Research Seminar 4
LOCATION | University of Westminster, Cavendish campus
DATE | 6 November 2013
Professor Christie Brown: Principal Investigator Clare Twomey: Co-Investigator Dr Julian Stair: Co-Investigator Laura Breen: PhD student, University of Westminster and Rachel Boak: Senior Curator, National Trust, Waddesdon Manor (The Rothschild Collection) Simon Martin: Writer, curator and art historian. Head of Collections and Exhibitions, Pallant House Gallery Tessa Peters: Senior lecturer and curator Matt Smith: Artist, freelance curator (Unravelled) and PhD student, University of Brighton Sue Goldschmidt: PhD student, University of Westminster Zahed Tajeddi:. PhD student, University of Westminster Andrew Ippoliti: PhD student, University of Westminster Emily-Clare Thorn: Assistant, University of Westminster
This latest seminar focused on the subjects of curation and authorship. The purpose of the seminar was to present and open up discussion on the participants’ experience and understanding of the relationship between the two.
The invited guests delivered 20-minute presentations about their experiences:
Matt Smith spoke about his work on two projects as part of the Unravelling curatorial collective: Unravelling The Vyne and Unravelling Nymans. He described the need to be sensitive to the wishes of living relatives of the family that lived in Nymans House and how participating artists drew upon narratives in order to discuss hidden histories, including homosexuality. Matt made work for the exhibition as well as curating it. He spoke of how The Vyne, in contrast, had a much grander history but how the artists he worked with often worked in tangential ways, producing surprising and unexpected results, particularly Sharon McElroy’s work, which explored the overlap between gender role play in seventeenth-century Venice and 1970s glam rock.
Laura Breen provided an overview of the issues surrounding curation and authorship. She spoke about interpretation and the ownership of meaning, addressing the role that artists, curators and audiences have played in authoring a work historically. She examined ideas about artistic autonomy, de-skilling and the resultant emphasis on contextual awareness. She proposed that the increasing overlap between artistic and curatorial skills is complicated by the insistence of medium as a defining characteristic in ceramic practice.
Rachel Boak spoke about interpreting collections in a historic house. She provided a history of the uses, ownership and collections of Waddesdon Manor. She described different approaches to the display of ceramics, from the arrangement of Sèvres porcelain and the use of figurines as sculpture to Edmund de Waal’s interventions. In her description of her curatorial role she focused on the care of the collections and her duty to look after them for future generations as well as ensuring that they are well interpreted and accessible. She also spoke of the Rothschild Foundation’s on-going support of contemporary practice.
The presentations led to a more in-depth discussion of the works and questions arising at the end of each session.
Issues addressed in the discussion that followed included:
Laura Breen proposed that a lot of the tension about ownership stems from challenges to the idea that the curator is a neutral voice. Today one sees more authorial forms of curating, crossing over into what artists have done to critique the museum, which causes a friction between roles. Clare Twomey queried whether there were two separate issues in our discussion – the curatorial laying out of histories that are given, and the production of new and additional histories. She also questioned how much influence the curator has over what the artist does – whether they dictate or step back to facilitate.
Julian Stair asked Matt Smith if he has a sense of authorship and ownership of the exhibitions he produces. Matt preferred the term ‘responsibility’ – to the house and the artists- to make the work as well as they can, particularly as they have a limited budget.
Rachel Boak proposed that working with artists was one way of stretching visitors’ imaginations and was also something that the Rothschild family [who owned Waddesdon Manor, which recently exhibited an intervention in the house by Edmund de Waal] had encouraged. She argued that it broadened the curators’ knowledge as well as the audiences’. Waddesdon don’t issue a call for artists or invite them to work in a specific way, but meet artists with whom they are interested in working and allow them to proceed from there. That starts a dialogue, which is as flexible as possible, whilst remaining alert to the National Trust’s duty to care for the fabric of the building and the collection.
Julian asked Matt how the Unravelling series of interventions balance the desire to get artists from a cross-section of media and background with an open application process. Matt responded that they break it down into a shortlist of artists who they’d like to work with and then try and attain a balance within their selections from that group. From that point it becomes about the overall show. It is not about box ticking, but a more organic approach. They try to select on the grounds of the work that people propose, rather than being attracted to big names. He also spoke of the centrality of personal relationships, trust, negotiation and taking time to understand each other.
Christie Brown described how the demands of academia have led her to work in particular ways and spoke of the benefits and pitfalls of this. There was lengthy discussion about the demands of funding and how the emphases of different governments and initiatives can shape the work of museums.
Laura questioned whether the outsourcing of physical making was more of a problem in ceramics. Various participants concurred. Christie suggested that there was an essentially collaborative nature of many activities in ceramics despite the emphasis on the sole maker within studio ceramics.She described how Antony Gormley’s Field was a crucial turning point for her with regard to authorship, where he set the template for what should be done but raised questions about who made it and who authored it. She then discussed the idea of authorship in Clare’s work, where the audience interaction helps to make the work.
The participants discussed how Liam Gillick commissioned craftsmen from Albisola for the Ceramics In Contemporary Art Triennial there in 2006 via email because they had skills that he did not possess and wanted to utilise. Clare spoke of her experience of shared making and explained that she feels a duty towards work with her name on and feels it is important to set the parameters of related activities, acting as orchestrator. She proposed that for her the way in which authorship intersects with craft practice is about identity, discussing Susie MacMurray’s Shell at Pallant House Gallery (2006/7) and the character of placing a particular work rather than making its components. Christie related this to Clare’s Dark Day in Paradise at Brighton Pavilion, where Clare had to direct conservators with regard to the placement of her work due to collections care issues.
Clare noted that many projects were commissioned by the educational team rather than the curatorial team and wondered if this led to a misalignment of roles whereby the artist ends up running community and interpretation projects. She then spoke of her positive experience at Brighton Pavilion as part of the Museumaker project where a separate educationalist dealt with that aspect of the project. Christie proposed that education and art demanded very different skills. Matt suggested that it depends on the organisation and the degree to which the activities of the learning and curatorial departments overlap. He proposed that the best course is to embed the learning team in the process from the start and to support the delivery of programmes in the appropriate way for each project.
Laura asked if the pressure to ‘perform’ was more acute for people who made physical things and were perceived to have craft skills. Clare admitted that she had encountered this mindset. She proposed that Michele Erickson’s residency at the V&A offered an alternative way of thinking about making and interpretation, as her research into how historic objects had been made rescued skills that had been lost.
Christie asked what the curator should or should not be doing and spoke about the difference between the curatorial duty to physically care for collections and curating in a visual and theoretical sense.
Rachel spoke of the inherited tradition of connoisseurship at Waddesdon Manor. She explained that as audiences have shifted they no longer relate to that sort of connoisseurship. This has demanded new interpretative approaches and they are now telling different stories about the properties – looking at how the house and the objects in it were used rather than them just being expensive and precious things in themselves. She argued that the bounds of authorship are also partly dictated by the history of the house and the objects – the curatorial team don’t tell stories that have no basis in the actual history of the house.
Christie raised the issue of David Cushway’s work where he and Curator Andrew Renton drank tea from a tea set in the collection of the National Museum Wales. This fascinated SimonMartin, who spoke of what Bouke De Vries had done with the Bow collection at Pallant House and the balance between the responsibility to care for the collection and the responsibility to make things accessible.
Several participants raised the issue of touch, the extra layer of understanding that can be gained by handling objects and the balance between that and collection preservation.
Julian raised the issue of how objects can shift from active objects to artefacts, drawing on Rachel’s description of the liners for the Sèvres porcelain at Waddesdon Manor, which she feels have accrued their own biographical value, and the historic use of objects by members of the Rothschild family. He also spoke of the Duke of Devonshire’s active custodianship of Chatsworth House and his family history.
Julian noted that there was lots of discussion about live relationships but questioned the responsibility towards dead artists and donors. Simon spoke of the potential of negotiating with living relatives and balancing historical concerns with contemporary needs. He proposed that artists can help to draw out interesting narratives that tell new stories about collections that have lost relevance. He also spoke of the falseness of Pallant House’s reconstructed 18th-century interiors and how removing them created a space to respond to the histories of the building and things that actually happened there.
Julian spoke about the balance between experience and authenticity in house museums. Simon explained that authenticity was a concern when commissioning Bouke De Vries’ Bow Selector at Pallant House – the balance between commissioning a conservator to restore a broken piece and embracing the historical fact of the breakage and allowing that to direct its treatment as the installation does.