To preface a new ongoing series exploring relationships between artists and their collaborators, we asked some of today’s most interesting curators for insights into their practices.
Growth of independent curators and curatorial agencies within the UK over the last decade is no accident. Generated in part as a response to inherent constraints within the traditional gallery and museum world and development of specialist curatorial courses, it has undeniably brought fresh perspectives to artist-curator relationships and, increasingly, supports those practitioners seeking to move across into curation as a natural extension of their visual arts practice.
Levels of engagement
Talking about how she works with artists, independent curator Sue Jones says: “I look for artists who take risks with their work and who are continually challenging themselves. I see curating as a form of research, and I take a collaborative approach. Projects often take years to research and I like that pace, it allows interesting things to develop. What I’m passionate about as a curator is working with artists on new works, which are often complex and difficult. I’m a really hands-on curator.“
A strategic approach is also taken by General Public Agency’s Clare Cumberlidge, who with over twenty years experience has accumulated a range of research methods for locating artists. “GPA rarely develops discrete commissions: the projects and relationships evolve and are fluid – there are myriad levels of engagement. It’s critical to be working with artists all of the time. We create interdisciplinary teams working with GPA and on particular projects.”
Adelaide Bannerman, whose main curatorial interest focuses on highlighting performative gestures and responses in live and visual performance art, echoes these sentiments: “My approach is initially based on personal observations or questions that I might have about their work to initiate exchanges with them. The duration of this encounter varies. If a project develops out of this period, it is usually based around the artist’s current areas of interest and research, or through a mutually-agreed approach towards pursuing a particular inquiry.
Rosalind Stoddart, Director of Fermynwoods says: “It’s very much about identifying artists who are at an interesting or significant time in their career." Artists for exhibitions and residency projects may be selected by internal or external curators, from open submissions – she advertises in a-n – as well as from artists’ own proposals. She too looks to build collaborations over time, so that development can be nurtured and sustained. Getting the right balance in the curator-artist relationship is crucial.
Live Art Development Agency generates curatorial projects: everything they do however is premised on strategic aims and objectives, whether working with institutions on developing new programme strands or new audiences, or with artists to develop new projects or cultural contexts. Lois Keidan comments: “Although notions of risk underpin all our work, identifying the artist for a project and the appropriate level of risk is totally dependent on the context they will work in. In the case of Live Culture at Tate Modern the risk was about positioning live art in a major museum and not about commissioning new pieces or working with emergent artists. And so in this context we worked with artists such as Forced Entertainment, Franko B and La Ribot on presenting existing pieces that were of extraordinary quality and standing. On other occasions when we are creating contexts for emergent artists, we will select work on an open submissions basis and present work we have not seen before by artists we do not know, and that’s the point.”
For most curators, research is an everyday activity and peer recommendation plays a part. For Sara Black at ProjectBase, peer recommendation works in two distinct ways: dialogue within peer groupings – including participation in online networks, meetings and attending seminars etc – and through indirect recommendation, observing where, with and whom artists and curators have collaborated. Whilst some new graduates report that they feel curators are unapproachable, “on a pedestal, to be worshipped and feared from afar rather than a person with whom to establish a dialogue”, Sue Jones describes her style of curating as “subtle and often invisible”. She likes to let the work speak for itself and to be the main attraction. “I’m not keen on over-curated, over-determined exhibitions”.
Indra Khanna is a curator at Autograph ABP and has also curated challenging and unusual projects independently and works as administrator to Hew Locke. She moved into arts administration and then curating after taking undergraduate and post-graduate fine art degrees. When working on a group show, she feels that the curator has a responsibility to the group as a whole, and to ensure the exhibition is coherent. Apart from the quality of work, her criteria for selecting artists is that she has to be able to work with them as people. “I look to work with artists who are reliable, professional, do what they say they will. Because of some past experiences, I’ve had to become stricter. Now, I’m going to ask artists to sign a letter of agreement, to ensure everything is clear”.
Projects that embrace risk, for Sara Black, succeed on many levels. “Over the years, all of the projects I have worked on have had elements of risk, but commissioning off-site adds a further dimension. Working with SUPERFLEX on a project in 2007 provided the opportunity to create a new work in Cornwall, working in partnership with Tate St Ives, touring the project to Tate Liverpool and Tate Britain which raised the profile of projects commissioned out of ‘the centre’.”
The curators we spoke to often cited collaboration – a meeting of minds, energies and aspirations forged through in-depth dialogue – as a core ingredient in the projects they develop. Sue Jones confirms: “For me conversations are crucial. Because I’m interested always in making new work with artists, often over a long period, it’s important to know that we can work together, there needs to be chemistry. Often research on artists is long term. I might see the work of an artist, keep in touch with what’s happening with their work, but the right opportunity might come up five years after I first saw the work”.
For Sara Black: “Collaboration and dialogue [are core conditions] within site-based commissions that require intense periods of work in-situ, therefore a workable relationship between the curator/commissioner and artist is vital to development of the exchange.” Working in Cornwall, a rural location that requires a considerable effort to travel from and to, she believes there’s a need and responsibility to develop and support infrastructure in the locale – supporting artist practice – creating and enabling but not necessarily as curator or producer but as a collaborator or partner, as contributor.
Live Art Development Agency’s ongoing Performing Rights programmes were developed from a 2006 partnership with Queen Mary, University of London, East End Collaborations and Performance Studies international, and continue as a collaboration with US/UK performance artist Lois Weaver who is also Professor of Drama at Queen Mary. Performing Rights reflects the kinds of creative strategies artists are using to effect social, cultural and political change; to illustrate new models of relationships between art and activism; and to consider the role and responsibilities of artists, curators, and performance itself, in the understanding, enactment and sustenance of human rights. Events include performances, presentations, screenings, lectures and discussions, and installations. The Library of Performing Rights – www.performingrightslibrary.org – is an ever expanding virtual and physical, resource arising from this interaction.
Indra Khanna agrees that relationships with artists need to have room to grow. Her project with Gayle Chong Kwan for Brixton Market in 2003 arose from an open submission. Later, within in her role at Autograph, she commissioned the artist to create the Cockaigne series of photographs that have been shown in seven venues to date. In some cases, the showing has generated additional commission opportunities for the artist alongside the exhibition. At the Great Eastern Hotel, the new work incorporated sound and video and a new photo work.
General Public Agency is a consultancy that delivers strategic public realm masterplanning as well as creative projects, for both the public and private sector. Commenting on the changing environment for the presentation of contemporary visual arts practice Clare Cumberlidge points to the cultural shift nowadays towards interdisciplinary within practice – the forms and structures that have traditionally held practice are less relevant. Artists themselves have to find a space in which their work has integrity, creating a critical engagement with the conditions around it. They have to negotiate and find their own primary space. “People have to make it for themselves – to have confidence in the value of what they do.”
Sue Jones worked at Chisenhale Gallery for ten years until 2000, citing it as an exciting time, when contemporary art and the East End were both changing fast, and site-specific art was new. “The work I curated at Chisenhale with Tomoko Takahashi exceeded my expectations. I collaborated with small new media organisation e-2, to commission a work for the gallery that would also inhabit the space of the internet. Tomoko had little experience of computers or new media and came up with Word Perhect, a fully-functioning hand-drawn word processing software that has now been seen by millions of people online www.wordperhect.net. As word processing software becomes more advanced, correcting syntax and spelling errors, Tomoko’s own software stands up against an imposed standardised corporate language and gives us a set of functioning but strangely altered tools. It was the first new-media work to be nominated for the Turner Prize. I really enjoyed the process of working on this project, and it opened my eyes to working in non-gallery contexts and presenting works to really wide audiences."
The Seafort Project with Stephen Turner typifies the way that Sue Jones now works. “The project was two years in the planning and required significant funding. The artist stayed on an old army seafort eight miles off the East Kent coast for six weeks, and sent back images and pieces of writing each day. The main outcome of the project was a book, www.seafort.org, that I was really pleased with, it’s beautiful."
Curator-artist relationships of the future may be affected by the demands of public funders that are often dubbed ‘risk averse’. Talking about the key issues for the visual arts world nowadays, Adelaide Bannerman feels that: “There are artistic practices under threat of being compromised because they don’t fulfill the ever-changing criteria of public funding. This threatens the possibility of developing and engaging with challenging practices. To what extent changes announced in April to criteria for Arts Council England’s Grants for the arts1, that place the emphasis on generating artistic excellence and audience development, will impact on curator-artist initiatives remains to be assessed.
Indra Khanna, however, wonders whether there may be too many artists: “It’s become fashionable to be an artist. But she agrees that it’s good that artists themselves are curating shows, but warns that “artist-curators do need to guard against projects that appear to have little curatorial rigor and are ‘work by them and their friends’.”
For Sue Jones the main issue, as always, is proceeding with creative and challenging ideas, charting unmapped territory, “in the knowledge that you may fail but doing it anyway rather than playing safe. The globalisation of the art world has, however, created a different professional landscape for artists to mediate and the growth of the art market in the UK has changed things significantly for artists over the last twenty years. When I started at Chisenhale Gallery in 1990 there were four galleries in London’s East London (Chisenhale, Matt’s Gallery, Interim Art and The Showroom) and distinctions between various sectors were clear. The sheer number of galleries now, and the cross over between sectors – artist run collective spaces and alternative spaces that sell for example – have created different sorts of opportunities for artists”.
Lois Keidan of Live Art Development Agency feels that: “So much nowadays seems to come back to money and it is amazing that artists can even afford to make art without subsidy or patronage. Within this, ideas of success are problematic and when looking at the goings on in the art market it’s no surprise that students are receiving mixed messages about what constitutes success – financial value has become conflated with cultural value in some circles and this is inevitably difficult for ephemeral time based practices. She feels that although the live art scene is very good for new and young artists who can easily access a range of support structures such as platforms, entry level advice, and bursaries, there is still comparatively a lack of artistic and professional development resources for mid-career and mature artists – artists who have developed a voice and body of work and need a more considered kind of support, that can make a big difference to artists’ work and lives at a crucial time.
For Sara Black the burning issue remains: “The need for new, often temporary spaces, the movement ‘out of centre’ and expansion of new multiple centres around UK.” These are hugely beneficial and will have wider impact – creating access to contemporary art, developing new and existing audiences. Opportunity for artists living and working in one location to have dialogue with other artists creates local/global conversation. She notes, however, that “Funding is a major issue and concern that forces artists and collaborators to reconsider the ways in which contemporary art can create change in the wider cultural sector and in other sectors, and can harness [input from] other sectors, for the benefit of contemporary art.”
The future also lies in creating heightened awareness and debate around the contexts for presenting and enabling contemporary visual arts practice. a-n’s role as an initiator and enabler of new research – such as Charlotte Frost’s2 recent exposition of the catalytic but often ‘invisible’ role of interdisciplinary production agencies including Artsadmin Electra, Forma and Furtherfield.org – is located within this imperative. ProjectBase is a collaborator with Situations and Dartington College of Art (now merged with University College Falmouth) on Locating the Producers, a three-year research project exploring the issues around commissioning to include interviews with producers covering a diverse range of commissioning opportunity, addressing key questions such as future contexts and engagements around practice. Collaborations like these are essential if visual arts is to thrive in what is likely to be a lean period, exacerbated by economic recession and Olympic largesse.
Susan Jones, FRSA, Director of Programmes, a-n The Artists Information Company, is a researcher and published writer on contemporary visual arts practice and issues. Recent research includes Art work 2007 and Professional practice and work-based learning, paper for 2008 Paradox European Fine art conference go to www.a-n.co.uk/a-n_briefings
1 Information on new Grants for the arts criteria applicable from 20 May is on www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding
2 see www.a-n.co.uk/production_lines for her essay, profiles and related published articles.
A former artist, Susan Jones is a published writer and researcher on the visual arts and Director and Publisher, a-n The Artists Information Company.
First published: a-n Magazine May 2008
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