Sensory curation with the Pyramid Open Show 2021


Themed around creative responses to a unique sensory call out of the colour orange, the sound of pink noise, and the word ‘ouch!’ Gill Crawshaw takes a look at an innovative curation process developed by the Leeds-based arts collective Pyramid.

Lockdown life has at least delivered us a glut of online exhibitions. I’ve been getting my art fix by visiting virtual galleries and festivals around the world. Presentation styles differ, and exhibitions range in size from boutique to blockbuster. Some are overwhelming in scale and scope, others are more like sitting down with a book, there’s so much reading involved. This isn’t what I want from an art exhibition.

Taking a tour through the Pyramid Open Show 2021 is a very different experience. Words, particularly written words, are kept to a minimum. The team who curated this project has taken a unique, sensory approach to the whole process of organising and presenting an exhibition. The end result is a strong selection of art that, to use a cliche, speaks for itself.

Digital artwork showing two large abstract artworks within an online gallery space with an empty floor and ceiling

Diana Terry and Henny Burnett

Pyramid is a Leeds-based arts collective which invests in learning disabled artists, through one-to-one and group support. Their members regularly show their work, in solo and group exhibitions, and alongside other artists’ work. Pyramid has become a well respected organisation in Leeds and beyond. Taking on the role of curating is a new challenge, but one they’ve been thinking about for a while. Rather than let the pandemic postpone the idea any longer, their first open exhibition is taking place online. A small group formed the Curation Circle and of course they have carried out all the planning, decision-making and delivery of the project online too.

The members of the Curation Circle are Ella Schofield, Sam Metz, James Mabbett and Pamela Crowe. I was interested to learn more about how they had curated the exhibition. Talking to them has given me lots to think about and ideas that I want to incorporate into my own curating, influenced by their innovative approach.

The team includes learning disabled and neurodiverse curators, which shouldn’t be unusual but, as we know, it is. Working as a team and valuing everyone’s input and ideas equally, they were bound to do things differently! From the beginning, they decided to prioritise non-verbal communication and to take a sensory approach to curating. Suggested by Sam Metz, this links to their research into legitimising alternative communication, with a focus on neurodiversity and learning disability. The whole team embraced the opportunity to try something new.

The sensory call-out was intriguing. Artists were asked to respond to the colour orange, the sound of pink noise and the word Ouch! A video of these three elements was at the heart of the call-out. No further explanation was needed, the call-out felt accessible and engaging, as well as a bit mysterious and definitely unusual. Artists love the unusual, so it’s perhaps not surprising that over 350 artists submitted their work.

Digital artwork showing two large abstract artworks within a large online gallery space with an empty floor and ceiling


Some open exhibitions show all the work that artists submit. Fortunately for the audience, this wasn’t the case with the Pyramid Open. It did leave the Curation Circle with a huge task of carefully considering all submissions. In the end, they selected seven artists: alabamathirteen, Henny Burnett, Honestly Casual Projects, Yael Kaplan, Katherine Lubar, Gabriel Massan and Diana Terry (actually one of the seven is a pair of artists).

I asked the curators whether they thought it was important to include disabled or neurodiverse artists in their selection, but immediately realised that this was the wrong question! If discovering the work of disabled artists is something that is important to you, as it is for me, then there are enough clues within this exhibition to tell you that yes, some of these artists are disabled or neurodiverse. Others might be, but we can’t be sure. The sensory call-out encouraged a diverse range of artists to compete fairly, without many of the barriers that prevent participation. This diversity is reflected in the exhibition.

There are in fact some words, both spoken and written, in the exhibition. Image descriptions accompany all the artworks, and there are brief instructions at the entrance. Honestly Casual Projects’ film can be viewed with or without narration and audio, which can also be listened to separately. There are short statements and films from each of the artists.

The online platform used for the Pyramid Open is Artsteps. A lot of curators use this, as it allows you to install an exhibition in a virtual gallery, with rooms and spaces that you can customise. I must admit that I have sometimes found Artsteps exhibitions difficult to navigate and I’ve ended up stuck in a corner or staring at a virtual ceiling. So I really appreciated the guided tour that is available here, which takes you round the whole exhibition at a comfortable pace, with the ability to pause at any point. I’m now curious about trying Artsteps out myself. The possibilities it offers, such as taking an online exhibition ‘on tour’ by installing it on other websites, or showing it on screen at a real-life venue, are exciting. But what do you think of Artsteps? I’d be very interested to hear your views.

It’s ironic that I’ve written so many words about the Pyramid Open, which prioritises non-verbal communication and engages all the senses. And it’s a good thing that the artworks speak for themselves, as I’ve run out of words to mention more than one!

For me, the sensory concept of the exhibition is encompassed in one artist’s work. I could practically feel and hear Henny Burnett’s sculpture Pink Chords, Orange Circles and Painful Pins through the screen. Smooth baby pink plaster contrasts with neon orange discs and a surface covered with pins. I can imagine stroking this and hearing the rasp of the pins. In fact, I can easily imagine this whole show as a ‘real-life’ sensory exhibition, it would be amazing.

Digital artwork showing an online gallery with three large images of a sculpture consisting of semi-circular forms with hairs extending from an orange felt surface.

Henny Burnett

The Pyramid Curation Circle has reminded us that art is very often a form of non-verbal communication that can move us, without extra layers of interpretation. Their sensory approach to curation empowers the artists and liberates their artworks by letting them communicate without the need for words.

The Pyramid Open Show is online until 26th March at