The Ups and Downs of Working Freelance: Being Told to Write Text for the “Lowest Common Denominator”
When I was researching information for the 1996 Pioneers and Patrons exhibition, I had numerous meetings with Laura Hamilton, who was the Curator of the Collins Gallery, at the University of Strathclyde. As time progressed, I began to realise that she really did not share my enthusiasm for the theme of the show. Hamilton even told me, after I had discussed some – what I considered to be quite revelatory and significant – facts about the history and development of Strathclyde, in its evolution from Anderson’s Insitution, that “some of us have lives, you know!”
Worse things were still to come, but one of the big surprises arose after I presented some of the draft text for the proposed publication. I was told that the public (i.e. the people who went to see the exhibtions at the Collins Gallery) were not interested in things like the dates of individuals’ lives; of institutions; or even major events in the history of Strathclyde and its precursors. Hamilton’s comments about a couple of paragraphs on James Tassie, and the commission he received from Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, were an eye-opener for me.
“You have to write the text for the lowest common denominator”, she explained. I thought this strange, and also extremely worrying, coming from an employee of a university. To me, these comments were extremely patronising, and an insult to potential visitors to the exhibition. I was told to insert an exclamation mark after the amount Catherine paid Tassie, as this would make it more of an eye-catching headline, as used in the tabloid press. I couldn’t quite believe she was being serious, but she was. This was only the beginning of a very strange journey for my first exhibtion and my first publication.