Adrian George has produced art shows in bus shelters, white cube spaces, and community arts organisations, and with his book ‘The Curator’s Handbook’ he turned his thoughts to the elements of good curation.
‘Art is incredibly powerful,’ says Adrian George, ‘it can speak across cultures.’ Having originally trained as a dancer, he went on to study Fine Art with Art History, followed by the Royal College’s MA in Curation. Over nearly two decades he has worked at some of the most highly regarded art institutions across the world including the New Museum, New York, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool, and the UK Government Art Collection. A wealth of experience has gone into The Curator’s Handbook, a practical guide to producing exhibitions and shows.
How would you describe the role of the curator?
The curator is a sort of hub and everything else spins off from there. You could be doing anything from writing catalogues to cleaning the gallery floors. Gone are the days where a curator could spend years researching one artist or one painting. Now the curator is seen as a creative, a theorist, a writer, a mediator, a project manager, a fundraiser and an educator. They have to be public-facing, media friendly and social media savvy. Dreaming up an idea for an exhibition is just the starting point, after that the curator should be engaged with everything in order to see their idea come to life.
What is the biggest change that has taken place since you began working as a curator?
Probably the biggest shift is the ubiquity of the smartphone and the advent of the ‘always-on’ generation. The experience of art seems to be, for the majority anyway, mediated through a small screen. We can’t disregard this critical shift but at the same time I feel we shouldn’t be making exhibitions that can only be experienced with, or via technology. I think people will forget how to see, remember, and experience art. My plea to everyone is look first, and take time to enjoy the experience. Take a selfie if you must, but make sure you give plenty of time to looking and thinking.
You’re currently working at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. What advice do you have for curators working internationally?
I would say always question your point of view on everything. It is impossible to be an expert in every culture, every artwork, every medium, so always seek out informed opinion and advice. I like to speak with, and learn from, local artists, academics, writers and curators… and my friends in the region. It is one of my favourite things to do when working in a different country.
You’ve worked with private galleries and public collections. How do the opportunities and restrictions in each compare?
Private galleries offer speed. You can have an idea today and make it real tomorrow. However, if it doesn’t make money you could be out of a job by the end of the week. Public collections are usually much less responsive, much more hierarchical and you might struggle to get your voice heard in a big organisation. The best commercial galleries run almost like public institutions, and the best museums reflect what is happening at the cutting edge of visual culture, while doing all the important research, archiving, conservation and engagement in the background.
What advice would you give to anyone considering becoming a curator, or who is in the early stages of their career?
Just do it. Probably the best way to find your curatorial voice is to start making exhibitions or projects. There is no right or wrong way. You simply have to find out what works. The Curator’s Handbook offers some standard guidelines and tips from some of the best curators in the business – but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
Are there any specific qualities that make a curator stand out?
Someone once told me that the art and the artists should stand out and the curator should take a backstage role. I sort of agree with this. Curators who explore and expose previously unrepresented forms, or articulate unexpected ideas, or pull off an exhibition in an unexpected location, or against the odds, are the ones who really stand out.
Katherine Waters @ theartsdesk.com