Fiona MacDonald: how curators work

For the last six years artist Fiona MacDonald has worked as a curator 3 days a week, running a space, with all the practical, managerial, and fundraising implications that brings. In this article she talks about her experiences working as a curator at Standpoint Gallery and how this relates to her own practice as an artist.

Only a small proportion of my paid time gets to go on thinking about curating exhibitions, though of course it remains one of the best bits of the job. Usually seeing interesting work is the spur, then it’s about building relationships one artist could have with another/s. My approach originates in my activity as an artist. I have always seen art practice as a conversation (often non-verbal). Putting shows together makes this more visibly manifest, but it is a way of thinking that goes right back into the studio, into private space. And one of the most exciting things about that is the potential for one’s conversation to cross continents and timescales, and connect to disparate worlds.

The best thing about curating shows is the conversations and relationships it allows you to develop. Depending on the way you go about it, you can infiltrate the studios of your artistic heroes, or explore connections between your peer group. My advice would be go and see everyone you include in an exhibition – do studio visits, because that is where the most benefit will come from. Don’t just show people you already know, think through the connections your work has with other artists. If you can make it fascinating to yourself, then other people will get it too, and you will expand your ideas and networks. That, rather than sales or critical success, is the real juice of it.

I see my relationship with artists exhibiting at Standpoint as a collaboration – especially with solo or duo shows. There is often a year or more between the original studio visits and the show, and the ideas we have for the exhibition may change quite dramatically over this time. Standpoint is essentially a platform for new work and ideas, so it works best when artists have a free hand to do what they want with their work, and the dialogue between us draws things out that may not have been envisaged originally.

One of my ideal scenarios is to curate emerging and more established artists together. It brings something to every participant. For the show in June-July I invited young British-Peruvian sculptor Lizi Sanchez to approach an established artist of her choice that situated her practice. She has borrowed works by Louise Lawler. It’s not exactly what we hoped for, as Louise is not directly involved, but the approach expands and concentrates the non-verbal conversation, which is arguably the most important part.

Standpoint has charitable status, and is geared towards benefitting artists, that is a core aim, so  it is fundamental that we remain open to submission. Exactly how we program shifts from year to year. Currently we seek a balance between shows with invited artists curated by myself, collaborations with external curators, and one show per year that is generated from other artists in the studio. Standpoint has 6 large artists’ studios housing 10-15 artists and makers, including painting, ceramics, etching, litho and letterpress.

I still receive submissions from artists who clearly have no idea who or what Standpoint do, which is a waste of their and my time. So, research a space and its programme. If you send in a submission, present work clearly and concisely, with good quality images, and some interesting ideas.  It does not have to be a super-slick package, but make it easy to look at – accessible, not with huge images that take too long to load, or dozens of different file types/folders to open.

Don’t assume that because you have not heard back from a space that they are not interested, because months can go by before I get a chance to sit down and go through submissions. It is not always just about how much you like the work, there are other factors – do they fit with a show I am developing, have we had a run of too-similar work, have they shown the same work recently in London. I think it helps to talk to a curator direct – you can’t make them like your work, or project, but you can open a conversation, hopefully develop a rapport, at the very least remind them to look at your submission. However, be a bit sensitive, if a couple of enquiries result in no response, your work is probably not for them.

As well as exhibitions, I run a residency programme for regional UK artists – Standpoint Futures. I really enjoy the deeper engagement with artists – when someone is in the building every day over a prolonged period you can really get to know how they think and what they need, and hopefully contribute something useful to that, which is a great privilege.

It is obviously different curating an established space to curating independent projects. On the plus side, I meet people who I wouldn’t meet otherwise,  have productive access to artists I am interested in, and a very interesting job that supports my practice. The only drawback can be that people associate you too strongly with the space you run to see you clearly as an artist. I can find it tricky to be introduced as ‘Standpoint’, to a person I might be interested in knowing me as an artist. I have influenced, but not defined what Standpoint is – it was founded in 1996, 10 years before I joined, by Michael Taylor, Graham Bignell and Nicola Tassie – three of the artist-makers in the building, and thus already had an established identity.

I am currently working on a couple of curating projects in collaboration with others, in bigger or multiple venues, and these are closely tied  to my own concerns and interests as an artist. As time goes on I increasingly want to collaborate to curate and develop projects at Standpoint too. It builds networks and allows spaces and individuals to grow.

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