Conversations at the Musée National de Céramique Paris

Artists Residencies in Museums – A Sustainable Tool of Collaborative Critique?

Transcript from the conversation at the Pompidou Pavilion, Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, Paris on 6 May 2016.

Participants: Alun Graves, Senior Curator, V&A Museum, London, UK. Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History, Kansas State University, USA. Namita Gupta Wiggers, Independent writer, curator and educator, director of the Critical Craft Forum, USA. Christie Brown, Professor of Ceramics, University of Westminster, London, UK. Clare Twomey, Research Reader, University of Westminster, London, UK. Hyeyoung Cho, Independent Curator, adjunct professor, Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea.

Facilitator: Kim Bagley, Research Associate, University of Westminster, London UK.

Artists have worked with, and within, museums for a very long time. The popularity and almost proliferation of the ceramic artist in resident over the last few years prompted a discussion amongst our participants about the nature of these residencies, their sustainability and their potential to help museums engage with communities.

Alun: The whole idea of the expanded field as it has been defined by the project is based around the idea of collaborative working. It’s to some extent defined by the idea and the arguments operating within the institutional framework. Will that model go forward, in the future, in exactly the same way? Does it vary according to different kinds of partnerships? 

Christie: I think it varies. 

Alun: I see it as a way of unlocking and creating possibilities. I have a natural suspicion of commissions, but I’m also aware that relationships formed between institutions and artists can create bigger possibilities than otherwise would have existed; this seems like a very positive way of working.  But this idea of the museum and artist in a very direct relationship; is that of the moment or is it more fluid? It probably works with the idea of the museum as a hub, where it then involves other people.

 Namita: Yes, it does feel as if it’s shifting away from the notion of collecting, to an acceptance that museums can’t collect everything. Project documentation is an issue then, if the museum is a hub for non-commercial, social engagement.

Alun: Or even commercial, social engagement. We’ve been talking about artists siting work in museums and what that can do to the institution, but I think the museums themselves potentially would be interested in finding different ways to engage with their communities beyond the walls of the building. I think there’s fertile ground there, getting the museum brokering the relationship between the artist and some other space or community.

Clare: Why the artist? There’s so many ways we could use negotiators between museums and communities, museums and industries, museums and participation.  I’m curious about the qualities that artists bring?

Alun: I think the artist is empowered to operate in ways that museum professionals conventionally aren’t. We’re enjoying a period where artists are absorbing certain elements of museum professional practice into their own practice, be that as educators or as curators, so there’s a lovely dialogue or overlap. At the same time, the artist has this ability to operate in ways that are curatorially transgressive.

I’m thinking of Matt Smith who was an artist in residence at the V&A. He’s particularly interested in LGBTQ matters and the representation of objects that relate to marginalised communities. Matt curated a series of displays in the museum, the first of which was a selection of re-presented ceramic figures from our collection, organised in a sweep, starting with butch figures at one end and finishing with camp figures at the other. It was fantastic and it’s exactly the kind of thing that he could do, but I can’t.  Because it’s the artist pitching the idea, it’s accepted.

By empowering the artist you get this different kind of curation. I was thinking about how this is facilitated within an institution? Normally, I’m the one who’s pitching exhibition ideas to the wider museum. By delegating that role, I become decision maker, so it shifts my relationship and justifying the pitch is somehow easier than making it.

Christie: So having the artists there on a permanent basis gives you greater leverage?

Alun: Yes, and it introduces vast amounts of creativity into the whole process of curation. It also brings different perspectives, with multiple voices operating throughout the galleries.

Namita: So you’re shifting that curatorial authoritative role, but you’ve still got the power to ultimately give the permission. It’s a change, but we as curators are still putting ourselves in that role.

Alun: My agenda is to open things up. By empowering myself and being permission giver rather than being the person that seeks permission from the higher authorities, then I can open doors and offer greater freedom.

Clare: With the V&A residencies, I remember being at the early consultations and sitting in a room trying not to jump up and down for joy at the thought of a studio in a gallery. This is a very particular and incredible situation. But there are many residencies now within museums that are maybe not as long, or that may be in negotiation with other partners. It’s more and more under the gaze of the artist as interpreter and it’s more regular. 

Christie: How common is it to have a residency in a museum where there’s actually a studio to work in?

Clare: At the Korean Biennale and in The Gardiner there are studios beneath the museum.

Namita: There are spaces for production, but they aren’t integrated in a curatorial sense into exhibition areas. This is where I feel there’s a really interesting shift in museums. What we’re talking about is a connection with artists, and there is a long connection, but generally with museum educators. Within the last ten years we’ve shifted that relationship somewhat to curators. But integration into long-term relationships and audience development isn’t always there as it is with educators. And, remember, what constitutes a studio changes…

Alun: One of the successful things with our residencies is that they are completely integrated within the interpretive framework of the gallery. The ceramics studio is actually situated within the gallery itself, unlike the other V&A residencies where the studios are over at the education centre, so it is conceived as part of the interpretive structure.

Another reason for the programme’s success is that it’s on going: there’s always a ceramic resident engaging with the gallery and therefore there is a constant expectation.

On a purely practical level, developing on going programming is really constructive because once there is an expectation it’s easier to sustain. If it’s just a one off, it is an uphill journey. It’s an excellent position to have got to and that has a lot to do with physically putting the studio in the gallery and framing it in that way.  That’s not to say that there is on going funding, but that expectation means there is a constant process to work to find funding for the next residency. 

Glen: I’m looking at this differently from what I’m hearing here. Having a resident in the gallery to me seems very academic and conventional. In the Louvre there are painters painting.  That also happened initially in the Royal Academy, in the teaching collection, where you could come in, see the works and work in front of them. The ceramic residencies mirror something that’s been happening with painting for centuries, which is great, because people see how it’s made. It also suggests that a lot of ceramics is about process.

Alun: Artists operate in different ways depending on their practice and that’s what is really interesting. When Keith Harrison was resident at the V&A, his idea was to set up a series of ‘lunchtime disruptions’. It was a play on the idea of a lunchtime recital but more disruptive and challenging for the audience. I think ceramics isn’t just about physical, manual processes; it’s about thought processes too. The residency is not just a view through a glass wall, there’s a lot of direct interaction. I want the public to come in and have the opportunity to talk to the artist and understand something about their creative process, through that interaction. That seems to be more valuable than watching them throw a pot for example, which they can do at places like Wedgwood. So it’s exposing another idea.  

Glen: That’s what I meant. In itself, a residency is kind of neutral. It’s how it’s used. So potentially it becomes something that is different from the demonstration; people can come and see different ways of approaching ceramics. 

Namita: This is actually where the field has changed, I think. There are artists working through clay who think in a different way. We now have an expanded group of people to draw from who can operate in a different context, which extends it beyond just demonstration. I think that’s an important thing in the last fifteen years or so. 

Clare: I’m fascinated with the question: is this way of working sustainable? One of the questions that came out was the artist as a tool of critique. How do they feed into the museum? The collections? Does the collection become a mass of these reflective works and how does that relate to other works outside of that? 

So I’m curious about that relationship with artists working inside museums, as well as the usefulness of the practice of pushing and pulling and challenging within the collection?

Alun: I think that Matt Smith’s residency exposed some of those issues very clearly. What he was trying to demonstrate, I think, is the inability of the collection to adequately represent certain communities or ideas. I think in his very gentle and respectful way, he did point out those issues. 

To some extent already, we’re already painfully aware of these issues but nevertheless, it seems good.

Namita: Doesn’t it also point out the limitations of curatorial practice from within an institution? As curators we are expected to produce things and do things in very particular ways. Having an artist in there allows for the practice of curating to expand beyond the institutional orthodoxy.

Alun: Absolutely, I think it’s one of the most powerful things for me about the whole idea of this expanded field of practice and artists moving into curatorial … I think Edmund’s show in Cardiff (Arcanum) was wonderful in that regard. He literally wrote in pencil on the plinths in front of pieces, these very interesting, subjective, personal comments about the work. It was so wonderful to have that institutional voice knocked to the side by some very personal comments.

Christie: ‘These are cups I like.’ ‘These are cups I don’t like.’

Alun: You felt the empowerment of that process.