Q&A ︎︎︎

New Curators

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Late last year it was revealed that three former Tate specialists had been working arduously on something new and remarkable – a curatorial training programme based in London that is not only free, but also pays a living wage. Its founding directors were all deeply concerned with diversity in their former roles. Amongst other impressive feats, Kerryn Greenberg established Tate’s Africa Acquisitions Committee; Rudi Minto de Wijs co-chaired Tate’s BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Staff Network; and Mark Godfrey curated pioneering exhibitions, such as Soul of a Nation (co-curated with Zoé Whitley). Yet the three of them connected on the sentiment that there was a limit to how much they could help diversify the workforce of UK art institutions from within. New Curators, which is offered to individuals from "lower socio-economic backgrounds", aims to work in partnership with numerous contemporary art spaces and professionals to offer 12 people a year-long, robust, and carefully considered curatorial programme, and an enduring global network. INCCA spoke to Greenberg and Minto de Wijs about how the programme came to be, and how it aims to transform the visual art ecosystem in a way that is truly novel and exciting.   

INCCA: There have been some interesting research and data studies, some coming out of the UK and the US, considering the way in which “perception of progress far outpaces reality” when it comes to representation and equity in the art world. A lot of these reports such as The Burns Halperin Report or the more recent Structurally F-cked are focussed on artists, representation within collections, the market, or pay and working conditions. What led you to create a programme that supports curators from lower socio-economic backgrounds? Were there any specific studies that motivated you, did you conduct your own research, or was it based on your own personal experiences?

Kerryn Greenberg (KG): For many years Mark [Godfrey] and I were part of the curatorial team at Tate Modern which was focused on developing Tate’s international collection, building a more diverse exhibition programme, and widening audience participation. We believe in and celebrate this work. However, to deepen and sustain these developments, we felt curatorial departments—the groups of people who decide what art we see and how—needed to become more inclusive and representative too. Our goal is to create an accessible pathway into the profession for a wider range of people, which we hope will contribute to making the artworld a richer, more inclusive space.

In recent years the cost of tertiary education has increased significantly. Furthermore, a degree in curating or art history does not guaranty a job in a profession that is notoriously competitive and poorly remunerated. For anyone from a lower socio-economic background, this is the first barrier to becoming a curator.

We also know that many graduates of art history and curatorial studies programmes do not have the opportunity during their studies to gain the practical skills or develop the networks needed to break into and thrive in this field. The expectation is that individuals should fill the gaps in their knowledge during unpaid or poorly remunerated internships or entry level jobs. Again, something that is only feasible for those who have the financial means. We could also see institutions attempting to recruit and retain curators from a wider range of backgrounds but for various reasons struggling to do so.

New Curators was born out of our different experiences working in a major institution and the challenges that we were facing first-hand, which we felt needed to be addressed rather than any particular report on diversity in the curatorial workforce. Although subsequently there have been several reports as you mentioned. One that you didn't list is the Artfund report that was released last year, which provided the quantitative data and backed up everything that we intuitively felt was wrong.
Rudi Minto de Wijs (RMDW): I think Kerryn said it really well in terms of being in these spaces, and not seeing changes. Within Tate I wasn't in the curatorial team, I worked in marketing and public programmes so it’s a little bit different for me. I think there was, personally, an energy that connected Mark, Kerryn and I. A lot of the reports that were coming out, especially in Britain… were saying that individuals that were [already] working in these institutions or these environments weren’t being given opportunities or their voices weren’t necessarily being platformed. I saw examples of this in my work with Tate’s BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Staff Network, which includes curators, art handlers etc. And obviously after the murder of George Floyd there was a huge shake up in terms of the importance that was put on these things and it was kind of like harnessing the energy not just around Black voices but, as Kerryn said, looking at the issue that intersects with all these things which is class, within the UK anyway.

For me the data is potentially a little bit misleading because you don’t necessarily get to see what's happening within the institution itself and the things that go on behind closed doors. Sometimes it was more of a case of things that aren't seen. The BCA (the Black Cultural Archives) in the UK did work with the Runnymede Trust, and emphasised that [diverse] people are working within spaces, it's just that potentially they're not being listened to or not being given the same sort of platforms or opportunities that others would be, which is sometimes just being in a room.  

We felt curatorial departments—the groups of people who decide what art we see and how—needed to become more inclusive and representative.

INCCA: Having all worked within the context of big museums, did you see any specific DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) strategies when it came to staffing, and were any of them working?

RMDW: This is not aimed at Tate, this is across the board in my experience in terms of everything I’ve done—working for companies, working on shows with individuals in bigger and smaller spaces—DEI strategies—some of which were amazing—were seen as a suggestion rather than requirement. With BLM particularly, there was a shift in consciousness in terms of the fear of doing the wrong thing... I don't necessarily feel that DEI strategies are bad because they generally begin from good intentions, but often the necessary things are not in place for them to succeed. I do have hope. I do think things can change. But big and small institutions are too often hampered by bureaucracy. I don't think they were bad strategies because they didn't succeed, I think that they just existed at a time that didn’t allow them to succeed.  

KG: Just to echo some of what Rudi is saying, despite best intentions, many previous DEI initiatives have had limited impact because the full scope of what was needed for them to succeed was not fully grasped. For example, there have been quite a few curatorial fellowships or short-term internship opportunities aimed at diversifying the field, but the onus is invariably on the individual to make it work.
Often these people are not given enough support or not the right type of support. Staff might have little mentoring experience and/or are overstretched or the timing might be off and there simply isn’t enough for the fellow/intern to do at the right level. Then suddenly the opportunity has come and gone, and the person is not necessarily better off for it. There have been quite a few initiatives like that, where there’s just a mismatch between the expectations on the part of what the institution can give and the reality. In my opinion, too much depends on how well prepared the individual is and to some degree what initiative they are able to take, but equally I’m not convinced most museums are well equipped to be doing this work. Despite good intentions, there's just too much left to chance.

By establishing New Curators outside of any institution, but in partnership and aligned with numerous and different kinds of institutions internationally, we're running in parallel. Our cohort will still have access to and the experience of different institutions, but we're able to really focus on the development of these people. Their emotional development, professional development, skills training, academic exposure, networking, coaching etc. We're really just ensuring that the time that they are with us is as productive as it can be for those individuals, so that they can then have everything that they need to go on to working in different spaces, which are changing but are still not where they would like to be, where we would like to see them be.

It's important to recognise that the definition of curator, amongst young people, is changing. It's not necessarily just museums and galleries, it’s also putting together a show with friends in a warehouse.

INCCA: Are you interested in transforming the institutional landscape, to create a new generation of museum curators, or do you hope this programme will motivate these curators to work in different contexts, galleries, non-profits, or even independently?

RMDW: Both I think. Even in the interviews that we had with the potential cohort, a lot of people showed so many different interests and ways in which they can effect the art world more broadly. Obviously it's really important to have representation within museum spaces and curators who are working with art from different places, and different perspectives. But I also think it's important to recognise that the definition of curator, amongst young people, is changing. It's not necessarily just museums and galleries, it’s also putting together a show with friends in a warehouse… with our course we want people to work with contemporary art, but I think it's also important to recognise that art curation can exist in different ways. At the moment we’re working on putting together a 10-week module within the course that recognises alternative ways or models of curating and I personally think that’s really important. I’m biased because that's where most of my experience and my passions have laid. Oftentimes there have been examples when I've been sat in the room with curators and worked on a project and I’ll reference something that I think is important and could fit really well with the public programme and curators won’t have any idea, because they are so focused on certain things. I think that's changing a lot, that doesn't happen as much anymore and I think that’s good.
KG: To add to what Rudi is saying, I think what we're looking to do is expose the cohort to as many different types of institutions [as possible]. For example our associated organisations range from large established collecting institutions, to non-profit spaces, to artist-run spaces, to kunsthalle, to spaces that emphasise artist residencies. The idea being really that you can work in so many different ways to effect change and there's so many different types of curating nowadays. We’re aiming to keep it as broad as possible, but the skills that we're seeking to impart are really transferable. If you are working in a museum, you still need to work with a budget. If you’re going to be curating something in a warehouse, if you're handling art, there are still going to be some basic best practices irrespective of where you are. There still needs to be some form of legal agreement. And often when you're working in an informal way, or perhaps in small institutions, the curator is also the registrar, is also the art handler, is also the marketing expert. So how do we prepare people for any number of different types of working environments. And I think that's really important. So yes our focus is curatorial work and working with artists and artworks, but we recognise that can happen in so many different ways and we need to be as broad as possible in our teaching and exposure.


INCCA: I’m not sure if you’re able to talk about this year’s applicants, but being based in South Africa we’re interested to know if you were you able to accommodate any international applicants and were you hoping for this to be a very international group?

KG: We received over 1,000 applications from 98 countries for 12 places. We have now made all the offers for our 2023-4 cohort, and will announce the fellows in due course once all visas have been secured. What we can say is that the group is very international and the fellows come from a wide range of academic and cultural backgrounds.

INCCA: What has surprised you the most about applications you received?

KG: We weren't expecting the sheer volume… and were impressed by the calibre of the applications. We saw a lot of emphasis on audience development, community-based practice, care-centred approaches to curating. A real emphasis on equality, inclusivity, environmental concerns. It was exciting to hear about the ideas these people have, and to learn about the kind of exhibitions they want to make. Our application process, in addition to having the standard short and long form written questions also had an audio component. That was a real revelation, because we asked each candidate to pre-record five minutes of them speaking about a cultural event or object that they had experienced recently that they thought was important and explain why. It is clear we have a lot to learn from our fellows, as much as they hopefully have to learn from us; it’s going to be really exciting in that that respect.

RMDW: We’re still in the process of gathering our learnings and thinking about ways in which we can make the application and selection process better and smoother. The volume of people was amazing to see, but it was a challenge.

KG: Yes, every application was reviewed by at least three people and going through so many submissions was very labour intensive.

INCCA: You’re offering help in creating a network, which is in my experience perhaps more valuable than earning a degree from an institution. Is it important to you all for this network to be global and ongoing?

RMDW: Yes, our focus is on creating a global, flexible network that evolves as we go along, and certainly as more people complete the programme. We have 16 associated organisations globally representing different types of arts organisations: smaller more experimental spaces, large established museums, kunsthalle, artist-run initiatives etc. Our associated organisations include Haus der Kunst, CCA Glasgow, ICA Boston and Artangel to give a flavour. We want to ensure our fellows have an opportunity to learn about a wide range of arts organisations, meet a lot of people and leave feeling confident in their network though we will also be there to help support. I'm personally hoping that I will be the least useful person in their network, that during the course they will find the individuals who they can connect with and want to reach out to. For me that would be amazing.

KG: In addition to our associated organisations, our fellows will engage with our external faculty, curators from all over the world who have quite different approaches to curatorial practice. Then there’s all the guest speakers who will be coming through ranging from artists to arts professionals – registrars, press officers, art handlers – speaking about how they work with curators and how the different roles within the industry intersect.

We’ve taken a lot of care in bringing people together who we think are collaborative, who we believe will bounce off each other well and who we hope will collaborate in due course. After a few years, we will also have an alumni network, which we know will be another resource for our fellows to draw upon.

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