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In the world of theatre, a “triple threat” is a performer who can act, sing and dance. In the world of photography, a “triple threat” is Kat Kiernan, photographer, writer/editor and curator. As someone who understands the field from so many angles, I was delighted when I heard that Panopticon Gallery in Boston would be re-opening under her direction. With their inaugural show “At Sea” recently opened, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to introduce – or re-introduce – Boston to the dynamo Kat Kiernan!
Can you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to Boston?
Twice in my life I have called Boston home. The first time, I was pursuing my BFA in Photography and Art History from The Art Institute of Boston (now called Lesley University College of Art and Design). I am now back in The Hub, this time as the Director of Panopticon Gallery. In between, I owned and operated a photography gallery in Lexington, Virginia before becoming Assistant Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York City. I now split my time between Boston and Brooklyn as a way to expand the gallery’s reach and clientele. In addition to these endeavors, I also publish the print and online photography magazine Don’t Take Pictures.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
My thesis show was the first exhibition I ever produced. After four years of presenting prints tacked to a cork board to my peers, I had to present a curated experience for an audience. I found the process fascinating and I took it very seriously. I had to decide whose work would show well with mine and make choices for framing, exhibition labels, lighting, wall text, show cards, and even what wine to serve. I invited the press and galleries that I admired which led to a rave review in DigBoston.
Six months after my thesis show, I opened The Kiernan Gallery. During its three years of operation I produced nearly 40 exhibitions both in the gallery and in alternative venues. I opened the space to give emerging artists like myself a place to show their work and I often guided them through the process of framing, shipping, and promoting a show.
What do you regard as your biggest mistake as a curator and what did you learn from it? What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a curator?
Early on I made the mistake of assuming that people would care about the shows I was curating. That sounds cynical, but it isn’t meant to be. The truth is that no one will ever care about your project as much as you will. This is just a fact. It is challenging to engage audiences with an exhibition when there are so many other shows to see and great art is always available online. I remind myself every day that the biggest things in my life are not the biggest things in anyone else’s life and I strive to create exhibitions and events that entice people to look up from their screens and walk through the gallery door.
A national trend that seems to have accelerated recently is the downsizing or shuttering of traditional galleries. This has certainly been true in Boston. How do you view the debut of a new Panopticon Gallery in light of the movement away from a traditional storefront model? What do you think a photography gallery must do to make itself relevant in today’s digital society?
While a significant number of galleries have closed in the last few years, many have opened. Unfortunately, the opening of a new gallery isn’t dwelt upon nearly as much as a closure. This can create a “doomsday” narrative about the commercial art world, whether truthful or not. The nature of the art market is changing at every level, and that is creating both challenges and opportunities for artists, galleries, collectors, and enthusiasts.
Some of the galleries that have closed had an unsustainable business model. In my experience, galleries are often slow to adopt new technologies and marketing strategies. I don’t have any explanation for why that is other than to say that there can be an elitist attitude in the commercial art market. For some galleries, not everyone is seen as worthy of being treated like a potential collector, and that attitude can manifest itself in a reluctance to embrace social media, advertising, online sales platforms, and most importantly—cultivating new collectors. It is important to embrace digital technologies that create connections with people outside of your own network.
Panopticon is located inside Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. While this may be an unconventional place for an art gallery, its unique location means that hundreds of people walk through our gallery every day. No one feels the need to whisper, or worry about asking stupid questions, because the environment is so unintimidating. We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week—although no one will be at the desk to talk with you at 3:00 in the morning. In cities where space is at a premium and high rents are listed as the number one reason for the closure of mid-size galleries, I think that we could all benefit from sharing space with other businesses. All it can do is broaden your audience.
Just as galleries have been shrinking, there has been a recent proliferation of independent book publishers that feature a small selection of imprints per year. Do you think there is a relationship between these two trends? Why do you publish both hardcopy and digital versions of your magazine and do you think this will be the future of photography books, too?
For most people, wall space and art-buying dollars are limited. Because we are comfortable with photography existing as reproductions, buying a photobook is seen as an acceptable way to collect photography in a way that buying a book of paintings or sculptures is not. For some gallerists-turned-publishers, I think there is the added appeal in a photobook’s ability to reach a geographically diverse audience in a way that a brick-and-mortar gallery cannot.
Publishing books is quite different from publishing a magazine. I’m not going to pretend to be a book publisher. Don’t Take Pictures and Don’t Take Pictures Online serve different purposes, and sometimes different audiences. A subscriber to the hard copy magazine will spend time with in-depth artist features and critical writing. A printed issue can live on a bookshelf where it can be revisited at any time. Don’t Take Pictures Online, by the nature of the internet, is more about the moment. What kinds of trends are happening, what exhibitions are going on, what opportunities are available for artists, etc. I think that’s the nature of print vs. screen—at least for now. One is more timeless and the other can be topical and up-to-the-minute.
As someone new to the region, what do you find most unique and exciting about the Boston photography scene?
I am both new and not new to the region. When I first moved to Boston a decade ago, I had a student’s perspective. Since returning, I see the multitudes of colleges as one of the most unique and exciting things about the city. There are so many lectures, exhibitions, and events happening at these institutions—usually for free—that I can hardly keep up.
To read my review of the current Panopticon Gallery group exhibit, At Sea, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/panopticon-gallery-boston-at-sea-group-photo-show/
Feature Image: Kat Kiernan installs the inaugural exhibit At Sea at Panopticon Gallery.