Spike Island

Reviewed: What to Expect from a Curator

Spike Associates, a membership network of artists, curators, writers and other creative practitioners, have initiated a series of events on professional practice. They explore both critical and practical aspects of working within the arts with panelists from across the sector.

The next event in this series, What to Expect from an Arts Writer, takes place on Tuesday 29 May. We'll be taking a break over the summer and return with more sessions in the autumn. You can read about the first, What to Expect from a Gallery, here.

If you missed the second session on Tuesday 13 March, which focused on working with curators, Spike Associate Katie Daley-Yates has shared her notes:

This particular discussion focused on independent curators who work both in the public sector and with major private and public collections. The guests included Bryony Bond from the Whitworth Art Gallery, Claire Doherty from Situations, Vincent Honoré from The David Roberts Foundation and Paul Pieroni from SPACE Studios

This observer’s response to the event isn’t a comprehensive point-by-point record, but instead a series of recommendations or guidelines as a way of summarising what was discussed.

Know your ecology: Learn where you fit in and how the local system works. Make the effort to attend exhibition openings before you expect others to come to your events. This also applies to contacting institutions and individuals who you think might be interested in your practice. Have you studied their programme and the types of exhibitions and projects they produce? Would they be interested in what you do? Are they open to receiving proposals or do they have a fully curated programme? It’s important to get your facts and information straight before making an approach.

Terminology: The debate over artists who curate and curators who are artists has moved on. It's more significant to judge a project or artwork for the ideas it raises, debate it engenders and for the visual impact it has rather than how the person responsible titles him or herself. In particular, Paul Pieroni made it clear that the curator was often a shape shifter, someone who has to take on many roles whether you are operating independently or within an institution; this is also true for artists operating today. 

Project managing vs. creative input: Bryony Bond was much more comfortable with the project management title, assisting the artist with a creative endeavor rather than steering the development of an artwork, while Claire Doherty distinguished the act of curating as a creative role in itself, similar to a film director as someone who directly helps to edit and shape a work as it develops. There are different approaches to curating affected by the types of artists you are working with and the situations you are working in. 

Personality: The point was made that curators who remain in the background, with the mindset that the artist should always lead, can sometimes come across as ‘lazy’, leading to incoherent or mediocre artworks or exhibitions. Claire Doherty made it clear that it was OK to fight for best work possible, to push artists to the limits, to allow your personality to come through and to shape the direction of your practice: what type of curator do you want to be?

Responsibility: The original definition of a curator to ‘take care’ is still a useful description, but rather than in relation to inanimate objects it has become an active part of the role. A curator has responsibilities: to the artist, to the public, to partners, to stakeholders, to funders and, most importantly, to the artwork.  

Networks, partnerships and relationships: As a freelance curator, being networked and constantly developing partnerships and relationships is crucial for establishing your practice outside of an institutional structure. Bolster your position within the art world against curators whose positions are perhaps elevated due to being attached to a gallery or organisation.

Katie Daley-Yates is the Programme Coordinator for Situations, an art commissioning and publishing programme currently based at the University of the West of England.