Earlier this year, a cohort of curators took part in a-n Curator Bursaries: Exploring Northern Ireland 2024. Designed to encourage UK-wide exchange and collaboration, the trip connected curators with artists and colleagues in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry, opening opportunities for talent exchange.

PS2, our programme partner, played matchmaker, arranging 1:1 studio visits for the visiting curators with artists based in Belfast. The itinerary, which included tours of artist-run spaces and galleries as well as opportunities for sight-seeing and socialising, encouraged conversation, reflection, discussion and debate, helping curators to develop their research, networks and knowledge of visual arts in Northern Ireland.

Natalia Palombo, curator, director and consultant, was part of the cohort. Currently Director of Many Studios, a creative organisation in Glasgow, Natalia also directed Deveron Projects, Huntly, Scotland between 2021-2024. Here she discusses the impact of her visit to Northern Ireland, what she has learnt about the Northern Ireland art ecology and how she hopes to develop the relationships she built.

a-n Curator Bursaries: Exploring Northern Ireland, 2024. Photo: Jan McCullough 

How do you feel your trip to Northern Ireland has contributed to your career as a curator?

This trip has been really significant. I’m in a moment of change and a really exciting point in my career. Over the last eight years I’ve been directing fantastic organisations in Scotland, most recently, Deveron Projects. In 2023, I worked on the remodel of the leadership team as part of a wider transition for the organisation. As well as creating a more sustainable model for the organisation, stepping down from my role as director was an opportunity for me to take a step back from organising organisations (oh the admin!) and to reflect on my creative practice.

That’s a long way of saying that I was suddenly on my tod, and this trip, taking place just a few weeks after I finished up at Deveron Projects, was the perfect next step. Coming together with seven other curators from across the UK, to think, see and learn together was encouraging and inspiring as I was getting my head around freelance practice again.

What have you learnt about the Northern Ireland art ecology?

I wear two hats (and many other smaller hats, like most of us in the sector). One of those being curating/programming and the other creative workspace provision. In 2012, I founded what was initially quite an ad-hoc, informal artists’ studios called Many Studios, and I’ve been developing and directing the organisation since. Many Studios does many things but the main ambition has always been to create reliable workspace. This is really important to my practice.

Through events, studio visits and meetings, we got to visit a lot of different artists’ studios in Belfast including Vault, Creative Exchange, PS2, Flax, Array and QSS. I was surprised at how affordable studios are, relatively speaking, but obviously familiar with the precarity of these buildings/leases. Organisations are often operating on rolling monthly and informal leases with building owners, susceptible to being moved or put out altogether. It was brilliant to see so many studios in the city and to know that having a studio was fairly accessible for most artists at all points in their career, but how do we build sustainable practices (and peace of mind!) without long-term workspace?

a-n Curator Bursaries: Exploring Northern Ireland, 2024. Photo: Jan McCullough 

Workspace aside, I learnt that many artists are making work because they really need to. Our group kept talking about the ‘intensity’ of the trip. Part of that was a reflection on a fantastic, busy schedule – packing 40+ meetings into five days. But for me, it was also something I said in lieu of better ways to acknowledge difficult issues threaded through our conversations and in the artworks. Namely, the recent history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and, separately but likely connected, the policing and control of women’s bodies.

It was intense, it was moving, inspiring and upsetting to continually see work that borrows visual language from police surveillance and security, like the work by Leopold Kessler and Shiro Masuyama at Golden Thread Gallery; and the constant resistance to the lack of autonomy and power that women still have over their bodies, for example through Jennifer Trouton’s powerful and beautiful tapestries and paintings.

Are there certain relationships that you developed that you would like to continue?

Since the trip, I’ve had the pleasure of hosting some of the Creative Exchange Artists Studios team during their recent research visit to Glasgow. I also had the chance to spend time with fellow a-n Curator Bursaries recipients Zoe Watson, Becca Clark and James Harper during Glasgow International.

I hope there will be opportunities to work with some the artists that I met in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry in the future, including Array Collective, Phillip McCrilly and Anushiya Sundaralingam, to name just a few. I am also keen to develop future partnerships with the organisations we connected with, such as Void, CCA Derry~Londonderry, Household, PS2 and Catalyst Arts; and new collaborations with our co-curators on the trip.

Through those artists, organisations and other peers, I had the opportunity to expand my own practice, taking new knowledge and experience into my work. I have a socially engaged practice. I’m interested in embedding participation and meaningful engagement in visual art practice, and I’ve often tried to do that by taking art – and exhibition-making – outside of typical gallery spaces. There are many examples of this in Northern Ireland. I was particularly inspired by Household, a collectively led organisation in Belfast that supports the production of art that connects people and place, led by artists and communities.

a-n Curator Bursaries: Exploring Northern Ireland, 2024. Photo: Jan McCullough 

What areas of the Northern Ireland arts ecology would you like to do more research in?

This is less of a curiosity and more of a fury. I’ve worked in the creative industries for almost 15 years and precarity in relation to funding and sustainability is woven through all my work. This is of course a global issue, but I was really surprised about how much less support is available for artists and arts organisations in Northern Ireland than in, for example, Scotland, England or Ireland. Over the last couple of years, Scotland has faced massive cuts to the arts, and we’ve had some success in advocating for the value of arts and culture at a government level through cross-sector collaboration. I know there is strength in partnership, community and solidarity and I hope we can extend that wider.

I’m also interested in how the history of Northern Ireland, and the Troubles particularly, has been a catalyst for social engagement within visual art practices there. On the one hand, it may be the case that there are more diverse audiences for contemporary art through that participatory and collaborative work, but some artists also suggested that there is now an expectation for artists to do reparatory and reconciliatory work with communities across the country. Social work, essentially. I’d be interested to get my head around this more.

a-n Curator Bursaries: Exploring Northern Ireland, 2024. Photo: Jan McCullough

What projects are you currently working on and what are your hopes for the future?

This week, a beautiful publication that I worked on at Deveron Projects has come to life, and I’d love people to read it. The Gathering Table is the culmination of a 12-month residency with artist and chef Kawther Luay, and many collaborators including Fionn Duffy and Colectivo Amasijo. The publication will launch with an online event and I think that people will be able to buy a copy after that, or download it digitally.

I’m also working on an artists book with Tiffany Boyle and Kayus Bankole which should be out this year. Delineate draws on the historical links between paper milling in Edinburgh, cotton and linen production, and colonial trade between Scotland and the rest of the world, with commissions and existing work by Alberta Whittle, Cassie Ejezi, Chizu Anucha, Daisy Desrosiers, Irineu Destourelles, Swapnaa Tamhane, Tabita Rezaire/Olaniyi Studio, and Tanatsei Gambura.

Lots of other wee projects, but I’m most looking forward to going to Italy for a couple of months at the end of the summer. I’ll be working with Villa Lena Foundation and the artists in residence to support and share practice, and hopefully do a bit of writing on frameworks for artists residencies and the role of hospitality within arts practice.

My hopes? I hope to be able to pay my bills. But most of all, I hope for a free Palestine.

Top image: a-n Curator Bursaries: Exploring Northern Ireland, 2024. Photo: Jan McCullough