Recently a lot of great galleries in the area have been putting on open submission shows. These can have specifications, but the bottom line is anyone can put a piece of art in the show, it will be displayed and they can try to sell it. I've seen two of these so far, one at SPACE Gallery in downtown Portland and the other at Engine Gallery in Biddeford. Both shows emphasized the gallery's commitment to providing a variety of artistic and community experiences, challenging preconceptions of what an "Art Gallery" is for.
I only saw the SPACE Free-for-all show in the process of being hung, as I still lived in New Hampshire for the majority of its duration. My favorite description of the final product came from the manager of a gallery in Kittery gleefully declaring "there's a lot of weird stuff in there." You could tell he was dreaming of what would be brought to his own free-for-all show. I did visit Biddeford for the opening of Engine's show, and was extremely impressed by the experience. I've hung gallery shows before, and knew the importance of placing art, but the white brick walls were just perfect for the style of the show. It was hung in a revised "salon style," meaning the work was plastered over the walls, at the general eye level of a human (classic salon shows were hung floor-to-ceiling, with the paintings the academy liked the most at eye-level).
This organization emphasized the influence of each piece on the other, and it was impressive to see the ways the gallery had found ways to connect pieces not designed to be shown together. A couple beautiful enamel birch pieces were hung on the wall above a light fixture, next to a sculpture of trees set next to a white partition, shadows flickering on the surface as people walked by. Any idea of hierarchy was completely out of place, and the historical context of the salon-style hanging played on the "egalitarian" nature of the show. Instead of highlighting specific pieces the walls celebrated the extensive variety of submissions.
Both the SPACE show and Engine's exhibition included a vibrant showing of children's art. One piece at Engine included a label that made it obvious it was a homework assignment, another a colored-pencil drawing of Dagon the Leopard Gecko. I found these both adorable and though-provoking. Unjuried shows give a child the opportunity to see their art displayed on walls of an established gallery; to truly be a part of the artistic process from start to finish. Children exhibiting at SPACE were able to come to the opening and answer questions about their art. Perhaps a grandmother, teacher or children's art aficionado (if those exist) would purchase the work, but suffice to say a gallery isn't making a ton of money off of the drawing of Dagon the Leopard Gecko. This necessitates an explanation why a gallery would invest time and wall space for such an exhibition.
A gallery fostering an free-for-all exhibition has more invested in the variety and community engagement than money-making possibilities. These free for all shows provide a forum for members of the community to express themselves. Children are able to interact with the community as individuals instead of in a vague "child" category and members that don't consider themselves "artists" are able to express their artistic sides regardless of their professions. One work at Engine titled Behind an Insult to an Abused Woman, consisted of figures cut out of a magazine surrounded by different insulting phrases. The piece was not for sale; the artist was not trying to make money off of the piece. She wanted to make a statement and Engine offered her a platform to do so.
These shows provide a voice for members of the community, and the variety of work displayed emphasizes the diversity of worldview and opinion inherent in any group of people. Making the effort to show a cross-section of the society in which they're located takes galleries out of the often exclusionary "art world," and puts them on the forefront of community engagement. They strive to express the import of art for the general population. Since galleries have long stood as institutions with a significant amount of influence in artistic circles, I hope that this trend will support the idea that art is for everyone and not just the chosen few, and not just as viewers. There are many reasons to create art, and it is inspiring to see galleries acknowledge the importance of art created for every purpose.
Buoy Gallery in Kittery, Maine will have an opening for their open-submission show tomorrow night (March 14th). If you are in the area I highly recommend stopping by. My current favorite Sarah Perea Kane painting will be on display, and there is some of the best food I've found in Maine right next door.