PhotoWorkflo founder, Patti Hallock sat down with Samantha Johnston, the Executive Director of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. They talked a little about the photography scene in Denver, CO as well as the perspective of a curator and how they find new work to exhibit. Samantha also shares with artists some practical advice for showing their work.
Samantha, please tell us a bit about CPAC.
The Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC) has been operating in Denver since 1963. It’s a great resource where photographers can learn new skills, seek inspiration and creative growth while being a part of the larger photographic community in our region. We host 7-10 exhibitions each year that showcase contemporary photography from local and national artists. All of our exhibitions are free and open to the public.
How long have you been the executive director? What is your background?
I have been the Executive Director and Curator at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center since 2015. My education and experience prepared me for this role – I have a certificate in Arts Development and Program Management from the University of Denver, an MFA from Lesley University College of Art & Design, and a BFA from Alfred University. Prior to joining CPAC, I taught photography and visual arts for 12 years at high schools in Boston and Denver. I am a longtime member of the Society for Photographic Education, and served as Treasurer of the Southwest region from 2013-2016.
How would you describe the photographic community in the Denver area?
The art community has blossomed in recent years and it’s relationship with photography continues to grow. Programs like Month of Photography (MoP), which transforms the Denver Metro region every other year is a great example. Month of Photography, founded by Mark Sink in 2004, grows larger and develops more connections each time. During Month of Photography, hundreds of exhibits, lectures, and programming happen all over the Denver Metro region. CPAC hosts a portfolio review weekend, which brings in 30 industry professionals to have reviews with over 50 photographers. CPAC works closely with Mark and will be the hub for MoP in 2019 to help further promote photography in the region. Denver is a growing city, and during Month of Photography it’s wonderful to see the support of our regional community throughout March.
CPAC’s programming PhotoVox, was developed two years ago. It is a monthly event series designed to help photographers strengthen their artistic voice with the support of other artists and professionals in the Denver Metro community. This programming has been exciting to see grow because the photography community becomes closer and realizes connections that can be made through panels, sharing work, and networking with other photographers.
What kind of photographic work does your gallery typically show?
CPAC has a focus of showing work that has a strong emphasis on contemporary ideas and approaches to photography. We exhibit work that is culturally relevant which challenges and broadens our understanding of the world around us and invites conversation. We curate work from local, national, and internationally recognized photographers and primarily focus on exhibiting work from up and coming and mid-level photographers.
How do you find new artists? What advice would you give to an artist looking to get on your radar?
I find many new artists by attending portfolio reviews around the country. This is a great way for a curator to speak with the artists personally, and to see the work up close. The experience of portfolio reviews allows me to have more of a dialogue with the artist beyond just reading an artist statement. Attending Open portfolio walkthroughs also allows me to see artists I may have not met with but that are making exciting work. Portfolio reviews are a great place to make connections, so try to be as open as possible when you attend those events. Think about the opportunities you are looking for before you attend.
I have curated exhibitions with contemporary artists such as Jess T. Dugan, Daniel Coburn, Barbara Ciurej & Lindsay Lochman, and Zora Murff. As a reviewer at Houston FotoFest, Review Santa Fe, PhotoPlus New York, Medium Festival of Photography, Month of Photography (MoP), and Filter, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing artists. I juried several exhibitions including Critical Mass and The Fence. I met Daniel Coburn at Fotofest in 2016. After seeing his work in person, I continued to follow his project Hereditary Estate, and in 2017 we put on an exhibition of his work. Zora Murff sent us an exhibition proposal through our free submission process. Zora had an exhibition of his work at CPAC with Richard Ross in 2016. I met Barbara Ciurej & Lindsay Lochman in 2015 at PhotoNola before I had taken the position at CPAC. We put on an exhibition of their work in 2017.
When you are planning an exhibition, what information do you want to see on the artist’s website about their work?
Information I like to see on artist websites includes the sizes of the work, framing information and clearly labeled images with titles. Installation shots help if they are available. It’s great to actually see what the work will look like when it’s on the wall.
What can an artist do to make the process of selecting work easier for the gallery?
I would say that having an understanding of your inventory, and what is available helps make the process easier when I reach out to an artist. If you print in more than one size, know what is reasonable to produce for a show or what work that you have ready to go. If large prints are too expensive to produce, communicate that up front. I can’t emphasize this enough: communication is key, and it helps make the process easier for the artists and the curator.
Do you have preferences with regard to shipping and framing?
Our preference when shipping work to the gallery is first and foremost, please, no packing peanuts-they make a mess! For shipping, please choose a strong box. Foam and bubble wrap work great to protect the work. Plexi does better in shipping. Glass breaks easily, especially if the box is not packed well and likely will damage the print. In terms of framing, simple often works best–consider a black or white frame. What makes the work stand out? The frame should not be the focus. We are willing to show work installed in different ways, however, I can’t insure work while it’s in our care that doesn’t have acrylic or glass protecting the face of the image. Some other framing items that make our job easier are d-rings. They are easier to hang than wire. Sawtooth hangers are quite difficult.
What advice would you give to students getting started showing their work?
Students should look for plenty of opportunities to show their work. There are many options for students, for example, CPAC has a biennial student show that has an open national call. Look for portfolio reviews that offer opportunities for students at places like SPE, CPAC, and Filter. Start participating in your local community while you are at school and after you graduate. The community changes frequently, so start finding places where you can show or receive feedback. Groups of students often stay connected after graduation by forming a critique group. They meet regularly and show their work and get input from their peers. These kinds of groups are great for keeping you on track and making work.
Can we just close with a personal question? When you aren’t connecting with artists about their photography…what are your other interests? What do you do with your spare time?
When I’m not connecting with artists and working, I love to travel with my husband and see new places. A big benefit of living in Colorado is all the outdoor access which I really enjoy. We try to spend time outside skiing and cross country skiing in the winter and in the summer you’ll find me riding my bike or camping.