VAMALGAM 7 - Behind the Exhibition

(Title banner artwork: Lady, a by Antonio Di Benedetto, photography / 2015)

May Teixeira graduated in Fine Arts and holds a Master degree in the processes of engraving. Lithographs have always been her favourite artistic method, but she has spent a few years ranging between etchings and xylographs. Those were small format prints on which she would spend a great deal of time trying to perfect tiny details carved in a small piece of wood. Lately, May has been working in a much more spontaneous way. Usually with ink drawings mixed with oil pastels.

May also organised the staff exhibition of artworks at the V&A, VAMALGAM 7.  We're delighted to share with you now, her story about bringing this exhibition together in a blizzard of challenges.

 VAMALGAM 7, photograph by Andrew Gomez

VAMALGAM 7, photograph by Andrew Gomez

The Victoria & Albert museum has over 50 departments and 700 staff members. When I started working in the Visitor Experience department in 2013. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all; the old, secret basement tunnels, its vast number of galleries and the amount of staff circulating and emerging from every obscure door the galleries tend to hide. It was a lot to get to know and so much to be part of.

I started as a Gallery Assistant just after the last edition of the Staff Art Exhibition (VAMALGAM 6). The staff canteen wall was full of all these different and amazing artworks. Talents, hidden within the museum offices and locker rooms. 

I was annoyed that I had just missed the show submissions and was looking forward to the following year, when I could be part of it.

The New Year came but no new edition of the show was advertised.  I was really disappointed. I wanted to find out who was responsible for it, who I needed to speak to, who I had to convince the exhibition needed to happen again.

By then it was 2014 and a number of changes had occurred in my life that year. I was being promoted to a Visitor Experience Supervisor in time for the preparations for the opening of Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition. It was huge! Both events had such an impact in my life…

But, to understand how I came to be involved in the VAMALGAM 7 and why these two events had such a big impact on me, we first have to go back a little bit further and tell a brief story.

In 2006 I was finishing my Master degree in Uni, I was living in Rio de Janeiro, had a great job in one of the most prestigious contemporary art museums in Brazil and, I was very much in love. My girlfriend at the time dropped a small bombshell, saying she would have to go to New Zealand for 7 months. ‘Everything will be fine’ – she said. ‘Nothing will change’.  I believed her, partially because I was just super naïve, partially because that’s what people do when they’re in love, they believe in happy outcomes, in impossible things.

7 months later she was still there, and with little or no plans to come back. Regardless, we were still ‘together’.  I say together, but I must emphasise how long-distance relationships really just don’t work, then again… I was still in love with her so I was convinced we could make it happen.

So when she called me to say it was over, I found it hard to accept.  In fact, I didn’t accept it at all. Consequently, in the course of that same month, I had put all my little (but precious) belongings up for sale and bought a one-way ticket to Auckland, New Zealand. If she wanted to break up with me, she would have to do it in my face… (How mature).

I arrived in Auckland, settled in my 12 bunk-bed room, managed to mumble a few words in English with a few hostel soon-to-be-friends and waited.  The next day, my girlfriend, or ex, depends how you see it, came to see me.

No regrets and demonstrations of love, no now-that-I-see-you-I-know-that-I-really-love-you type situation.  She just, dumped me.

I was on the other side of the world, the money I had was pretty much the remains of all that I had in life, I spoke very little English… (Ok, to make clear, we are talking about: help, yes, no, where’s the toilet? – essential, emergency words only). I had left my family, my friends, the job that I thought would make my career and also had to deal with the natural effects of a not-so-typical heartbreak.

Just settling in for a hard time ahead, I decided to make myself slightly more ‘comfortable’ by changing from a 12 bunk bed to a reasonable 6 bunk bed room. In that new room, I met a person that would change my life forever (again). I fell in love and we got married in New Zealand roughly 2 years later.

There, now that you know this story, we can go back to 2015 when, most say inevitably, this same marriage, had started crumbling down.

 VAMALGAM 7, being installed, photograph by May Teixeira

VAMALGAM 7, being installed, photograph by May Teixeira

We were super busy at the museum, Alexander McQueen took all the time and strength that we had, on top of all of it I was put in charge of all the Gallery Assistants roster, a job to be carried out on top of all the operational duties.  It was insanely stressful. Coming back home itself was a struggle after running around the museum all day long and trying to keep up with a week’s ahead of planning. Between all that madness, the gallery assistants started to stop me while I was running between tasks, asking when we would have a new edition of the staff show, constantly telling me about all these talents that urged to be expressed and displayed.

At this point, while struggling with the most painful heartbreak I’ve ever had to deal with and the lack of life that being at home entailed, I decided that maybe organizing the show myself would be a good idea if I wanted to move my life out of the apathy and tiresome cycle it had become.

The idea was growing and growing inside my head every day.  It was actually good to think about something else apart from the usual self-absorbing feelings that dumped people tend to be dominated by.  It was actually making me better, happy, just thinking about the exhibition.

I knew it was going to be a massive challenge, but definitely rewarding. I met with Phil Sopher, who had organised the previous editions of the show, just before he left the V&A.

Saying all the right things, he managed to make me even more excited about the whole experience. He passed on all the documents and files for the past VAMALGAM editions and off he went.  I promptly wrote a proposal and after a few weeks of begging, the Senior Management Team gave me the green light.

 Brilliant team of technicians, photograph by May Teixeira

Brilliant team of technicians, photograph by May Teixeira

Phil was right.  Organising the exhibition balanced between having all the amazing response from the museum staff I never met; the reward of knowing first hand that the V&A had this cluster of hidden talents (which was a surprise every time I’d read through a submission) and trying to cope with the considerable extra duties.

Of course I would get home and still have to deal with the tiredness, the loneliness, the heartbreak, life, but now I would find myself looking forward to forgetting it all and just concentrating on processing submissions and on finding ways of making the show a success.

I was literally, buried in paperwork.  I would start my shift at the Visitor Experience Department one hour before I was actually meant to be there (keep in mind that I live 2 hours away). Rushing through making appointments, sending emails to try and get dates confirmed and dealing with all the enquiries about what can be displayed, what couldn’t and I-want-my-family-to-attend-the-opening requests. When the deadline for the submissions ended, I had 98 submissions at hand. The record of submissions in previous shows was 84, a clear indication that staff had been craving to take part in the event for a long time.

 Install is complete, long before the working day begins... photograph by May Teixeira

Install is complete, long before the working day begins... photograph by May Teixeira

To actually get all of the artworks delivered was a whole new monster.  The logistics of transporting artworks from staff at the Museum of Childhood and Blythe House to the V&A in South Kensington were particularly challenging.  One entrant put her painting on the postal courier van, only to have it disappear for a week! When the painting was finally located again, she came straight to the office to deliver it in person and I, checking if all the specifications were met, slid my hand through the bubble wrap only to quickly remove it, blood pouring down my fingers… The glass in the frame had broken without her realising. First Aid room here I go, with a faint heart, for her and for me (I never could stand blood very much).

Once home I quickly slipped into my routine: have a long hot shower to wash the complaints, and occasional abuse, from the museum front of house away; pour a (generous) glass of wine, with my recently properly bandaged hand; start reviewing all the next day deliveries; and text messaging all of them with a kind reminder. I mean, that’s some serious organising!

When I finally managed to get all of the artworks delivered, I had to start thinking about carefully opening and photographing each one of them for the exhibition catalogue before the technician’s deadline of installation. I was cutting time extremely short, but it was actually one of the most fun parts of the whole process! I set up a (very) amateur photo studio in the basement of the museum and with an easel, improvised lighting and a tripod I started to visually record all artworks. There were technicians, curators, emergency response teams, gallery assistants, all of them passing through that scene probably thinking ‘who the hell is this mad person and what is she doing hiding in the basement taking pictures of paintings I’ve never seem in the museum?’ I laugh just remembering their faces.

 Everything and everyone comes together for the private view of VAMALGAM 7, photograph by May Teixeira

Everything and everyone comes together for the private view of VAMALGAM 7, photograph by May Teixeira

The date of the exhibition opening was set, I managed to raise enough money to offer a morning tea breakfast for all staff. I was nervous, after all that work, it was like having a mini panic attack just thinking about it.

Beth McKillop, the museum Deputy Director came to the show to officially open and address the artists. I was there biting my fingers silently, just thinking: ‘I am so exhausted’, but so incredibly proud.

It was a success. More than a success…it was an achievement, a concrete statement that behind all the work that a museum team does to deliver amazing exhibitions for members of the public, they can also get together to show their own talent, their own shouts of expression, their own ways of being artists.

It not only made being a part of the exhibition a reality for me, but it dragged me out of a stupor of personal sadness; it put me in contact with wonderful people just a few doors away from my office, people I’d never exchanged a simple ‘good morning’ with before. It taught me how rewarding it can be to create something from scratch and fight for it to become a reality, but most of all, it gave me encouragement to carry on organising new editions and to make possible for V&A staff to show what amazing things they can do.

by May Teixeira, Visitor Experience Supervisor and Artist

We would like to thank May for telling us her story and showing us just some of the amazing things she can do. 

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  2010, xylograph in a top wood, 'three guitars' by May Teixeira.  Photograph shows both the final print as well as the matrix.

2010, xylograph in a top wood, 'three guitars' by May Teixeira. 
Photograph shows both the final print as well as the matrix.


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