Adrian George is an art curator based in the United Kingdom. Not long ago, he contacted me about asked me to review his book, “The Curator’s Handbook” http://www.adriangeorge.me/writing/. I told him I’d do him one better. Why not have a chat while I wait to get the book? What you see below is our conversation.
MICHAEL: Hello Adrian, You're in Shanghai at the moment. Are you curating an exhibition? What's going on over there?
ADRIAN: I'm here for my day job with the UK Government Art Collection. We are presenting a series of video art works on a huge wall of monitors. We've also invited an artist to create a new temporary work of art over three days at the Long Museum which is near the river in Pudong. It’s all part of the GREAT Festival of Creativity that aims to promote the UK, businesses and the creative industries.
I'll try to catch up with some friends and colleagues while I'm here too. Maintaining social and professional networks is really important. Without my contacts in this city, puling these projects together would have been a major challenge.
MICHAEL: What do you actually do as a curator? How did you become a curator?
ADRIAN: Curators can do a lot of different things. I think that's what makes it an interesting job or career choice. Once upon a time, a curator was someone who worked with, and carried out in-depth research, into a collection of art or objects. A connoisseur who knew everything there was to know about a group of works.
Today, a curator is someone who makes links between things, draws out ideas or puts their idea or a subject or an artist under a microscope. We make exhibitions but we also fundraise and write everything from labels for the work to articles and catalogues. We teach, we engage with the public, we might do press things, we work with artists, either to show and promote their work or through a commission to create a new work from scratch.
It’s constantly changing and evolving as the world we live in changes and evolves. That's what makes it exciting, I think. No two days are the same.
How to become a curator? That is easy and difficult at the same time. There is a whole section on it in my book, ‘The Curator's Handbook,’ (Thames & Hudson, 2015). Some very respected and senior curators and museum directors have said that actually you don't need to study or train to be a curator -- you can just start to do it and try to learn on the job. I can see the point here as a lot of the skills are practical or you just need to learn through experience. Having said that, these days you wouldn't want to make a costly mistake or cause offence through an uninformed action or lack of knowledge - as that could really affect your career long term.
So, the consensus is that a combination of academic studies and practical experience is the best option if you want to be a curator. Graduate or postgraduate studies in art history, theory and curating is an ideal foundation followed by experience - often gained in volunteer positions these days - in order to get that first foot on the ladder. Oh yes, and see as many exhibitions and as much art as you can, meet people and consider the advice that is offered!
MICHAEL: Why did you write "The Curator's Handbook"? You could've kept your insider knowledge to yourself.
ADRIAN: Yes, that's true. People tend to want to keep useful information to themselves. Knowledge is power someone once said. But you know what? When I was just starting out, there was no book like this and I really could've done with one. I probably could've gotten ahead faster and achieved more in less time. I meet so many brilliant younger curators now -who have fantastic ideas, but struggle to find a way to get their ideas off the page or laptop and out into the real world. It would be nice to see them succeed, see those ideas realized. If this book gives them some help somewhere, then that is a good thing. Plus I get to see those amazing exhibitions too!
I really wrote the book because someone suggested it and I thought “What a good idea!’ It would mean I don't end up saying the same things over and over when I teach. I can just refer to my book!
MICHAEL: Take it from me. Despite the fact that you've written a book, you're still going to find yourself explaining things over and over. Does your book have anything for people who just love art, but aren't art professionals?
ADRIAN: Ha! You are right I'm sure. The questions will keep on coming! Ah well. Maybe that’s my cue for the second edition!
I think the current book is interesting for all sorts of people. There is a potted history of curating, explaining the roots of the profession as it were. I talk about commercial galleries, how they do their business, etc. I talk about art fairs that are drawing big crowds hoping to see a lot of different art in one place all at one time.
Just getting an insight into the amount of work that goes into putting on an exhibition could be an eye-opener for many people. All of that behind the scenes stuff is interesting for the entire art viewing audience I think. If any of those art lovers you mention own works of art, then this will give them a lot of information about how to look after it and display it well.
MICHAEL: Thanks for the chat Adrian.
Check out Adrian George at http://www.adriangeorge.me/writing/.