Jeremy Deller talks to Eliza Williams about what it is like for an artist to deal with the design and promotion of their work

Through his diverse practice, Jeremy Deller is in the unusual position of having received an insight into all sides of the life of a museum or art institution, from exhibiting to marketing. He is a Turner Prize-winning artist, receiving the accolade in 2004 in a decision that for once pleased both the media and the public alike. He is a curator, and co-curated Folk Archive with Alan Kane at the Barbican Curve Gallery in 2005, a show that radically divided critics, while bringing hoards of visitors to the space. And he is also one of three artist trustees currently on the board at Tate, allowing him access to, and the chance to offer an opinion on, the inner workings of the institution. He is therefore in the ideal position to discuss both the joys and perils of working with art institutions and museums from the perspective of an artist, and, happily, he doesn’t hold back. “I think some-times what the artist wants is often different to what a museum or institution wants, almost by definition,” he says, by way of a preface to our discussion. “I think a lot of times museums can be quite conservative establishments, and artists by their nature are trying their best not to be conservative. So there’s often a clash.”

Despite what this may imply, Deller’s experience is broadly positive, and he speaks highly of the Tate’s support during the Turner Prize exhibition, an experience that can be notoriously savage in terms of public response. “What you have to be aware of with a show like that is that you’re going to get a lot of people coming to see it,” he says. “The press people at the Tate shield you from all the journalists, which is really important. You’ve got to be really tough to go into that show, you’ve got to realise that you’re laying yourself open for scrutiny. I was lucky with the Turner Prize though, I had hardly any negative comments. But I have had experiences where I’ve been savaged by some critics.”

Deller is referring here largely to the response to Folk Archive, an exhibition that led one critic to tackle him at the press view and bemoan that he was denying ‘real’ artists the space to show. The exhibition, which explored vernacular and ‘popular’ art, and included films of political rallies alongside imagery of crop circles and clowning amongst a vast collection of other works, proved immensely popular with audiences, and again, was largely a positive experience to put together, despite initial nervousness on the part of the Barbican. In fact, problems only began to arise when it came to publicising the show, when the museum’s needs appeared to differ most starkly from that of the curators. “We didn’t have a poster, there was no budget for anything like that,” he says. “For the invite card, we met with their marketing person who said ‘we don’t use images of work, we’ll just have our logo and the name of the show’. And that was it, that was their idea of an invitation to an exhibition.”

“We had rows with them about this,” he continues. “We said, ‘this is the most stupid thing in the world, you’re not putting an image on the front of an invite to a visual arts exhibition?’ Their response was, ‘well, we have our corporate identity that cost us a lot of money and basically we want to get the most out of it’. I think museums occasionally want the art to fit the museum rather than for the museum to fit the art, and they privilege their space above the artwork. The logo and brand of the Barbican Curve was more important than anything that can go in it. And so you have this dull invitation for a really visually exciting exhibition. We actually ended up making our own invites.”

The use of branding in general is a point of contention for Deller, especially when a museum uses its identity indiscriminately over images of artworks. “You do experience that museums are in love with their identity and logo and brand,” he says. “And they’ll do anything to put that over a photograph of an artwork. Not all of them, but a lot of them.

I don’t think they realise what a turn-off it is. It’s also a cardinal sin really for an artist to have text put over an image of the work. For me that’s a copyright infringement, an abuse of an image. You can put as much as you want on the back of the card, but as far as I’m concerned, the front should be an image. I’m just moaning now, it’s terrible, but it’s some­thing you have to be aware of as an artist.”

The Tate comes off more lightly in Deller’s eyes, and he comments on their particular sensitivity to art and artists, especially now. Although when it came to the short films about each of the Turner nominees, which used to be outsourced to an independent production company, even they ran into trouble. “They had a format and they wanted me to pretend that I was working, talking on the phone to some­one who actually isn’t there. So in the end it became a straightforward interview.” These films have now been brought in-house and have become part of the remit of Tate Media, run by Will Gompertz, an initiative that Deller is particularly intrigued and excited by. “I think it’s the way ahead,” he says. “It’s a museum of visual art so it makes sense to have a presence and also to show art on the internet or to work visually on the internet. I just hope that they’ll get the resources they need to do it, it’s very ambitious. It’s like a lot of things the Tate does, they have massive ambitions but the budgets are tiny. So I really hope that they get the support to make these programmes.”

“I think some artists are more interested in it than others,” he continues. “But the website gets so many hits, it’s very popular. And most of them are from abroad, so you’re making programmes for people who don’t get to go to the museums necessarily. It’s really important I think, it’s really part of their role. If you can give someone an artwork or an experience through the internet, rather than having people fly halfway around the world, then environ­mentally it makes sense. So I’m very supportive of what Will is trying to do, he has huge ambitions and is not daunted by them.”

Deller’s role as a Tate Trustee allows him to get more involved with Tate Media, alongside partaking in other areas, such as acquisitions. “It’s quite intense, though I am enjoying it,” he says of being a trustee. “It’s a lot of work. I imagine your next question is ‘why do you do it?’ I’m a nosey person, that’s one reason! I’m very interested in the way museums work, also in their relationship to the rest of the country, and the government, and how government policy influences what happens in museums. And the way art is viewed by the general public, all those things. It’s not just about museums, it’s about the whole of the country and the direction the country is going in. You can’t isolate what happens at Tate from the rest of the country, especially now – in the last five years, you think of Britain or London and you think of Tate, it’s an integral part of British life now. So it’s actually an amazing position to be in, to be part of those discussions.”

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