The Fifth Size Book Adventure has several contributing professionals – apart from Jane Shaw who leads the project – to help us along the way, sharing their stories of how they got to their current stage of professional success, delivering workshops, mentoring, and helping to deliver the exhibition at the end. During the launch they told us a bit about how they got where they are, and gave us some useful advice or top tips.
Contributing professionals: Lucy Jenkins
I don’t think I’d met Lucy before although I’d be surprised if we hadn’t been at the same event at least once. She’s an independent curator who had previously worked at the Hatton Gallery, and has worked with organisations such as the Great North Museum and the former DLI Museum (Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery).
She was particularly excited on the day of the talk because the Turner Prize shortlist had just been announced, and one of the artists, Lubaina Himid, whom she’d commissioned to produce work for the Hatton Gallery was on the list. She told us a little of how Lubaina had developed the work into Naming The Money.
Lucy showed us slides of inspirational exhibitions that she had curated, including multi-sensory for a family audience, and interdisciplinary arts and science (artists working alongside scientists on the theme of ageing) exhibitions. She has done installations in alternative spaces, including workshops in schools. One of her aims is to try to engage a broader audience, to engage people with art who would see a gallery as a barrier. The latest project, working with artist Louise Plant, involved moving the abstract body shapes sculptures created for it to different locations. The same sculptures look different in different environments.
What is a curator?
There was a murmur of recognition when Lucy said about how much the terms “curator” and “to curate” were used very widely for all kinds of things that bore little resemblance to curation. Some people use the term to mean putting anything in a list.
The term used to mean a subject specialist who was responsible for caring for cultural collections and for interpreting them. The role has changed over the years, and there are now also artist-curators. In the context of art (historical and contemporary), a curator can be a producer of meaning, an intermediary, or a mediator with artists. They act as an intermediary between the work and the audience; and can be a channel for information between different disciplines.
Who does a curator work with?
Artists, audiences, institutions, funders, collectors, donors, academics, writers, press/media, technicians, architects, surveyors, front-of-house staff, transporters.
What does a curator do?
Lucy defined what a curator does in the specific context of an exhibition (they do more in the rest of their work) as this is most relevant to our project. Curators:
- define the scope, theme or thesis of an exhibition;
- organise getting the exhibits, commissioning work, negotiating loans, organising the necessary contracts, transport, insurance;
- support or facilitate the artists (when working with contemporary art);
- are involved with the design and installation, including security and lighting;
- do the interpretation which is delivered by labels, graphics, audio-visual and interactive materials, publications;
- may also be doing the marketing, publicity, advertising, PR and organise the private view;
- possibly do the education programme;
- organise the touring of the exhibition;
- often sort out the financing of the exhibition, finding grants or sponsorship;
- do evaluations of the exhibition.
By the end of Lucy’s session, I think most people had been so inspired by the examples of exhibitions she’d shown, both inside and outdoors, in conventional and unconventional locations, that they all wanted to do large scale installations.
A couple of thoughts afterwards
My academic background is in art and design history (1750 to contemporary), and although I’ve never been employed in a curator role, I have been used to doing work that included quite a lot of work that would be done by a curator. For some years, I was part of a management team that had responsibility for a number of small museums (we had curators to look after the collections in those museums and in specialist stores), and part of design teams working on projects to provide improvements to existing museums and permanent exhibitions and, occasionally, new museums and new permanent exhibitions. I tended to be the one who drafted the bid for funds for projects. Sometimes I did the proof-reading of texts for guidebooks, interpretation panels and leaflets.
Later on, I researched and wrote a new permanent exhibition for a small museum. I spent some years curating in a digital context, with digitised images, starting at a time when it was still a new thing. I have little experience of hanging, particularly the physical aspects of it, and my experience has been mostly with collections of historical material. What I realised, listening to Lucy, was that I’d never sat back and reflected on these aspects of my work in the past. I was too busy getting the projects done at the time. It was useful to reflect on what I did understand and know about curating.
I am very glad that we have Lucy working with us. She has the experience and knowledge to help put together a good exhibition, whatever we produce – and I’m aware that subject-wise, media-wise and style-wise, we could produce some decidedly diverse work.
The Fifth Size Book Adventure: A Professional Development Programme for Creative Practitioners is led by Jane Shaw of People Into Enterprise, and supported by Newcastle City Library and Arts Council for England.