ARTIST ROOMS Brings Big Names in Photography to Small Places

ARTIST ROOMS Brings Big Names in Photography to Small Places

When an exhibition of works is announced by a photographer as influential as Diane Arbus, you would be forgiven for assuming that the work was on show in a major venue in New York or London, but you would be wrong.  

It's exciting to hear that Arbus' work is currently on show in the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, a town in southwestern Scotland. Word quickly spread through Scottish arts and photography networks about this rare opportunity to see work from this iconic photographer in a local arts trust venue, through the ARTIST ROOMS program, a joint venture between the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. 

Diane Arbus is one of the most influential photographers, whose work has had a profound impact on the world of photography. Her approach to photography was revolutionary, as she captured the lives of people across the social spectrum, from the margins of society, with honesty and empathy. Her images were not just portraits, but also an example of strong visual storytelling. Arbus' unique approach to photography captured a raw and unfiltered glimpse into the lives of her subjects and the dynamics of their surroundings.

Two female impersonators backstage, N.Y.C. 1961 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Arbus' images often depict individuals who at the time were on the margins of society, including circus performers and transgender individuals. However, rather than portraying them as objects of curiosity or pity, she showed their humanity and individuality, challenging conventional societal norms and stereotypes. This quality is what has always drawn me to her work. I can feel the connection she had with her subjects almost leaping off the paper.

This was my first visit to The Gracefield; a category B listed building that hosts Gallery 1, while the purpose-built Gallery 2 building hosts further exhibition, arts, and crafting space along with a café. Upon entering the building, there was an instant feeling of community, and I was reminded of my time spent working at my own local community arts venue, from the handwritten chalkboard “what's on” display, to the various rooms used for community arts projects throughout the year. The hallway directly outside the gallery features a timeline of Diane Arbus’ life, with key moments charted along the way, including her marriage to Allan Arbus in 1941, who gifted her with a camera, prompting enrollment in photography classes alongside photographer Berenice Abbott.

A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland © The Estate of Diane Arbus

The gallery space itself was as fresh and minimalistic as any major exhibition venue I have been to. Track lighting placed considered illumination onto the prints, which were mounted inside white frames on white walls, to allow the work to have the space to communicate directly. Walking around the gallery and considering each print, I felt very fortunate to be in a quiet space allowing absorption and reflection. For the majority of my visit, I was the only person in the gallery space, which was an absolute luxury. I compared this visit to the time I saw Don McCullins exhibition in the Tate in Liverpool, when I felt a need to move on between images quite promptly due to the conveyor belt of admirers moving from image to image.

The exhibition spans Arbus’s full career, beginning with early works from the mid-1950s taken with a 35mm camera, to the distinctive square format she adopted from 1962, made famous through such iconic images as Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966. A highlight within the exhibition is the rare limited-edition portfolio, A Box of Ten Photographs 1969-71. These ten original prints produced by Arbus represented who she was as an artist and how she saw her work in the world, a legacy that became more solidified with her death by suicide in 1971.

The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens’ Dance, N.Y.C. 1970 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland © The Estate of Diane Arbus

ARTIST ROOMS is a touring collection of international modern and contemporary art, presenting solo exhibitions drawn from a national collection jointly owned by Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. ARTIST ROOMS gives young people the chance to get involved in creative projects, discover more about art and artists, and learn new skills. The ARTIST ROOMS program is an absolute gift to local communities, bringing major exhibitions to people who would otherwise not get to see them. There are so many barriers which separate who attend exhibitions and who do not, and geography is a huge factor in that. The act of bringing exhibitions to local communities makes the phrase "art is for everyone" closer to being truthful. I am a firm believer in the ability of the arts to transform communities and break down barriers, and this places importance on local arts initiatives.

Arbus’s extraordinary portraits will be on display in Gallery 2 until July 29, 2023. The exhibition at Gracefield follows its inaugural presentation at The Civic, Barnsley in Yorkshire. The exhibition will continue its tour north in Scotland to Shetland Museum and Archives, before returning to England to North Hertfordshire Museum, Hitchin, at the end of the year.

Lead image photograph of Diane Arbus around 1968 © Photo: Roz Kelly / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images.

All images used with permission of The Estate of Diane Arbus.

Kim Simpson's picture

Kim Simpson is a photographer based in the West of Scotland. Her photographic practice is an exploration of the human experience, with a particular emphasis on themes of identity and belonging.

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