work by William Morris and Andy Warhol to the gallery.

Funded by Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation, it also receives financial support from Oxford City Council. Turnover is around £1.5m a year, of which around £600,000 is raised from private sources. In 2014, Modern Art Oxford spent around £500,000 on its artistic programming. More usually, the artistic programme costs £250,000 – £300,000, excluding staff costs and overheads. Of this, circa £25k – £30k is given directly to artists in fees; a figure that excludes all other exhibition expenses and costs.

“We’re located in one of the world’s great cities for thinking and learning, and we have an international reputation for a programme that is innovative and ambitious. We want to make contemporary art accessible to the widest possible audience through presentation but also participation. Artists are at the centre of what we do, along with audiences. Everything we do centres around those two constituencies, and we see our work as mediating and creating insight between these two agencies. We have about 100,000 visitors a year in recent years, but are aiming to attract 120,000 visitors this year. We will grow our audiences by 20% a year for the next three years.

Commissioning is a core part of our programme and is even a defining feature of our work with artists. We believe that one of the best ways of supporting an artist’s practice is to give them the opportunity to make new work, and a solo show in the gallery. We like to think that exhibiting with Modern Art Oxford provides significant benefits. Usually there is theopportunity to develop new work. We provide a fee for artists to make new work and help to realise it with our technical team. By exhibiting here there is access to audiences, and access to the professional development experience of working with an internationally acclaimed gallery, as well as the discourse and visibility around the world that goes with that. All of these are important to artists. We also try to think about an individual artist’s situation and needs, and, for example, we’ll target specific individuals like journalists, curators, gallerists or collectors to further benefit an artist, where this is of importance to them.

Within our main programme, we present about four or five exhibitions a year. We also programme smaller presentations from recent graduates and “new artists”, and sometimes from our archives, so in total we have between ten and twelve different scales of show a year.”

Artistic programme

“We consider ourselves to be primarily concerned with the visual art forms but we take quite an open idea of what that might be. As well as our exhibitions, we also do a wide variety of film screenings and gigs. We’re trying to get away from seeing contemporary culture as just exhibitions and are interested in co-authorship with audiences. We take a number of themes arising from contemporary social, political or cultural conditions to form a conceptual framework within which we devise our programme. For example, we might be interested in technology and surveillance, so then we seek artists who are interested in those things and whose work gives body to ideas around it. Then we look at the mix of gender, generation and location as well. We ensure that our programme is international, with mixed gender and age. We plan about two years ahead.

We are also part of the Platform project, which works in partnership with four other galleries in the South-East. Each partner venue selects from graduate shows, and provides a professional platform for the work and mentoring for the artists involved.

We don’t have a written exhibition policy but we do have a programme statement.”

What are the qualities that make a successful exhibition for the artist, venue and visitors?

“We really do value and assess our work as an organisation by the feedback we get from the artists we work with. We invest in an artist heavily and we are attuned to the messages that we get back, and the quality of the relationship we develop. On a fundamental level, weassess whether an artist has been able to realise their plans. Occasionally budgets are an issue but we try to do whatever we can to make what they want to happen. Then there is a critical response to the show. We are concerned to have a wide range of different types of press for our show, ranging across local, national and international press.

We’re working often with new developments in contemporary art which can be challenging for the audience so we work hard with the mediation of the show to make it as accessible as possible. We survey our audiences all the time, and gain feedback from them via our invigilators who are specifically trained in this area to stimulate an audience-centred and empowered approach to the work. These are all things we measure when we try to decide if a show is successful or not.”

What deal do you offer to artists?

“We work with artists in different ways but we always pay them. It would be inconceivable for us not to do so. We always offer a commissioning fee to the artist, and we always budget so that we can realise the work in our space. We also cover the costs of a publication if one is appropriate; we commission and produce the work, and we cover accommodation and other expenses. How much we pay depends on the individual circumstances of the artist and we work on a case-by-case basis. A minimum fee is probably about £1,000 and a commissioning fee might go as high a £10,000. It’s unusual for us to pay £10,000; usually we pay around £2,000-£3,000 along with the other benefits. We usually require the artist to do a talk for the audience. Artists working in our education and public programme are paid separately from the main programme and on a different scale, but they are always paid.”

I think I can say in all honesty that we have a culture at Modern Art Oxford where the first thing we think about when we are looking at money is ensuring artists are paid as the highest priority. That runs across the organisation from myself to our exhibitions and programme teams.”

Comment on Paying Artists Campaign

“I’m very happy to add my name to that statement, but I feel we need other plausible messages too.”

Interview with Paul Hobson, Director, November 2014