Chats with curator and photographer Hannah Watkinson

Photographer Hannah Watkinson got her start as a gallery manager after she won a $1 reserve Trade Me auction to use the XCHC showcase space.  That first exhibition, aptly named ‘Pulled Together,’ consisted of works by six photographers from her graduating class at University of Canterbury. She then went on to open In Situ Photo Project, a gallery featuring social documentary works from emerging and established photographers. After a run of exhibitions in the central city, Hannah is taking the gallery on tour for the next few shows before moving into a more permanent space next year.  

Hannah Watkinson. © Felicity Powell

XCHC: Were you always interested in photography? 

Hannah Watkinson: I’ve always been interested in photography, but it’s never been something that I’ve known I was going to do. I remember when I was at school, my careers advisor told me to pick subjects that would be good for my career, but that I should also pick something that gets me out of bed in the morning.  Then I thought, wait, why can’t the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning also be the thing that I actually do?  And for me, that’s always been arts.

XCHC: How did you hear about XCHC and what was your first impression?

HW: It was a while ago now, before the cafe opened.  The first time I met Camia [XCHC founder] it blew my mind to know that there are people like that living in Christchurch, I guess I was pretty sheltered in my little art world at University.  Now it seems like everything I do involves people with some kind of connection to the XCHC, but before then I knew nothing.  I’d just won this Trade Me auction for $20, and then I was given this space where I could do anything I liked.  At that time in Christchurch there weren’t many gallery spaces, particularly for young artists, so it was a big deal to get to show work.  Even at university we didn’t have grad shows because there just weren’t spaces that were willing to do it.  So that’s what we did, we put on a grad show for the six of us in my photography class.  It was mind-blowing, seeing this space and knowing that it was about to be full of our stuff and we could do it however we want.  I’d had solo shows before, but this was my first real taste of doing the whole process.

'Pulled Together'

'Pulled Together'

XCHC: Tell me about your first exhibition?

HW: It was six of us, all photographers, figuring out how we were going to use the wall space and how we were going to market it.  We each had our own networks, and after four years of art school people are genuinely interested to see what you’re making.  For a few of those photographers, it was the first time that they’d ever exhibited, so it was really cool.  Especially because you usually don’t have such a hands on role in mounting the exhibition.  Usually you just get told what to do, so we learnt a lot in that process.

That’s how In Situ started.  Being able to do that sort of thing yourself, and to have a lot more of your own say in it, was different to anything I’d ever experienced.  I was used to being told how to hang things, where to hang things, what it was that I was hanging.  When we had six photographers together doing it how they wanted to do it, the outcome was more successful than if it had been what someone else thought it should be.  That was my realisation, that the artist needs to be at the centre of anything you do.

'Pulled Together'

'Pulled Together'

XCHC: Tell me about your exhibitions, how do you decide who and what to profile at In Situ? 

HW: At In Situ we always had a focus on showing work by emerging artists.  But to be taken seriously we couldn’t just be showing work by emerging artists, so I was calling in a lot of favours by well-known photographers so we could elevate ourselves to the level that people expect from galleries in the city.

We’re dedicated to photography, and we wanted to be the place where people would bring their social documentary projects.  The kind of projects that you want to see, but that you wouldn’t buy to put on your wall.  Because we were a public space and not selling work, we were in the perfect position to be able to do that.

Chrissy Irvine’s ‘Herstory’ is a record of women’s lives and their careers.  The photos and interviews are incredible.  Ultimately it will be a book, and it functions so well online, but you wouldn't see work like that in most galleries, because you wouldn’t buy a photograph of a woman working as an electrician to put on your wall.

'Herstory' exhibition by Chrissy Irvine

'Herstory' exhibition by Chrissy Irvine

XCHC: What of you comes through in the shows that you curate?

HW: When I get the opportunity to work with artists that I’ve been following for a long time I’ll push a bit harder for their voice to be heard. I got to work with David Cook, who’s been a massive influence on my work.  It was a massive change from pouring over books to being able to actually receive the work from a project that you’ve been obsessed with.  His work was from a book called ‘Lake of Coal’ that was about the Huntley Power Station and the coal mining in that area.  He followed that community for twenty years.  My social documentary project is about coal mining and I’ve spent two years working on it, and it was such a minute percentage of time in terms of his work.  So for my own practice, to be able to bring his work down and see it in the flesh and put it amongst other people’s work was pretty crazy.  

XCHC: What is the role of art in our communities?

HW: I think that art is the glue that holds our communities together.  I always come across that quote from Winston Churchill, when someone wanted to cut arts funding during the war, and he said ‘then what are we fighting for?’  

[In Situ] has been operating in the central city for the past couple years, and there’s little that you can do in the CBD to connect with it that doesn’t involve spending money.  You can come in and go to a restaurant, or shop, but I think that in order for us to have a flourishing CBD there’s got to be other things to do.  So for our community in Christchurch, it’s about encouraging people to get out and do something and interact with things that open up different worlds for them.

The shows that we’ve had that have really resonated are ones like Chrissy’s show in that young girls would come through with their families and realise that there was a whole different way to look at what they did.  Janneth Gil’s ‘Our Voices’ project was about intellectually disabled people and their support networks, with the aim to de-stigmatise their place in the community.  Just having people interact with these photographs and stories opened up dialogue to a much wider audience and brought people together that wouldn’t otherwise be. 

'Our Voices' exhibition by Janneth Gil

'Our Voices' exhibition by Janneth Gil

XCHC: Any exciting projects coming up in the near future?

HW: We’ve got a really exciting show about freshwater ecology coming from all over the country, it’s a big group show.  It’s such a topical issue, we’re hoping to have some panel discussions that open up conversation in a way that talks about how art can speak to those types of issues, but also how art can reinforce the importance of that kind of thing to people that wouldn’t normally have an interest. 

From around April next year we’ve got the chance to be in a more permanent space in the city, but between now and then we want to make sure we keep good things happening so that people know where we are and that we’re still doing stuff.  

XCHC: Is there anything else you want to talk about?

HW: In terms of timeframes, people will say oh that thing was only around for a couple years, it’s such a shame, but I think that’s just the natural progression of things to begin and end.  Creative people that are doing things are the ones that you want to have around, and artist run spaces anywhere in the country have a lifespan for a lot of reasons.  Creative people don’t generally stay in one place.  

It’s easy to do things that are temporary, but it’s a lot harder to do something longterm and sustainable.  [In Situ] has been considered transitional.  Then when we hit the two year mark, we weren’t really anymore, but we still don’t fit into any other category because our revenue streams aren’t sustainable enough to be considered permanent.  There’s no bridging for that, there’s no in-between. It takes commitment from corporates and other large-scale organisations.  People need to consider investment into arts and community organisations as something a bit more strategic than it seems at face value. It’s not just about giving money, but about how you can leverage it with your brand and your staff enjoyment.  With a gallery space, you have things on walls but the rest is empty space that you can use for anything.  So if a corporate entity sponsors an exhibition that they’re interested in, they could have the opportunity to run client evenings and team-building with their staff, use it as a venue.  Sure, the arts community is small, but we’re very loyal, it’s about forming those connections. 

Arts and community organisations can get a lot of flack for the perception of what they are or aren’t doing, but I think that in Christchurch the arts are doing really well.  We’ve got some incredible people in the city and we just need to do everything we can to encourage them to stay here, and make things easier for them while they are here. Give them opportunities.  Be flexible in that their skills may be incredibly useful in any organisation, but for them to want to stick around they need to have the time and resources to do their own things.