Paula Orell: how curators work

The invitation to write this article is incredibly timely within my practice, as I move from being an institutional curator to an independent. When considering how I could make this article useful in this period, what immediately sprung to mind was to invite an artist I have previously worked with, to ask questions about my curatorial approach, enabling me to define and reflect on my past fifteen years as a curator.

I commissioned Tom Dale’s first solo exhibition, following his work out of Art School. I have subsequently invited him to explore the intricacies of the relationship between the curator and the artist, and the function of curatorial practice.

This is an opportunity to contextualise my practise, after working in an institution for six years, that reflects a new endeavour of creating an independent commissioning and production programme. One of the main projects that I am developing is a contemporary art programme about the River Tamar, local to Plymouth, where I am based in the South West. This project works with many partners including non-arts organisations, and is specifically a development programme for the rural part of the river. This programme has a long-term agenda to re-engage people with this waterway. Therefore, my role in working with these agencies is about defining the practice of a curator, and how it has become essential in commissioning art in the public realm. This acts by transferring the function of the institutional and curatorial role in creating a context, into the hands of the public realm.

The discussion with Tom was to engage with where I am now and how my institutional approach and commissioning of artists, especially those working in the public realm, will influence my work now. Tom insightfully drew upon many aspects of my practice, including the renown I have developed for commissioning performance art, as well as socially engaged practice. This proved very interesting, as institutional curators believe it is their responsibility to reflect the broad range and diverse aspects of contemporary art now. Essentially the role is to reflect the function of a public institution, and its intrinsic value in contextualising art for a wide audience. Additionally, the art institution has another function and value in an artist’s career. Tom drew upon the model of the Kunstverein to Kunsthalle in relation to my practice, whereby the regional arts centre/galleries in the UK are modes for the progression of an artist’s career, and offer different levels at which an artist can exhibit work at different stages of their career.

This is a great illustration and reflects the curatorial methodology applied to Plymouth Arts Centre. Tom and I spoke about applying process to curating. The role of a curator is to allow time and responsibility in developing an exhibition with a young and emerging artist’s work. I proudly state that there are many examples of exhibitions commissioned at the centre that have led onto new things for artists, including relationships with commercial galleries, larger exhibitions, and new commissions. The value of a curator for an artists’ career is essential, as it forms new connections in which work is subsequently created. In a publication produced by Plymouth Arts Centre about the function of residency practice and commissioning artists, I wrote about the analogy of ‘cradle to cradle whereby one opportunity or idea inevitably leads to the next, and the curator has a responsibility, especially within a younger artist’s career, to make connections and forge new networks for the work.

This brings me on to how a curator defines a programme. Essentially the intrinsic social value of an art organisation is more critical than ever, as major budgets are cut and art is being taken out of the tertiary education system. Therefore an arts organisation’s relationship with the educational system is going to become more essential, as it potentially becomes the only place where art is taught outside of the art school system.. The premise of this value is about how you approach relationships, build a community, and transfer and develop knowledge of contemporary art practice. Context has always been key in my work, even when curating within artist-led organisations, through the selection and production of exhibitions that reflect the agenda and are right for the place, and relevant to the audience.

To define the curator’s role Tom asked about my background and inspiration, linking this to art education. The Masters I undertook at Goldsmith College in Creative Curating was incredibly valuable. At the time, in 2000, a more experimental approach to curating was being defined, particularly around the contextualization of creative curatorial practice through an artist led approach. This was being mapped at the time and I chose this course as the title indicated that the art practice and process had more value than the traditional format of presenting exhibitions and work.

I anticipate that through the resulting interview, available online on my website, will reveal to a wider audience the relationship a curator has with an artist. It is not just about the artist being selected, both have to value each other’s practice and great synergies come from this understanding. One thing Tom noted about my work is the opportunity that a curator can take in allowing the ideas to progress, investing time early on and discussing the reason and opportunities for the work. We considered what might be critical for the work at this stage in the formulation of both his ideas and career progression.  We identified that approaching writers to critique his work for a publication, and creating an artist talk with a valued critic that could draw out new aspects in the work would be the most valuable. Also the creation of new work which would lead on to a London exhibition, was pretty essential. He is now working towards a major national exhibition of his work.

So, perhaps my role is about process, creating the right environment for ideas, and the responsibility of unfolding these to a wider audience.

Furthermore, thinking of other curators that I have had the opportunity to work with, such as Tom Dale and Lisa Le Feuvre, it was their close relationship to the work, and personal connections with the artist which led to a critical survey exhibition of contemporary art practice ,the British Art Show 7,which toured to Plymouth in 2011/12. An embedded approach within the various networks and communities; understanding the historical context and the impact of its placement within the wider framework of contemporary art is essential. Further to this an understanding of the different agendas politics and bureaucracy and how to negotiate these is critical.

A final point about common mistakes; many are made, but having a belief in both your objectives, and not to be afraid of failure is fundamental, as this is why we experiment and create contemporary art.

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