What kind of a year has 2019 been for you?
In a word: eventful! I curated the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale; I started a new job as Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery; I completed my first year as a trustee of Gasworks, a non-profit-making arts organisation and provider of artists’ studios that I truly care about; and wrote my first children’s book with Tate on artist Frank Bowling (and a second children’s title about another artist on the way! Watch this space…). ‘Soul of a Nation’, which I co-curated with Mark Godfrey in my previous role as curator of international art at Tate Modern, continues to tour the USA so myself and Mark are working on its finale for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Venice in particular has been almost indescribable. As a city, it’s rightly become a symbol of how urgently and collectively we have to address climate change. As a cultural endeavour, having spent so much time there these past 18 months, Venice has only deepened my respect for artists and the communities they create. I learned so much from my ‘neighbours’ in the French Pavilion and I have such affection for Laure Prouvost and curator Martha Kirszenbaum, as well as their collaborators Nicolas Faubert and Bamar Kane.
The same is true for my friends who curated the Welsh and Scottish pavilions of Sean Edwards and Charlotte Prodger, respectively. Throughout the very soggy month of April, Venice totally felt like an artists’ village. I’ll never forget the camaraderie and the genuine goodwill. So many people worked so hard side by side. It was just a real pleasure to be there to witness it all coming together.
What has changed for the better?
The apparent capacity for institutional change comes to mind. Artists are perpetual questioners of the status quo, of course. But as evidenced by this year’s Turner Prize outcome, it’s incredibly inspiring to learn from artists that the way things have always been doesn’t ever have to dictate the way things can be. That institutions are more willing to embrace new modes of being and doing shows that it is possible to adapt, refresh and improve established approaches.
A lot of attention in the international press has focused on ‘discovering’ an older generation of African American artists who have borne the benign (and not-so-benign) neglect of many mainstream museums and galleries. As photographer Dawoud Bey has pointed out, black artists have been making work both in and out of the limelight. It’s not a new discovery. There’s a lot more to be done to sustain the interest and to ensure that our institutions are inclusive in word and in deed, from the board rooms where decisions are made to what’s shown on the walls and plinths. Still, I’m encouraged by a lot of artist-led change this year.
What do you wish had happened this year, but didn’t?
Seems a good moment to dust off Helen Cammock’s answer from last year: “That the Brexit process had been quashed and that the increase in right-wing politics across the world had been acknowledged for what they are and halted.”
What would you characterise as your major achievement this year and why?
Being part of the jury for the 25th Paul Hamlyn Awards for Artists feels like a major achievement because I tend to think of success as something that doesn’t happen alone. It’s always built on what’s come before. To join other voices in championing artists at pivotal stages in their careers is why I do this work and I honestly felt like I’d won something being asked to take part.
Is there anything you’d like to have done this year but haven’t?
I find it very difficult to say ‘no’ to things and have spread myself pretty thinly this year. The most truthful answer I can give is that I’d have liked to have asked for fewer deadline extensions on catalogue essays! I’m still working through the backlog. One of my New Year’s resolutions should definitely be to do less but I get really excited by collaborating and there are so many great projects out there so I do my best to make time wherever I can for the artists I am excited by.
What would make 2020 a better year than 2019?
It’s taken 20 years of cajoling but my husband has finally agreed that we can adopt a dog. Our daughter and I are over the moon. 2020 will be Year of the Dog in our house.
1. Zoe Whitley. Credit: Takis Zontiros
2. Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, dimensions variable, mixed media, 2012
3. Winners of Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards for Artists 2019. Left to right: Larry Achiampong, Laura Jurd, Ingrid Pollard, Mark Lockheart, Harold Offeh, Adam Christensen, Phoebe Boswell, Shiori Usui and Nathaniel Mann. Photo: Emile Holba