Dallas Seitz: how curators work

Dallas Seitz talks about his experiences practicing as a curator and the relationship between this role and his career as an artist.

Artist as Curator

Artists have always been curators!  Within their own groupings of work artists build series and build works around a central theme. Outside of their own works I believe artists also inherently curate their works with those of others who are working in similar ways conceptually and formally as a way of contextualizing their practice so in a sense curation plays a role in all artists practice whether they are aware of it or not.

When I started out on my BA in Alberta Canada, Calgary had a very good artist run scene and one of my instructors said to me that I had to get involved in the community of art in Calgary if I really wanted to make work and show work. I volunteered at a few spaces, bartending openings, invigilating the space and helping to hang the shows. I got to meet everyone involved and really learned hands on what artists, curators and gallery directors do.

When I moved to London and did my MA at Chelsea I found there was a lack of community on Manresea road the old location of the Chelsea MA so my studio partner Annis Joslin and I opened One White Wall which was literally one white wall of our studio. I ripped off the idea from Mary Scott in Canada who ran a space in her house with the same name. I always loved that Mary had done this and it was so simple….one white wall was all she really needed to show work and get people around to talk about it. So we ran this in our Chelsea studio for the time we were at college. Kate Grieve another student got on board as the hostess running Chelsea Bar out of a cupboard beside her studio. Kate also Canadian was part of artist run projects in Vancouver. When we all graduated we realised we needed studios and Kate and I got together to find a space. We went to a couple of estate agents and told them we wanted to find a hard to let space that was affordable and well located. We found a space on Old Bethnal Green road which we had a few studios in and a showing space. At this time there was a move further east in London from Hoxton to Bethnal Green and Hackney. Spaces were cheaper and edgy and there was already a president established by people like Maureen Paley at her original space on Beck Road amongst others. New artist run spaces like VTO, MOT, Cell, Keith Talent, 1000000mph all opened around the same time in that area.

For Kate and I it was about getting involved and giving a forum to show work and become part of a community we felt a bit foreign to as Canadians. It did really end up feeling like a community, a discussion and a group drive for something.

Between us we set some guidelines as to who we wanted to work with. We wanted to provide a space for emerging artists giving them their first solo project in London. We didn’t ever show our own work and avoided being a vanity gallery where we just showed our friends. The artists we showed were based on discussions Kate and I had about what we thought was interesting at the time, but we were also in discussion with other artist run spaces about who they were showing  and what they were working on, so I guess we all developed our own identity. The curation of the space was about our taste and also about the artist; we only did studio visits to choose shows as we wanted to get to know the artist as well as the work. We didn’t have an open submission policy although if an artist asked for a studio visit we made an appointment and went to meet them in person. This resulted in a lot of friendships developing that have carried on since.

Kate left the space in 2004 and I brought on board Esther Windsor who had a long history of curating for public galleries. So the structure changed to a more curators theory or concept lead program. In terms of the financial maintenance of the gallery; some specific projects were supported by the Arts Council, funds were raised from the rent of the studios in the building and some money came from taking a 25% commission from sales over the year that we had facilitated (this a different structure to the 50% agreement most commercial galleries work under).

Throughout this time I continued my own practice and was also teaching at college level. Both the curating and teaching have always fed my practice and research through discussion, writing and showing. A drawback is always time, trying to juggle different but related things can be complicated. I always wanted to give the same amount of time to running the space as I did to my own work and my teaching. This was hard so we closed the space in 2006.

I still get involved in curating projects along with my own practice as a multimedia artist but on a less regular basis. Now my involvement in curating is more specifically related to my own work and research.

I would say that most of what I have learned from running a space and curating projects could fit into 3 basic categories:

Do it yourself

Creating your own scene, projects, spaces and exhibitions puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you control over who you work with, the context you show it, and who your audience might be. Build your artists CV through reputable competitions, artist’s residencies and open submission shows. Don’t use a scattergun approach research them all first.

Professional presentation

Creating a professional looking package. This may include very practical things like a business card, website, artist biography, artist statement and portfolio of documentation of work that is easy to send digitally and in person. Curators want to work with professionals so having your package ready to go looks professional and saves time for you and them. This package shifts, adapts, changes and grows from project to project but if you have the initial structure in place you’re ready to go. You want to develop the reputation of being professional and easy to work with and you can do this with being rigorous with your practice!

Research your future

Go to shows! Look at the spaces! See who they are showing. Who is their audience? Every space has a certain style, scale, history, curatorial program or commercial agenda. Artists can save themselves a lot of time and possible disappointment by just doing research.  Cold calling a curator or gallery rarely works it comes down to a researched knowledge and the building of relationships with curators and spaces.

Get in where you fit in!


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