Curating an exhibition requires organisation, passion and a balance of commercial and artistic drive. But who has the right to decide what art is worthy of being looked at?

At a packed Creative Careers event, a panel of experts collected some thoughts on the purpose and power of curation.

What does a curator do?

A Curator’s job merges the roles of artist, educator and historian into one. A Curator can work in a large institution like a public art gallery, or they can be a freelancer and work in many different spaces.

“The pleasure of the job is the fact that it’s a combination of many things,” said Rebecca Lewin, Exhibition Curator at the Serpentine Gallery. “For my job, I need to know a little bit about a lot of things.” For the last seven years she has worked on a huge variety of projects for the Serpentine’s two galleries, from DAS INSTITUT’s exploration of the body to Grayson Perry’s Brexit-inspired pottery.

What makes a good curator?

There is much more to curation than the preconveived notions surrounding it. Freelance Curator and Publisher Oscar Humphries revealed it’s not all about academics. “I got a C in Art History at A Level.” Now his work has been featured in Vogue.

Humphries started in magazine editing and today uses his editorial eye to delve into the subjects that interest him most, whilst working with world renowned experts. “I really like that intersect between, art, design and architecture.”

More important than academia is the desire to dive into a project and research extensively. “It’s always about the work.”

Passion for the art is key.

The curatorial process

Find the thing you believe is really exciting that hasn’t been talked about or appreciated enough yet. Then find a way of explaining why people should look at it.

“Really”, said Antonio Roberts, freelance Curator and New Media Artist, “it’s just about making sense of it all”. Roberts works primarily with open source software and free culture, and has worked in galleries including Tate Britain and the Institute of Modern Art in Chicago.

“I have this idea in my head and my job is to make it make sense for everyone else, to communicate it through the artwork.”

Once you have the idea for the exhibition, you need to find the right space for the work. Then you can go about creating a timeline and a set of deadlines.

The panellists agreed on a sweet spot of between four months and a year. “Less than four months is painful and no one should do it,” Lewin said.

It will take longer than you expect. “Content, interest and support all have to come from other people”, Lewin said. “You might have the idea, details and answers but the questions have to be asked of other people. The sheer volume of emails you get through on a daily basis to make everything happen in the right order takes time.”

Allow the art to speak for itself

The role of a curator is not just to educate, but to engage and share.

“If you have to explain what you’ve done for more than a minute and a half,” Oscar said, “it’s too much about the curator and not enough about what you’re trying to give your audience”.

“You have to get out of the way of the artist, whether they’re alive or dead.”

Commercial vs artistic

The role of the curator has become a lot more important in the art market. “Art dealers have realised that if you can give something curatorial credibility”, Humphries said, “you can sell more”.

So how do you balance the need to make money with the desire to curate an exciting exhibition?

“If you do something very beautiful, it works. If you do something with a solely commercial focus it will fail”, Humphries said.

Curating digital art

Technology has changed curatorial processes.

“It’s easy to focus on the technology,” Roberts said. “But the curator has to bring the focus back to the artwork. You’re trying to shape an experience.”

Working with technology can be temperamental.

“The role of the creator is either controlling it or recognising that lack of control and working with that. Scary!”

But technology can sometimes support the efficiency of a show. In his exhibition No Copyright Infringement Intended, he explored online plagiarism and the limits of copyright. One of the works was a 3D printed head. As the exhibition toured, he didn’t need to take the artwork with him. He simply 3D printed a new one from a digital file.

Whether the art is digital or entirely traditional, you want to make an exhibition people want to share.

Social media is playing an ever more important part in the way we absorb and access art. “In terms of footfall, not a lot of people will see your exhibition”, Humphries said. “But curating something with a visual impact that can translate [digitally] is important.”

Take art out of London

There is the feeling that to be a curator you need to be in London. But to spread art further across the country we need more curators outside of the capital, noted Roberts

He still lives in Birmingham but travels often to London for art exhibitions. “Someone’s got to make it happen, and sometimes that person is you.”

Experience vs education

There is a current climate of favouring those with masters or PHDs for institutional arts curation roles.

But Lewin said there are signs of change:

“The generation immediately following us have been bottlenecked into a situation where you need more and more educational proof of your intelligence and it’s become more and more expensive to get that. But it’s commonly acknowledged that that cannot be the only way people prove their interest and commitment to working in the arts. Within the next five years I think the thought that there’s no point interviewing someone without a PHD will have gone.”

The need for tertiary education specialising in art history or curation also depends entirely on your career plans. “If you want to go that way [into art institutions] then yes, you do need a specialism. If not – if you don’t want to work in a physical space, or you want to go into live programming or arts education – you need a different set of skills, few of which education teaches you. Go and get that experience.”

Less is more

When you are given the chance to curate an exhibition, it can be tempting to squeeze in as much as possible. But what you leave out can be just as important as what you put in.

“There is no way you can have a fully comprehensive exhibition,” Roberts said. One of the most important abilities for a curator is the exercise of restraint. When Humphries noted some of his favourite recent exhibitions, he said: “I liked it for what wasn’t in it.”

Find out about upcoming Creative Career sessions here.

Blog post by Kate Wyver

Image © Antonio Roberts, Common Property