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18 November 2012

The Art of Curating

Monday 12th November: Hmmmmm.... A visit to Langport was long overdue!

Seems I was not alone in this thinking and I was joined by a mighty [insert collective noun for a group of artists here] of artists at least 15 or more, who all had the same good idea to attend the workshop, ‘Creative Endeavours –a curatorial guide for artists in Somerset’ at SAW’s base of operations the Town Hall in Langport, yeah!

The session was aimed at artists and makers who may either wish to know about curating art, working with a curator and/or the process of exhibition making. But don’t take my word for it have a read of what the written guide has to say,

“This guide aims to support Somerset based artists and exhibition organisers who wish to introduce a curatorial element into their work. It aims to provide details of all aspects of developing an exhibition, from establishing a clear thematic to the installation of work and the standards of work expected. It provides an overview of what is expected from both artists and curators at each stage of the exhibition making process, including conceptualisation, planning, fundraising, exhibition presentation, and audience development. It aims to define curatorial expectations in a contemporary context, and outline the relationship between artists and curators in order to produce projects that are mutually beneficial.”

I’ll be peppering this post with more quotes and snippets from the ‘Creative Endeavours curatorial guide’ as we go. The guide has been put together by SAW out of the Maximum Exposure project which commissioned three new public art works for Somerset and has been written and produced by Karen Gaskill and Zoe Li with additional material from Karen Macdonald and Carol Carey. At only 9 pages long it puts a lot of content in a much more succinct way than I could waffling on about it here, so I’d be crazy not to make use of it.

Anyway, so there we all were in Langport town hall where Art Weeks Coordinator, Zoe Li explained that the aim for this session was to introduce the guide as a resource tool to refer to and how we could use this session to discuss and think about curatorial practice in relation to our own artistic practices. The aim being to, “Define curatorial expectations, the artist’s role in developing an exhibition and the relationship between artist and curator.” To start things off a kind of setting the scene was presented i.e. five different elements to consider when putting on an exhibition; the audience, the curator, the artist, the institution and the context. How do all of those necessarily come together to make an exhibition and does the artist become the curator or is that a separate role? Is the role of the curator just curating? Are they also an ideas catalyst and/or producer? How does a curator role differ from a guest curator role?

“In our contemporary art world, the term ‘curation or curating’ means the specific knowledge and expertise that a curator brings to contextualizing an exhibition and to presenting art works in a specific location and context. It is a commonly used term in contemporary art exhibitions and projects, and historically it has represented the curator in the context of museums, but in its current meaning represents the contextualization of exhibitions. The curatorial role is still in evolution, and is becoming more defined through active critique and review.”

My feelings of this was the knowledge of the role of curator having changed a lot from being the person who selected and hung exhibitions to a more engaged in the production of work and contextualising role wasn’t anything new but the debates and discussion that was generated during the latter part of the session opened up new challenges of things that I felt were worth considering next time I choose to exhibit. Particularly, I think what I was left wondering was if the artist is in the role of artist/curator then in a way, the curating of the artwork and the interpretation, the narrative and the story-telling it may or may not have becomes as much an important part of the ‘art’ as making it? The art of curating, maybe! I guess the best example to give is when you’ve seen the same piece of work in two different exhibitions and you sometimes have a preference as to which you think is more successful, of course that all depends on what you mean by ‘successful’ amongst other things. However, the point I am making is that I acknowledge that curating and presentation of art can have a profound impact on the viewing of the work and perhaps my confession is that in sometimes being too impatiently excited to show finished work that I take less care and thought in those final stages which seem to be so crucial.

Time for some examples!

Site Specific work –
“There is a long history of artists creating work in unconventional spaces. Often the artist is inspired by a location and takes this into account while planning and creating the artwork. Many curators develop specific knowledge and experience working in this particular setting. They will have a good practical knowledge in presenting work in temporary spaces and are often involved in the liaison with nonart partners, identifying a suitable site with artists and assessing the access and safety issues. This is essential for a curator to have such practical knowledge otherwise ideas from artists will not be fully realized. Some of the practical work may be carried out by a supporting role, such as project manager or technician.
lluminos are lighting designer andfilm/installation artist brothers Rob and Matt Vale. Using website, archive, projection and endurance, for Maximum Exposure Illuminos created a unique video projection event along the Taunton Stop Line. Built during World War II, the Taunton Stop Line consists of hundreds of ‘pill boxes’ – military bunkers designed to stop a potential German advance from the west. Over the course of ten nights each pillbox was be illuminated and projected upon in turn, using imagery and iconography from the structures original usage. Stopping at ten sites each evening, by the end of the ten days one hundred structures from the Stop Line were brought into the light."

Taunton Stop Line as part of 'Maximum Exposure'
Artist led approach –
“The Artist/curator is very common and often a pragmatic approach based on financial and practical reasons. An artist who curates their work can be found among artist run spaces/initiatives where artists wish to engage their ideas to wider audiences through organising an exhibition, event or other activities. This approach is common in Somerset and the majority of exhibitions and projects seen in Somerset Art Weeks are initiated and organised by the artists. There may not be a particular role of artist curator, but the two roles are fulfilled by the same person; their curatorial concern evolving from the perspective of the artist themselves. However, the intention of such a cross over role should be further examined, including its intention and motivation, including how this role effectively presents work in an open and stimulating environment for a wide range of audiences. The role of curator is not purely one of just being a facilitator, but being responsible for the thematic and presentation aspects of the show, and by setting a clear brief and defining how artist and curator interaction can be beneficial.”
In example the Tithe Barn at Cotley Nr Chard which sees an Art Weeks exhibition every year put together with a group of artists who either respond to the space and context or have thematically been grouped together. It seems quite difficult to find an example that is just, ‘an artist led’ approach as there seems to be a lot of crossover in all of them. I can remember hearing some fierce debates from artists as to what makes a piece of work ‘site specific’ or an ‘installation’ on depending on how specific they choose to be. If you analyse it too much it can get very tricky. My own thoughts on this are not to be too pedantic about labelling as the work should speak for itself anyway.

Natalie Parsley at the Tithe Barn, Cotley, 'Context' Somerset Art Weeks 2010
Thematic –
“This is one of many approaches and it often starts from a particular concern from the curator who selects artists whose work will address or explore the theme further. It has advantages in terms of providing audiences with a clear outline of the work and it is suitable for creating a group exhibition. A curator offers a strategy in addressing the theme through a diverse range of work, as well as considering how to balance the different works. Therefore, the curator undertakes a selection process and this often includes dialogue with the selected artists to ensure works not only illustrate the concept devised by the curator but also present the unique artistic concerns of each of the artists involved. The interaction between artists and curator is key to creating a meaningful show for the audiences.”
In looking back at local exhibitions I’d seen, ‘Sheds’ came to mind as being an example of thematic curatorial practice. Featuring work from the BHAAM artists and exhibited in Art Weeks 2011 the show was a collection of work around the theme of sheds. BHAAM Artists had responded to the theme, each in their own unique way making work specifically for the exhibition. It was one of my personal favourites from that Art Weeks 2011.

Tim Martin, 'Westward Hoe' as part of 'Sheds' BHAAM, Somerset Art Weeks 2011.
Venue Based Exhibitions –
“Often curators operate within an established venue that has specific organisational aims and policies attached to it. Exhibitions are part of a wider programme of work delivered by the organisation. Curators may play a role delivering objectives set by others which may have specific audiences and groups connected to the venue. Curators involved in some of the visual arts venues in the South West such as Arnolfini, Plymouth Arts Centre, and Spacex are responsible for developing a programme of exhibitions that align with their organisations’ core aims. There is a certain amount of freedom for a curator to develop their own expertise but sometimes it can also be restricted by the physical space offered by the venue. However, many public art galleries now will carry out their work in off site locations, some integrated to their main artistic programme and many are focusing on engaging with particular communities and groups.”
It would be almost too easy to give a Brewhouse exhibition example here, so I won’t (the guidebook gives, ‘Cultivate 2’ as its example) and instead will throw a bit of a wild card into the mix. Musgrove Park Hospital had a project, titled ‘Cabinet of Wonders’ which they curated with SAW for, I think, a year and is my example of venue based curating. It is more of a wild card because of the context of it being a hospital gallery and not necessarily a public gallery that is just a gallery. Which make it a particularly interesting and unusual place to exhibit in that also poses new opportunities and potential challenges. During the ‘Cabinet of Wonders’ artists were invited to display works in two glass cabinets showcasing a selection of works including ceramics, jewelry, sculptures and mixed-media work.

Natalie Parsley -Work exhibited as part of Musgrove Park Hospital's 'Cabinet of Wonders' 2011/12
During the second half of the session we divided into groups to discuss the responsibilities and expectations of the artist and curator roles under the headings, developing the concept, selecting artists, developing audiences, contracting, budgeting/fundraising, marketing, interpretation, caption/label/info, launch, take-down and evaluation. I won’t go into all the discussions that we had, but I can definitely say this part of the day, for me, felt like the most useful and it was helpful to hear about other artists’ experiences. Thoughts such as, what is your unique selling point and how do you encourage younger people to visit your exhibition being two that have had a lasting impression to consider in the future. It soon became clear quickly that a lot of what we discussed depended on knowing your own strengths and weaknesses as an artist, (are you very good at fundraising but not so good with marketing?  for example) and knowing what kind of work it is that you are making i.e. socially engaged work, selling, non selling, commissioned; as these factors will influence what help you need, whether you need curating or not and can also help to determine your audience.

Overall it was a useful experience and a good opportunity to meet new people. The guide goes into a lot of the content highlighted here in more depth and presents the case that curation can open up new themes/ideas in making artwork, create links to other artists, contexts and opportunities and provide feedback and critical guidance. The relationship between curator and artist is a lot more blurred than perhaps it once was, but this too seems like a step forward and has led to more ambitious projects that have further reach in terms of their audiences and impact than before. The relationship might not always be a smooth one at times, but as artists having a greater awareness of the curatorial process can certainly help make issues of negotiation and diplomacy easier. Now we’re all fuelled with this knowledge and information the opportunity and affects will hopefully take shape in what awaits us for Art Weeks 2013.
If you’d like to read the SAW curatorial guide for artists in Somerset featuring some and more of the case studies mentioned here then please contact:
And if you’re a member of SAW, due to popular demand, there’s an opportunity to take part in a second workshop on Monday 10th December between 11.00 and 01.00pm. Please get in contact to book a place.
Not a member of SAW yet?! Then click on the link below to find out more:


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