Eliza Gluckman: how curators work

I work as a freelance curator, primarily with my curatorial partner Lucy Day, and to borrow one of her comments, I would say that ‘a curator is both conduit and catalyst’.

In 2006 we formed Day+Gluckman with a desire to work with artists, to support and commission new works and to find exciting spaces or platforms to elucidate ideas that stem from the artists we work with and ourselves. Lucy and I consider ours to be an evolving practice and it is essential that we take check of where we going, and what we are doing, regularly. We have worked in spaces as diverse as museums’ spaces, law firms, National Trust properties and old master dealer galleries. It would be disingenuous not to mention that we are both working women with young families and balance a myriad of responsibilities. Being freelance and working as a partnership gives us the opportunity to juggle these elements of our lives and enables us to be supportive and to keep each other ambitious and motivated.

All curators work to different agendas and with different approaches. The title curator is also open to interpretation and used liberally in the art world and elsewhere. A curator at one of the UK’s most respected museums or art galleries may have incredibly specific knowledge-based, or collection-led agendas. Some will be academic experts and others may be glorified project managers who answer to a hierarchical structure.  As with the title ‘artist’; these days it seems that anything goes.

Working within an institution has obvious benefits of status, identity, support and financial security (of pay if not your programme budgets).  Working outside of that arena is tough, all consuming and financially precarious. But as I am addressing you, the artist, that probably sounds familiar. The upside, of course, is a sense of artistic freedom and flexibility. Developing specific projects that tie-in with your areas of interest, that flow between artists, open dialogues, and exhibitions, and that do not demand box ticking.

Central to our curatorial practice is our own training as artists, (Lucy as a sculptor and myself as a painter), our education in art history and our understanding of the challenges artists’ face.  In every case we prefer to meet an artist and have a studio visit and really chew the fat, before working with them. Honest and open discussions about the work and what we can do, the practical stuff, is the basis of everything we do. We work with artists at all stages of their careers, from emergent (BA & MA students) to established and represented artists.  We have collectively worked with artists for over 3 decades and we repeatedly work with those artists’ whose practice we follow and champion.

Currently we have an on-going responsibility to programme a gallery space within a law firm. The gallery is a curious space physically, somewhere between domestic and corporate, and we have enjoyed being challenged by it. In many ways the work we have done at Collyer Bristow has solidified our desire to work with interesting artists with a rigorous practice; it takes an open and inquisitive mind to take on the space. Over the past 5 years we have challenged both the space, the artists and the solicitors and it is to everyone’s credit that we manage to continually push expectations. Alongside the gallery programme we also seek to initiate projects in very different spaces.

The scale and timing of the projects we initiate varies enormously. SINOPTICON, which investigates value and taste, trade, fantasy, replication and the stereotyping of images through contemporary art and the narrative of chinoiserie, is a project that has been in development since 2007.  Initially conceived by artists Gayle Chong Kwan and Stephanie Douet with myself, it attracted a large Arts Council grant and support from the National Trust. It has taken the form of research, a symposium and a ‘Friday Late’ at the V&A, and a four-venue exhibition across the city of Plymouth, whereworks by Grayson Perry, Isaac Julien, Christian Jankowski, Tsang KinWah, Meekyoung Shin, Laura White, Gayle Chong Kwan, Stephanie Douet, Ed Pien, WESSIELING, Erika Tan and Karen Tam were sited within both conventional gallery and historical settings and included six new commissions. It lives on, and is currently being developed into ‘Couriers of Taste’, an exhibition at Danson House in Kent. It is the ability to unpick and tease out ideas surrounding both art practice and areas of interest such as feminism, chinoiserie, sustainability, economics, architecture and trade, that drive us. Often we start with just one artist in mind and head off from a body of work and a conversation. Often one project or exhibition will spawn another.

Over the years we have built up a large network of artists, galleries, gallerists, exhibiting spaces, other curators and interested individuals. When we select artists for exhibitions it is on the basis that they are known to us through one or several routes; we have seen their work at Degree shows, group or solo exhibitions or open studios; we may have met them at openings, talks or other events and established a mutual interest. Other artists and curators often suggest people to us, and wherever possible we follow those leads as they are likely to be from a trusted source. We undertake research for each exhibition to identify artists that we have come across already and want to follow up. It can often take two or three years from when we first meet someone to when we show them, sometimes (but not often) it can be a matter of months.  We very, very occasionally follow up “cold call” emails and those that we do follow up will have undertaken some initial research to see whether their practice fits with our outlook.

Whilst we understand the needs of artists to create commercial outlets for their work and to sustain their practice, Day+Gluckman currently do not work in an overtly commercial context, preferring to fundraise, and promote good practice in artists’ fees and rights.  One key position we take is that a commercial agenda never takes priority over content. Our greatest compliment is the word ‘integrity’.  That is not to say that commerciality has no integrity – we are old enough to know better – but we do like to champion work that doesn’t always sit comfortably in the arena of a commercial space. Likewise works that may not fit inside a space at all.

Perhaps what I am endeavouring to unpick is that curating is more than a writing up of labels, or an amassing of artefacts in some kind of logical order. For us it is an organic conversation. It can be likened to an art practice. We work long and hard to build up exhibitions and projects and we take a long-term and open attitude to working with people.

As a conduit a curator effects a network, a bridge between people and spaces.  As a catalyst a curator can provoke, tease and engender new ideas. Key to this is the artist and their practice.


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