Fiona MacDonald: how curators work
For the last six years artist Fiona MacDonald has worked as a curator at Standpoint Gallery. She works 3 days a week, running a space, with all the practical, managerial, and fundraising implications that brings. In this article she talks about how this relates to her own practice as an artist.
Only a small proportion of my paid time goes on thinking about curating exhibitions, though it remains one of the best bits of the job. Usually seeing interesting work is the spur, then it’s about building relationships
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 manifest this process. This way of thinking goes right back into the studio. Excitingly, it can cross continents, timescales, and connect disparate worlds in conversation.
The best thing about curating shows is the relationships it allows you to develop. Depending on how you work, you can infiltrate the studios of your artistic heroes, or explore connections between your peer group. My advice would be
- Meet everyone you include in an exhibition – do studio visits, because that is where the most benefit will come from.
- Don’t only show people you know. Think through the connections your work has with new 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. A year or more can pass between an initial studio visit and the show. The ideas we have for the exhibition may change quite dramatically over this time. Standpoint is a platform for new work and ideas. It works best when artists are free to do what they want with their work, and the dialogue between us draws out the unexpected.
My ideal scenario is to curate emerging and more established artists together. It brings something to every participant. Recently, I worked with young British-Peruvian sculptor Lizi Sanchez. I invited her to approach an established artist of her choice that situated her practice. She borrowed works by Louise Lawler. Though Louise wasn’t directly involved, the approach expanded and concentrated the non-verbal conversation. Arguably, this is the most important part.
Standpoint has charitable status. As well as a gallery it has 6 large artists’ studios. These house 10-15 artists and makers, including painting, ceramics, etching, litho and letterpress. Its core aim is to benefit artists. For this reason 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, collaborations with external curators, and one show per year with other artists in the studio.
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
- Send 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. Months can go by before I get a chance to sit down and go through submissions. It is not always only about how much you like the work, there are other factors, such as
- 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?
If you can, it helps to talk to a curator direct. You can’t make them like your work, but if you can open a conversation, you may develop a rapport. Be sensitive though, 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 enjoy the deeper engagement with artists this brings. When someone is in the building every day over a prolonged period you can get to know how they think and what they need, and hopefully contribute something useful to that, which is a great privilege.
Curating an established space is different to curating independent projects. On the plus side, I meet people who I wouldn’t meet otherwise, I 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.