The terms ‘curate’, ‘curator’ and ‘curation’ have taken on a whole new meaning in the last few years. You can now easily find ‘curated’ playlists, ‘curated’ shop windows and even ‘curated’ magazines. However, long before ‘curated’ music festivals and ‘curated’ menus became commonplace, the term ‘curator’ began its life – in the English language at least – as a term used to denote an ecclesiastical pastor. In modern times, a ‘curator’ has been the name used to reference keepers of museums or art collections, extending to include people organising exhibitions in galleries. From pop-ups to permanent gallery spaces, the term ‘curated’ has spanned many methods of display and conservation, but until very recently, it has nearly always been associated with the visual arts.
In the past three months, I (Gallery Girl/Lizzy Vartanian Collier) had my first foray into curating a large-scale exhibition (7 artists, 2 floors, 1 month). The whole experience comprised an art-related project that somehow never had a mention on the platform that has provided me with so many opportunities: Gallery Girl. In March 2018 Perpetual Movement opened at Rich Mix in London as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival at Rich Mix in London. Two months later, a reduced version was also displayed during the debut Armenia Art Fair in Yerevan. The whole process taught me many lessons, and I am going to summarize ten of them here:
1. The relationship between artist and curator is a special one.
The concept behind Perpetual Movement was a personal one to me: framed around inherited memory in relation to women from the Arab region and its diaspora. As the daughter of a Lebanese-Armenian woman from Beirut, I formed strong ties with the artists, many of whom had grown up with stories from their mothers, aunties and grandmothers, that were not so different to the ones that I was brought up with. Sometimes the relationship moved beyond being purely professional. As young women approaching the show from a similar viewpoint and understanding, we also became friends.
That said, for your own sanity, it is also good to remember that the artists you work with are your colleagues. Where business is concerned, I would advise sending emails during reasonable hours, and doing without voice notes and text messages.
2. Do your homework.
This seems obvious, but research every aspect of your show until you know it inside out, even the ‘obvious’ things are worth double-checking. Research your artists, research your concept, research the technical aspects, research everything. (This is especially important in terms of costs; even the cheaper aspects of the exhibition may be more economical somewhere less obvious).
3. It’s OK to be persistent to the point of being irritating.
Sometimes you are going to have to send the same email five times. Some artists just need to be prodded, but your annoyance will be appreciated once the show opens. When it comes to press, determination is key. You may think your exhibition is the best thing to ever hit the art world, but it is worth remembering that newspapers and magazines are always being flooded with emails from people wanting their projects to be written about. You may feel like a pest following up all of the time but being irritating will make you impossible to ignore, and may ultimately result in your exhibition gaining the all-important coverage you have been working for.
4. Family is everything.
It takes a very special kind of love to support someone who is managing multiple artists, liaising with printers, framers, sponsors, galleries, technicians, journalists, customs, a whole host of other people – and in my case – also maintaining a full time job. Only family could still not hate you when all of the stress turns you into a tired, moody monster, especially after you’ve turned their home into a storage unit for months on end.
5. A good framer is girl’s (or a boy’s) best friend.
It took a lot of researching, emailing, phoning and pestering printers and framers until I found Robbie (name changed to protect anonymity). I eventually settled on a framer thanks to a recommendation from my uncle who is a photographer. This meant that I was lucky enough to receive very generous discounts by virtue of association.
A good framer will go through all of the options with you, not just in terms of wood and glass, but also mounting, fixtures and packaging.
Before the work is framed, there are a number of questions to consider. How are you going to transport your oversized artwork once it has been framed? It cannot be rolled anymore, and it won’t fit in the back of cute vintage cars (speaking from experience). You may need to hire a taxi, a van, or smile sweetly at a family member or framer until they reluctantly help you move artwork from framers shop to gallery.
It is also worth considering what you are going to do with the artwork after the exhibition. Does it need to be unframed for shipment? If so, you should let your framer do this, they may charge you a small fee, but it is worth it, trust me. If you are lucky like me, you will find your own Robbie, who will drive your work half-way across London for you, give you lovely discounts, and un-frame the odd work for free.
6. Take your time.
I would strongly suggest preparing for an exhibition as far in advance as possible, especially if you are working with artists from overseas. There are so many factors involved in the planning process that take time: shipping and framing work, printing labels, finding sponsors, preparing social media posts, creating a press release, organising a private view, the list goes on. And, even if you plan everything to the smallest detail, nothing ever goes completely to schedule or the way you had prepared for it. I worked on Perpetual Movement for six months before it opened, which in hindsight, was a very short amount of time. Funding applications and discussions with galleries and artists can sometimes take years, and it is a good idea to take this into account.
7. Don’t underestimate the impact of your exhibition.
The messages left in the comments book during Perpetual Movement really did blow me away. While the exhibition gained a lot of press, it was the response from the viewing public that was really meaningful. I also formed relationships with all kinds of people, some I never would have expected including writers, fellow curators, and collectives from all over the world. A successful exhibition can even result in invitations to curate further exhibitions and to collaborate with more artists and organisations.
8. The exhibition is not over when the artwork is taken down from the walls (not for the curator anyway).
Remember where I said the word curator derived from an ecclesiastical term? A curate takes care of his congregation, and a curator takes care of their artists and their artworks. For me at least, the ‘end’ was the hardest part of the whole experience. Once the work is taken down from the walls there is packing, wrapping, un-framing, shipping, taxes and a whole host of other issues to be dealt with as quickly and as smoothly as possible. When everyone is congratulating you and asking how great it must feel for the show to ‘finally be over’, the very real work begins.
Of course, it is still important to support your artists in whatever way you can, continue to keep in touch with them, visit their studios and promote their shows. You have spent months building a relationship with them, don’t break up when the exhibition closes.
9. Take a deep breath and don’t worry if you are met with surprises.
You will over-plan everything, you will think everything is under control, but there are still bound to be hiccups, and that’s OK. Despite having wall-plans for months, you might find on installation day that you can’t drill into a certain part of the wall, the speakers and projector are mismatched, and a snow-storm might hit your city (it really happened). But if you are prepared, 99.9% of all this will smooth itself over in time for your opening, I promise.
10. You will vow never to curate anything ever again…for five minutes…
When the final loose ends have all been tied up, you are going to want to sleep for a thousand years. The very mention of the word ‘curate’ will probably make you want to be sick. That said, when all is said and done, deep down you will be filled with ideas to make the next show even better than the one you’ve just closed.
Perpetual Movement took place as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, London between 1 and 25 March 2018. (Yumna Al-Arashi, Shaikha Al-Ketbi, Najd AlTaher, Nada Elkalaawy, Araz Farra, Thana Faroq and Nadia Gohar).
Armenia Art Fair took place at Yerevan Expo between 11 and 14 May 2018.