Ikon, Birmingham: how public galleries find artists

Stuart Tulloch: Curator of Ikon Gallery Birmingham and formerly curator of Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool talks about his role and experiences working as curator in these spaces.

I studied Fine Art at Newcastle University so my background is that of a practitioner rather than an academic. I first got involved in organizing exhibitions through the University’s Hatton Gallery; I volunteered at first before gaining full-time employment. I was still searching for a direction when I got a job at The Hayward in London. All of a sudden I had this amazing role organizing exhibitions by major international artists. It was a great time for me and I learnt so much about the processes of creating a programme and working with artists.  I decided that I didn’t want to make any more of my own work, but instead help realize commissions and shows for others.

After four years at The Hayward, I left London to become Curator of Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool.  When I first started I had lots of conversations about why I left Hayward and London to move to Grundy and Blackpool; they are at such opposite ends of the visual arts spectrum. I felt I’d hit a glass ceiling at Hayward, and Grundy provided me with an opportunity to lead an organization and its programme.  Blackpool is my home town and I could see the potential in the gallery; although it had very little profile nationally or even regionally at the time, it is a beautiful gallery space and Blackpool is an interesting context in which to present contemporary art.  It wasn’t quite as mad a decision to me as it seemed to others; in an industry where success is reliant on networks and focused upon London,  it was a bit like stepping off the edge of the earth.

I worked at Grundy for nine years before joining Ikon, Birmingham in December last year. My career so far has taken me from a university gallery, to a major London venue, to a small regional venue, to a major regional venue. Four very different organizations that each share the aim of presenting visual arts to a wide range of audiences, but each has a particular remit in what it shows and to whom.

I’m coming from the premise that this group of articles is aimed predominantly at artists who are at the beginnings of trying to get their work shown in public spaces, or have been left frustrated by a lack of success or receiving no response from proposals they have submitted.

My advice is to take time researching organizations, their programmes and reputations. It is highly unlikely that places like Hayward and Ikon, and the other major regional venues, will show the work of unknown artists who are at the start of their careers or that they will realize a project from an unsolicited proposal.  Ikon does work with emerging artists who are based in the West Midlands and that is very much part of its role in supporting the arts regionally, and to push forward region based artists onto a national and international stage.  But it’s not about showing the work of artists who promise great things; it’s about showing artists who are developing their promise into great things or have an existing internationally recognized reputation.

My role as curator, which is similar to the curator roles in other contemporary visual arts venues across the country, is to research and identify artists for the programme.  And I’m doing this in response to the reputation Ikon has built for itself over the past fifty years.  If you take a glance at Ikon’s programme over the past thirty years you will find exhibitions and projects by Jochen Gertz, Susan Hiller, Chris Burden, Laurie Anderson, Mark Wallinger, On Kawara, Cornellia Parker, Ryan Gander, Giuseppe Penone, Steven Shearer. There is a small space at Ikon that enables it to show the work of interesting emerging artists or those with a smaller body of work behind them. But we are creating a programme now that has to build upon the past in order to sustain and further build upon its reputation. That makes it really tough to take a gamble on someone who is just starting out.  It was different at Grundy, as I was the one building the gallery’s reputation, and there was a whole other set of factors I had to consider – local authority gallery in a major tourism destination.  What is consistent is that I was building respect for the gallery among diverse audiences, stakeholders and artists.  Without direction and without being selective and ambitious with the programme and approaching artists with existing reputations, it would have been incredibly difficult to grow the audience and support from the local authority, and attract the funding necessary to become a venue that good artists wanted to show at.

There is an ecology that makes the whole thing work: a great venue and curator will want to show the work of artists that will further their reputations and enable them to become or remain attractive to the artists they aspire to show. And artists want to show at great venues because it will further their careers.  A great programme unlocks funding that makes the whole thing possible, and develops an audience that helps attract more funding.  I’ve spoken to a lot of young artists that don’t understand this; they expect to walk into a place and be offered a show. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with submitting a proposal in order to make curators aware of your work with the view of getting noticed rather than expecting to be given a show.

I think the best people to offer advice on how and where to show are other artists who are succeeding in developing their careers.  It’s also important to know what type of career you want: are you aspiring to show at major public venues across the world, or more commercially focused, or something else.  If it’s critically focused, I would say that it’s not always best to show in a place that has an open selection policy unless it can be worked to one’s advantage or at a very early stage in one’s career.  I see a lot of CVs in which artists list three showings at their local arts centre. This, to me, looks like someone who is happy to show anywhere and is only getting opportunities locally.  There is nothing wrong with that unless you want to be critically recognized.  Instead look for opportunities and residencies across the world, no matter how small, which will be challenging and appear more interesting to curators in the long run.  Take a look at the CVs of artists you admire, which are normally available on their websites or those of their gallery.  And not just those of very established artists, but also ones that are emerging or mid-career.

In terms of what attracts me to an artist’s practice, I’d say…gosh, lots of things! And it will depend on the context in which I’m looking to show the work.  But in every case I’d say a strong articulation of an idea, whatever that might be, that is emotionally or intellectually moving.  Personally I’m drawn to the absurd, or work that draws attention to the magic or peculiarities of the everyday.  I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible artists – working with the Belgian artist Panamarenko was amazing.  I had only recently graduated from my fine art degree and suddenly I was working at Hayward organizing a show by a man who made flying machines; these elegant, witty inventions, enthused with dreams of flight were spellbinding to me, and that spell has directed my programming ambitions ever since to a large degree.   At Grundy, I put together an eclectic programme that thought around the possibilities of what art, the gallery and exhibitions could be. From deconstructing the gallery space and its functions and evaluating its permanent collection in different ways, to championing Blackpool and its unique culture.  And things completely unrelated to the local context in order to imagine everything in a new way.

I consider my job as working with artists to make things happen; to help realize ideas and attract audiences.  In many ways I see myself as a facilitator sitting between the artist and my colleagues and the audience.  Developing an honest and open relationship with an artist is really important to me; communication is really key. I spend the majority of time communicating: finding money, getting things organized and putting plans in place.  It’s great when an artist you’re working with wants to experiment or proposes something really ambitious, and then it’s about helping the idea come to life and fit within the ambitions and needs (marketing, press, learning, finances) of the institution, or negotiating with the artist to fit the idea to the needs of the institution and available resources without sacrificing quality or the integrity of the work.  I’ve always worked with organizations where the artist is the most important element, getting that relationship right, and the balance between all needs and ambitions, creates a rich environment for an audience.  I think that’s what I enjoy the most.

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