Art Fund Curator of the Month 2019
How did you start out as a curator – what inspired you to take this route and what kind of training and study did you undertake and experience did you gain?
My initial training was through a degree in visual and performance art. I studied at Dartington College of Arts and particularly enjoyed the opportunities to collaborate, facilitate and contextualise art site-specifically and across arts disciplines. In 2003 I interned at Aberystwyth University with the Centre for Performance Research, moving onto various supporting roles at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and also volunteering at Ceredigion Museum where I now work. I was offered a position as invigilator at the first Wales Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and this experience was a game changer for me with the international arts and cultural sector all in one place to learn from and connect with. The opportunity reinforced my motivation to work in the arts.
On my return I enrolled on an MA in Museum and Gallery Studies at Newcastle University which, as well as being a brilliant introduction to academic museum theory, also helped me develop the practical studies needed to work in the sector. I spent three months as part of this course at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London at an exciting point in the development of the gallery’s major capital extension development and was bowled over by the expertise, knowledge and skill of the team – particularly Iwonna Blazwick, Whitechapel director. I was lucky to return as invigilator in Venice for a second time in 2005 and it was through that role that I developed contacts for the projects and cultural organisations I worked with in the preceding ten years; Artes Mundi, g39, National Museum of Wales. I then worked with the public art agency Cywaith Cymru, across North and Mid Wales managing artist residencies and public art commissions and freelancing in the arts and health sector as facilitator and arts educator. I also set up my own arts collective Blaengar for emerging artists to collaborate and create site-specific work in the landscape, with a focus around history, identity and place. All of these roles gave me a broad understanding and commitment to curation, arts and heritage education, and the power of learning through creativity and culture.
What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn from your role that helped you secure your next one?
My first role in museums was as a gallery assistant at the Natural History Museum after finishing Art College. I took a year out to move to London and was temping in offices when I picked up part time work at the Natural History Museum. The role was very much customer service and front of house, but with an additional security element, particularly as it was shortly after 9/11. London museums were on heightened security risk levels so there was a lot of bag searching. What I loved about it was walking the galleries all day and finding new artefacts to look at. The building itself is also amazing with animals carved into the walls. It was hard to tell the difference between where museum exhibit ends and building begins.
I’m not sure that the role helped to secure my next position in a museum-based career specifically but it was an important reminder that it was in culture and heritage positions that I felt most comfortable. I nearly became an estate agent when I first arrived in London! Since then I have spent much of my career in the broader arts and culture sector. I made a commitment to live in Mid Wales, where I’m from originally, fifteen years ago. It is a very rural area and requires a ‘portfolio career’ perspective to build a profession in the arts, alongside an openness to having a go at anything that can develop skills and networks.
What is a typical working day like for you?
There isn’t really such a thing as a typical day here. I’ve worked at the museum for over ten years, sometimes up to four days a week but currently I work 2.5. My job covers curation of the temporary exhibitions which change four times a year, so I’m generally on a three month rotation of research, development and set up of exhibitions - although we work up to two years ahead in planning. Some exhibitions that include the collection can be much more research intensive and hands-on than others where we work with individual artists or community groups. Of course, these are just as rewarding but demand different skill sets and have different priorities. The gallery has really been transformed over the years.
I am also shop manager and have a small team that runs the shop day-to-day. Eighteen months ago we moved the shop to the ground level of the museum (as part of a larger development of the building) and amalgamated our front of house with the local authority’s Tourism Information Service giving the museum shop much more opportunity to grow.
As is the case in many regional museums, we are a small team and so our roles have a lot of cross over. I deputise for the curator when she isn’t available, support the marketing officer (my role used to include all the marketing at one point), help deliver events, move objects, give talks and education workshops. Some days can be none stop with visitors, enquiries or tradesmen fixing a leaking pipe and then other days I am able to be in my office researching for the next exhibition or project. The most consistent thing about the job is the museum building itself and the collection we care for. The old coliseum building, a grade II listed Edwardian musical hall/cinema where the museum housed, is our biggest asset but can also be the most difficult to care for. Like many museums the building is old and needs lots of attention to make sure the collection and the exhibitions and displays are kept in good condition.
What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?
As a curator I find the skills I draw from most are organisation and multi-tasking. Research skills and an eye for aesthetics, a good sense of place are also really important as well as an appreciation or empathy for how people interact and move around a space. My background in the arts has definitely been an aid in seeing how a space will work, particularly after my formative years as an artist and curator setting up my own exhibitions and doing everything from solving technical problems to hanging paintings on the wall. An ability to co-collaborate is increasingly important for the way we work at Ceredigion Museum; and being an effective facilitator between the venue and the artist or other partners to bring an exhibition or project together is absolutely essential. Evaluation of our work is key to better understanding our publics, communities and visitors to the venue - and therefore making the exhibition or displays we curate as relevant as possible to that audience and location.
Our understanding of what a curator is seems to have expanded in recent years and my current position certainly doesn’t fit into the area of a specialist subject curator. There are also only a couple of assistant curator roles in regional museums in Wales so we are quite unusual! My role at Ceredigion Museum is much more comprehensive and inclusive of my broader skills within museum and arts education, facilitation and co-collaboration with communities and socially engaged practice.
Can you tell us a little bit about a highlight in your career, perhaps a project you worked on, recognition or a certain milestone?
Five years ago we delivered a series of community outreach projects at Ceredigion Museum designed to find out more about our audiences, public and their needs and interests in our culture and heritage. As part of the project we worked with an artist in residence, Janetka Platun for six months. For Janekta’s exhibition we worked on two different projects – the first exhibition focussed on our collections and the nature of archiving our collections and was called ‘Ceredigion: A Natural Selection’. The project explored how random choice can lead to natural selection of objects and memories. It was surmised that ‘All museums illustrate the evolution of objects. They record why some objects are collected and saved for future generations, whilst others are unrecorded and disappear from our collective psyche. Ceredigion Museum collects Ceredigion-related objects, a selection policy that holds onto local identity and preserves it for the future. Members of the public were invited to evolve this concept further, looking at what we hold on to and what helps us to remember.’
Each participant randomly created a store code using the museum’s box abbreviation system. The selected box was then found and the content shown to the person who chose it. They were then asked to create a reply to the archived object by choosing an item that they own that responds in some way to the museum object; anything the original object made them go in search of. The result was a really powerful marrying of the personal object of the individual with the randomly selected item from our museum collection. Most of the items chosen had never been out on display before!
Appointing an artist-in-residence for the museum brought together many elements of the way that I have worked on past projects and married them together. It was an exciting task from which I learnt a great deal working through the deep engagement of the artist in the collections alongside community participants. Janetka is a real perfectionist; connecting the requirements of the museum with the vision of the artist was a tussle at times but one that paid off in the end.
Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator, and what would you say are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?
Staffing and the need for change-management has been the most difficult aspect of working as a curator over the past few years. The current economic climate is the biggest challenge curator’s face now. We hear every month of more curators disappearing from our museums and galleries and being replaced with lower-paid positions that often include learning or community-facing roles. We need both curation and learning positions in museums and cuts to budgets are putting increasing pressure on staffing levels more generally. In roles where I have freelanced as a curator or project manager it has been much easier to deliver projects. Ceredigion Museum is run by the Local Authority which brings the additional challenges of a large bureaucracy that includes everything from the specific requirements of procurement and recruitment, policies for Welsh language and our bilingual remit (if you are in Wales), and the importance of delivering the vision of the council as part of our responsibility. We have been very lucky that our Local Authority has been forward-thinking in supporting the vision of our Curator Carrie Canham in developing the museum as an important heritage-tourism venue at a point when many other county museums have been closed. We count ourselves very fortunate to have been able to improve the museum and drive forward a programme of sustainability with the new shop, entrance and café.
The job of curating in a regional museum is incredibly wide-ranging and we all have to be versatile to cover all the areas that need to be delivered, often working part-time and staffing spread thinly whilst aiming to deliver the quality of research and level of service that is expected of an institution with a much larger budget. Finding funding to care for our collections is increasingly difficult given that many of the grant streams are moving to fill gaps in social care. We have to be increasingly innovative with our projects to meet the needs of collection care and access for our communities.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of curating the upcoming Sheep exhibition at Ceredigion Museum?
Sheep farming is a subject I’ve been planning to explore for a while now inspired both by the museum’s fantastic agricultural displays and collections and by my own biography being brought up on a sheep farm in the rural uplands of Wales. At Ceredigion Museum we don’t shy away from important topics and there are many shifting understandings and debates taking place at the moment around land-use. Wales’s uplands have a particular history, culture and ecology that many people aren’t aware of that we hope to share through the artists’ explorations of that environment and its communities. There are many artists in Wales exploring the subject of landscape, farming and sheep – perhaps because of their own identity coming from farming backgrounds but also simply by being moved by the rural environment around them. I chose art as the medium to explore the subject because of the diverse ways in which arts are able to reflect and represent the subject in a thoughtful and provocative way. The exhibition highlights work from our own art collection and also includes eight artists either from Wales or now based in Wales.
We have worked directly with the sheep farming community by commissioning a Welsh-speaking artist to collaborate with them to represent their views of sheep farming and ask questions around the future of farming. To explore this further are having a cross-disciplinary symposium this May 9-10th titled ‘Future Landscapes’.
The other most exciting component of the exhibition has been the loan of five works from TATE to enhance the exhibition, including a work on paper by Joseph Beuys, three Henry Moore prints and a print by Menashe Kadishman (all featuring sheep). It is the first time that the museum has borrowed from TATE and the loans have been made possible through a grant from Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund and Ferryman bursary project with TATE. (We also received a grant from Arts Council Wales which has enabled us to work on the artist commission and pay fees to the other artists involved in the exhibition). Receiving these grants has been a real stepping-stone for us. We have used the funds to upgrade our security and buy a new bandit-proof case so that we are now set up to borrow again in the future and I’m already planning a ‘Treasures from Ceredigion’ exhibition next year to utilise the showcase. The support and training I have received from ArtFund and TATE has been fantastic, and I’m really excited to develop those partnerships in the future.
What have you found have been the benefits of being part of a curatorial network?
Welsh museums have a very supportive network, from the National Museums of Wales down to the regionals and independent museums. Everyone is very open and willing to support each other and pass on knowledge and expertise. We are linked together by the Federation of Museums & Art Galleries of Wales, which offers grants, and opportunities to share information and expertise.
However the most beneficial curatorial network I’ve been part of over the last six years has been through working with the Happy Museum project. Happy Museum with its associates and communities of practice has been a real lifeline for a small museum curator seeking ways to look forward and create transformation for museums in what is increasingly being seen as a watershed moment in history. We have become part of a much bigger movement for change encompassing the environment, stewardship of our collections and how we work with communities. A really important aspect of working with Happy Museum for us as a small museum has been working on the same level as much larger institutions across Britain. I’ve learnt so much from Happy Museum – particularly in relation to evaluating projects and measuring wellbeing, and also through the amazing museum professionals and other brilliant innovators that the project has put us into contact with including the work of People’s United, Julie’s Bicycle, and Common Cause Foundation to name just a few.
Most recently, having been awarded the grant from Weston Loan programme with ArtFund we have joined another network of museums who have been awarded funds from the programme and I was excited to meet a new group of curators from regional museums who are also completing project that enable their institutions to borrow from the nationals and I’m really eager to see where all our journeys take us.