I used to call myself a self-proclaimed curator, because I didn’t train to be a curator. I curated my first exhibition in 2004 (The Artists are described as…Polynesian Males, Artnet Gallery), and have since overseen over 50 shows – not curated, but overseen. I’ve curated less, but in this time, have developed a framework for doing the work I love to do as an artist-writer-advocate-administrator-social-networker… aka curator.
I have developed my curatorial practice through lots of trial and error, mistakes and successes, with very little guidance – largely it is DIY curating. The only opportunity to be mentored or experience transmission of curatorial knowledge was the experience of assisting for Cook Islands curator Jim Vivieaere’s exhibition niu dialogue in 2003 for The Edge (Auckland). Jim is an excellent curatorial role model whose work I admire hugely. The exhibition was staged by Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust and this opportunity was significant in the development of my curatorial practice.
I campaign hard for more Pacific Island curators, but seemingly, the act of curating / role of curator / technical requirements of curatorial work, within the Pacific visual art sector, is still shrouded in mystery for many.
Three recent experiences have inspired me to develop these thoughts. Firstly, I was involved in the international Twitter event, Ask a Curator Day on September 1 which was totally inspiring. Secondly, I wrote two essays for the catalogue manu toi; artists and messengers curated by Nigel Borell for the opening of Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku, on two artists who I love: Rebecca Ann Hobbs and Leilani Kake. And thirdly, my involvement in a botched art project in Fiji – a sad and infuriating process.
I want to shed some light on the work I do – my curatorial process.
What is a curator?
As a curator, I’m concerned with the spaces between artist, artwork and audience. I’m concerned with the making of the work, and the artist, the space and the audience, the experience of the work and its surrounding information. I’m concerned with the artist, and where she or he is moving. I’m concerned what the work is inspired by, what informs it, and what it is connected to. The people who see the work, is important to me.
I care about artists. I think curating is caring about artists. About their lives and what affects them.
And I love to create opportunities for artists, whether through sales, or further opportunities to exhibit… jobs, gigs, media spots. When artists are written about and reviewed or interviewed for radio, TV or print media, I am a happy curator.
What do you do?
Essentially I administer and implement an event – the exhibition, which in itself is a marketing platform for the artist’s practice. It is the space where art meets audience. A very important part of any marketing initiative is to know what you’re promoting – knowing the artist, their context, their background, and knowing the audience – who the work will be seen by, who the work is important to and what kinds of media platforms can be accessed to broaden the artist’s audience.
A theme is extracted from the artists or artworks, and as curator, I use this to link artists and artwork to wider socio-political ideas. The writing or curatorial text around an exhibition is a contextual statement. I write artists into a socio-political context, to give audiences leverage to understanding the significance of artwork and artists beyond the visual vocabulary that the work presents.
In many cases, I support artists in the development of their work by providing feedback and discussing other artists, exhibitions, ideas; organising opportunities for group critiques and facilitating meetings with other artists. It’s in my interest that the artist is fully engaged in the process of making work, feels empowered and committed to the exhibition. This approach is largely suited to early career or emerging artists – the sector I work with mostly.
I promote and advocate for the artists and artwork. I network and spread the word, I invest myself fully and aim to influence and inform people – I become the ambassador for the artists and artwork. I write, blog, post and discuss the exhibition to draw interest to the artists and artwork. I myself represent the artists and artwork, so aim to be visible and memorable.
Once the artwork is in the gallery, the works are considered in relation to each other, the space and audience engagement. Sometimes, this involves a process of editing and refining what is shown. In this area, I subscribe less to inclusivity and more to exclusivity. I feel the work is hung to create a kind of spatial narrative – I want to create strong, clear statements so if there is an opportunity to give work more space, I will often opt for this over cluttered walls.
Openings, previews and receptions are important platforms to host a dedicated group of interested and influential individuals. Hosting is about creating an environment that acknowledges people’s support, their time and energy. For me, providing an offering of nourishment – food, and celebration – drinks, is a basic protocol, but often overlooked. Best practice exhibition opening is surely to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable.
I facilitate whatever needs to be done to promote and extend the audience of the exhibition, whether that is school visits, opening the gallery after hours for special tours, gallery floor talks or media interviews. I promote and endorse the artist and artwork whole-heartedly, armed with knowledge and consciousness of their significance.
What are some attributes of a curator?
I believe that a curator must have a broad knowledge and strong contextual framework for viewing, understanding and interpreting artists and artwork. They must be confident in their intellectual position, and invested in the job and the role. They must be someone who can represent and perform an ambassadorial role with strength, charm and conviction, and someone artists can trust will always prioritise their best interests.
Communication skills are essential – curators need to understand what needs to be said in different contexts, and adapt fluidly to situations and audiences.
Patience and understanding is also essential when working with visual artists. There is no show without them, so it is in my best interest to have artists informed, empowered and motivated and to constantly learn and be open to learning about the needs of artists. I also maintain my own visual arts practice and try to exhibit as much as possible, to keep my knowledge of the creative process current.
What core skills do you draw on with curatorial work?
The bottom line is the ability to organise, administer and project plan strategically, effectively and within timeframes.
Excellent communication skills – in person and in writing – are essential. Financial forecasting and budgeting is important. And the qualities of being genuine, informed and trustworthy are also valuable.
I had a foundation of customer service skills from working in retail, reception, admin temping and mentoring before I got into this line of work. My tertiary training gave me discipline with regards to time management and insight into bureaucratic hierarchies of power and influence.
Strength of conviction and intellectual position is vital. Whilst curators are opinionated, it comes from knowledge and awareness of context.
Want to know more?