Alex Julyan: how curators work

Curation. Certain job titles carry a cache, a whiff of glamour and a suggestion of entry into circles of prestige and influence.

Shifts taking place from the mid 1960’s meant that an Art History qualification from the Courtauld Institute or the Sorbonne was no longer the only passport into the profession. Through a changing relationship with the art audience and the professional opportunities that were opening up, a new breed of curators from diverse backgrounds began to re-define the curatorial landscape. Several decades on, emerging from these late twentieth century shifts the ‘Artist as Curator’ is now in the ascendant, in the best instances engaging skilfully and thoughtfully with the role alongside their own making practice – the two strands informing each other.

My studio practice focuses on drawing, installation and sculpture. An additional interest in and involvement with music and live performance has over a ten year period led me to engage more directly with audiences. I curate and co-curate live events including ‘whole building spectacles’ for the Wellcome Collection and multi-media performances at Dartington, Barbican and ENO. All of these large-scale projects bring together professionals from both within and outside my own area of expertise, sometimes on a grand scale. Exploring ideas with scientists, academics and performers has become for me, an extension of the internal and solitary debate that takes place in the studio.

Many years ago I saw an exhibition at the Barbican about the Ballet Russes, here was an inspiring example of ‘curation’, not so much of the show itself (which was solid and convincing), but the story of the Ballet’s founder: Diaghilev, whose extraordinary skill was to recognise and nurture creative talents and then through them make exciting and groundbreaking experiences for audiences.

I feel that as a curator my multiple role is as an impresario, a producer and an editor – an individual with a vision and a conviction to match, shaped by my own experience as an artist. My skill is to bring together the right voices (be they academic, sonic or visual) at a given moment and shape them into a coherent conversation. I must finely balance my hunger and excitement to create this dialogue with others, with the patience and sensitivity to let ideas ferment and mature.

In order to do this I have to put my artist ego to one side and recognise that a successful outcome is dependant on a team of skilled individuals, my role is to hold and direct those skills towards a clear outcome. Curating allows me to bring strands of thought together that have developed through my making practice and might otherwise sit untouched or half-formed, it’s just that the canvas on which these ideas are expressed is different and greater in scope.

The non-solitary nature of curation is not only an antidote to time spent in the studio, but is a place where ideas can be tested and set against each other to form new types of connections.Artists do not have exclusive rights to creativity and a good curator will create an environment or forum in which creative thinking is made visible. I’m ever vigilant and my interests are broad, I keep a mental file of subjects, sources, images, individuals and conversations that may or may not give shape to an event in the future. Recommendations and trust play a huge part in sourcing material and individuals. It’s vital to reflect tastes other than one’s own and equally to seek out a connection with that great unknown – one’s audience.

The projects I curate tend to present themselves through long term relationships and serendipity, thankfully (for me) they reside well away fromthe forum of ‘networking’. They are neither regular or guaranteed and because they are demanding I’m only able to work on projects in which I have a fairly consuming interest. Other kinds of work must always be considered in between times.

Working in this way has meant that I am moving closer to my personal ideal of what it is to be an artist, i.e.: a creative thinker and maker who can slip between worlds rather than be holed-up in one. Curation for me, is about the opening out of conversation and its possibilities, it necessitates a more democratic exchange and moves away from an elitist one of ‘self-expression’.

Curation requires holding one’s nerve, if I instigate a project I must be prepared to take the risks and criticisms and see it through to the absolute end, if it were a dinner party this would include trying out challenging new recipes, washing up and driving the guests home. What the artist-curator lacks compared to the academic skills of the career curator, she gains from working with a maker’s insight, putting this against that to create a symbiosis or a query.

As I gain more experience I have a general concern regarding the over-use of the term or title ‘curator’ to the point of meaninglessness. A colleague working at a large London arts institution recently joked that as part of a ‘re-structuring exercise’ she might be appointed ‘curator of staircases’. She was not far wrong.

In terms of my future as a gallery artist – curation has given me cause to re-think, both strands of my practice require rigour, focus and commitment. My studio work has, for a long time been ephemeral and therefore the fleeting nature of live events holds great appeal.

© Alex Julyan 2012

Alex Julyan is a London-based visual artist and producer who makes sculptures and site-specific work from a diverse range of ephemeral media. Her interest in music has also led her to curate large scale interdisciplinary events with organisations such as the Barbican and the Wellcome Collection.

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