Interview with Course leader and Curator
Updated: Jan 18
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and maybe, a little bit about where you started your art journey.
So why back when, I got an undergraduate degree that was in what they called “Visual Arts”, which is like a studio programme in an Art History department in a Liberal Arts University in the United States. So I did my undergraduate degree at Princeton, and I actually went there to study science and math, but in a Liberal Arts system, you get a year to two years to declare what your major is going to be. When I flunked out of my first year math class, I decided to go for ‘plan B’, and the other thing I was really interested in was making art. Now I’m an art historian, I have an MA and a PhD in Art History, but I really didn’t start out being interested in the history of art, and started off as a practitioner.
That’s really interesting. So would you consider yourself an artist as curator, or an artist as historian?
Maybe not quite. I don’t consider myself an artist anymore, and that was a fairly important and somewhat active decision that I made, maybe within the last 4-6 years of graduating from college. For a while, I thought of myself as a painter, and after awhile, declaring to myself and maybe never really speaking of myself that way afterwards. I wouldn’t call myself an artist, I’m an art historian, critic and a curator. It is really important for me, certainly and I use it all the time, in my practical knowledge, and learning through doing, but I don’t think of myself as an artist, and haven’t for a long time.
Like a lot of artists, I also made a lot of art before learning how to be a curator. Did you know, at the time, that you wanted to be an artist? Because from my experience, I came into art school, making art, kind of knowing that I didn’t want to be a full-time artist. I was hoping to develop and transfer those skills into other career paths. So, I was wondering what your experience was like.
That’s a good question actually. I think my current position favors some stories of how I got here over others that might be accurate [laughs]. So the only option was to call yourself an artist. So in part, where I went to University for example, there was no graphic design or product design courses. There was an architecture school, but that was very professional, for people who really wanted to become an architect...so there wasn’t a real sense of creative culture. In the context of where I studied, you could study visual arts, creative writing, dance or theatre, and I suppose people were also studying film, photography and we had a teeny-tiny computer graphics thing. But it was really small.
And we all thought ourselves as outliers of sorts...But maybe what I feel like I’ve been doing since, and the thing that I am the most interested in, in the recent world, is that there is so much more broader and more complex understandings of what it means to be creative. I feel like those categories that I grew up with... were so problematic in a way. That is probably why I decided to abandon the idea of being an artist because to be an artist is to only be one thing, which is to be a practitioner who had a gallery career. It was difficult and it was clear that not many people succeeded at that system. So I was trying to do that in New York in the 1990s, let’s say the 1990s to 1995, before i decided to abandon that. So at that point, probably similarly to now, you sort of face this world that seems sort of full, very effective, with lots of things going on, but you think “I have no idea how to get from the thing that I do, to what it means to be a participant in that world” really. To benefit financially, for example.
Yeah, I think that is very interesting to say that those labels kind of restrict, or kind of paint these expectations that come with your practice. And because of that, most of us don’t really realize our real options, or that there are more options out there, or that our skills can be transferable. I think from the stories that we’ve heard lately from current art students, let’s say from Foundation to BA, to MA as well, they feel like those restrictions are still there, although they have improved. I think a lot of them still feel that they don’t really know, what the so called “real world” or the commercial world as to offer. So, I wanted to ask you about how you feel academia is positioned within this kind of relationship with the commercial world. Do you believe that academia and the commercial art world, for example, are polarized?
They are definitely different worlds. I don’t know if I would use the word “polarized”, because in many respects, the educating of artists, comes with it the expectation that artists, that some of them would go out and enter into the commercial art system. It is quite obvious that education is part of that world. So it’s not like we teach, or are excluding, gallery exhibitions, art criticism, art biennials or museums. That’s where a lot of the knowledge is drawn from, and a lot of the frame of reference includes those quite clearly. At the same time, education values different things than the commercial art world does, really clearly. I’ll give you an example. So, when I started to teach at CSM, it was in the BA Fine Art programme. So there was a group of tutors on the history and theory side, and I had this meeting with a student. The student came in and said something like, “I don’t really care about writing this essay that I have been assigned. I just want to understand how I can make a lot of money in the art world.” [both of us laugh].
On the one hand, I was really impressed. He was utterly clear about what he came to art school for. And on the other hand, I thought to myself, well I don’t have anything to offer anything for this person, because I’m not personally interested in that, and thus not able to help him, to take that seriously. I was just trying to say that anecdote to, well it is an extreme division, between let’s say the value of education, which I would say are much broader in educating a human being to be prepared for the world and to approach that with a range of intelligence and in creative ways, versus someone who has really clearly just says that ‘This is about me getting the most enormous financial success I possibly can’. It is obviously the most extreme example, and not really the everyday one.
There is another thing about education, and it’s that there are two models of education - One is the idea that it is preparing somebody to be a professional in the field and that’s what we call “vocational” and there is the other more liberal notion, which is good for society, kind of educating people on citizenship and towards a set of societal values, which is more abstract. I think art education is a combination of the two of them, but it is not always easy to know whether you’re going far enough in either - whether you should take the liberal citizenship model and say, ‘actually, the art world is broken, we shouldn’t just teach you the tools in entering it, but we should teach you the tools to reform it’, or actually it is all good in the ivory tower and say ‘No, we should teach all of our students to go out and really know those practical and nitty-gritty skills to know how to negotiate it’. So I think we are trying to do something in the middle, at least in principle.
Right yeah. It’s so difficult to talk about money and the monetary aspects of an artwork and such. From talking to a lot of students, they do have very different opinions on how art education serves them and how they want to navigate it. One of them being a student that said that ‘not once did my art school help me price my artworks, or understand the value of my artworks, because when I show it at a gallery, people ask me how much my artwork’s worth and I have no idea how to price them’ for example. Someone on the opposite spectrum may say that, ‘You know what, I don’t want to talk about the commercial art market, because I want to be able to have the space to experiment and create and find new ways of making. I believe that the commercial art world is going to crush that for me and I’d rather face that later on in my life’. Do you think that this is the issue, with finding that balance, because everyone is trying to find a different way or want different things from art school?
I think that is really interesting, yeah, and your response to me is reflecting back. Maybe the different intentions, desires or definitions of art that are held within this student body, just similar to the staff or the structure of education. So I guess it’s [about] how do you make really fit-for-purpose tools that are available and communicated to the people who want them, and then how to continue to create the place and the context for other modes of engagement, or others who’s studying with other motivations...I don’t know.
Yeah, I’m sorry to push the problem aside like that, I don’t think that’s what I’m meaning to say.
I guess it’s a really complicated structure. Like you said that, it’s not that academia and the commercial art world are polarized, but they are operating on different modes...maybe their ethos is just different. I was talking to Tina before, and she had a great point saying that, art institutions tend to emphasize on grassroots organizations, or non-profit organizations, as part of the curriculum or that it’s something that is...encouraged, because those spaces can be really fruitful. But I guess a lot of people say, ‘Yes, that is great, but I don’t have that foot into that gallery, or that art fair, or that commercial space that I feel like I have to enter,because I need to pay my rent. How do you feel in terms of that - is academia pushing students towards non-profit [and grassroot] models?
If you think of fashion, as opposed to fine art, that fashion department at Central Saint Martins for example, is utterly comfortable with hugely relating to the fashion industry. It is well-known and it is why CSM is seen as such a desirable place to be educated is because of the number of graduates that are so successful. There is something happening in the fashion department, where students are feeling like that is possible for them. It would be interesting if you went and did a comparative study with the fashion students and see whether there is a range of opinion, where some students say ‘I’m really not prepared’ and or if some say ‘I’m totally prepared!’. But you know...art is different from fashion or architecture or product design. It has this other nature to it - this other dimension. I’m going to mention what I said before, that the educators of artist probably feel a compatibility, with the grassroots, the alternatives, the non-commercial, precisely because those spaces allow, perhaps, more independent anatomy and experimentation than the commercial art world does. It is possible that there is this kind of compensation there, or an alignment of the values, or more like, affirm those values.
What I mean by that is...I’ll come clean and say that I probably do this semi-consciously thinking about exposing students to the DIY, the self-made, the artist-led, the non-profit, the experimental, because the students either come with, or might otherwise feel dominated by the big institutions, commercialisation, and so far and so forth...We do live in a capitalistic society...so those things kind of grab the line share or marketing and publicity and public imagination about what art is. So the auction house, the glossy magazine, Tate Modern. When you ask the public, ‘What is interesting about Contemporary art?’, there are more likely to mention those big organisations, and I want to say that ‘actually, there is a whole rest of the world’! There is everything else. There is this really interesting book, written by an American critic named Gregory Sholette, called “Dark Matter” and he makes this analogy between the reality of the art world and the way we know what we are in the universe. The analogy is that the majority of creative practices, are actually unpaid and unrecognized. It’s the kid playing on the floor, it’s the thing that people do in their gardens, it’s cooking, it’s somebody fixing their shop window.
So he’s saying, ‘Actually, we need to completely reorientate our imaginations about what constitutes valid creative practice, in order to have this compository gesture of what matters. Because it’s so dominated by the 1 or 3 percent of the most famous or most prominent or the most successful...If we use the art auction world, and auction sales, as a measure of what is important in the art world, than you dig into it and realize that it is so out of whack, in terms of, let’s say gender balance, and they reported that those statistics of the artists in the art world, were clearly skewed towards males and white artists. Then they looked into the women, and I can’t remember the statistics but, even with all the women who’ve done well, it’s almost entirely dominated by one artist - Yayoi Kusama. We just can’t be talking about that anymore. If that’s what the art market is, if it’s one female artist, we just can’t be talking about that anymore! We can’t take that seriously, as having any meaning. That’s important. So, yes, there will be artists who say, ‘That’s the be all and end all for me’ but they are really the exception. They are the tiny exception and it is a waste of time. We just need to change the conversation. But the other thing that you’re talking about, which I think is really important, is how can the rest of the people get paid for having a creative life?
I think that’s really interesting because, I think a lot of students do know that. That a lot of things that are happening in the commercial art market, doesn’t really reflect what is really happening within the wider creative field or industry. So how do you think, from your experience - how should art students relate to the commercial art market, while they’re studying at an academic institution?
Well, crudely put - use them. Commercial art galleries and auction houses make amazing art available for us to look at for free. In a sense, it is kind of a free service that all these galleries offer, because their real businesses are in selling art, but they do show a lot of art on the side. So of course, we should use that. We should walk across the street and go to Gagosian in Kings Cross, and see their exhibition because you can get direct experience of amazing art. So that’s one. I think understanding the economics. I think you were saying that art students saying that they have no idea, no one ever told them how to price their work...I think the question has to be so much more ambitious than that, or our knowledge of it has to be more ambitious. We can’t become economists necessarily, but [we can] know how the art world works, and how to get money from selling. But what is the economic structure of the art world and why does it work this way? Who benefits from it? Who relatively gets paid from it? So the system is definitely not for artists. It costs a lot to run a gallery, but I think it’s probably the small number of collectors who are benefiting from it in the long run. It is not just simply ‘how do I sell my work, and how do I get my own paycheck?’ but can we advocate for better benefits that are more equal for everybody?
So if I was going to write a curriculum, it would be some business economics for creatives. It’s funny...because then you’ll have to market it. Like how do you reach the student, who’s either not ready to take that on, or feels like empathetic to it in someway? Like they might say ‘I’m an artist, I don’t care about those things’ or ‘I’m not interested’ or ‘Don’t send me to a course that is about marketing and networking and how to write a business plan. I don’t speak that language’. Or maybe it’s about, how do you bridge those two worlds or those two forms of knowledge so that creative people feel empowered by it? Or feel like it is accessible to them? I think that the creative brain works in different ways, than the ‘business’ brain.
Yeah, I totally agree, because I think people come to art school, sometimes to get away from those ideas and hoping that ‘Oh, gallerists will take care of that for me, if I ever need that’. Buy maybe as a group, when we are talking about academic structures, can help strike that balance for students and empower them. Do you think that maybe at the foundation levels, or even the undergraduate levels, that we should be having more of these conversations and discussions that we are having now, face-to-face? Or the ideas and discussions Players & Makers is trying to have should be had a younger level?
Yeah, I think probably the mistake is in thinking that it is something to think about just as you are about to leave [higher education] right? It should be embedded early and kind of throughout. Maybe a similar structure would be climate emergency. It’s actually kind of central along with other things too.
Exactly. At least to drive that kind of discussion, and they can, with their own agency, decide if they still want to be part of the discussion or not. I think the discussion is so put into our minds, a lot later into the stage of education, which might be the issue.
I’ll ask you one last question. We are trying to gain some kind of...I don’t want to call it “advice” per se, but advice or information for our target audience, let’s say from 17 to 25 year old students from UAL, who might have trouble navigating these spaces, or want to find some kind of answer. Do you have any advice for them now? What would you tell yourself, if you were able to go back in time to when you were studying in your fine art degree?
That’s a really good question. I think I would say, pay attention to systems, ideas or protocols that promote competition. In the sense of negative competition, where you feel as if, you are pitted against someone else. Just pay attention to when they are there because I think they don’t have to be that way, and when you notice them, you should say to yourself, ‘hang on, how can I cooperate?’. Those moments are when you realise that the structure is leaning towards the idea that there are many [students], but only a few of them will be successful, in what they call the “rhetoric of scarcity”. There is not enough to go around. So pay attention to where you see those, and make active choices to say, ‘Actually, I can do things in a different way’. I could either say ‘No thank you’ or ‘That is not for me’ or ‘I could use that as a way for thinking about what I value’, or ‘I could look for other options in how I can be in the world or work in the world’. That would be the one that I feel strongly about saying. I think we have been operating under such values for such a long time, and it is so deeply inscribed. I just believe that we can do this differently.
If I could go back to myself at 18 or 19, I would tell myself, ‘save money!’ [both of us laugh]. I know somebody told me this much later, and it was way too late [for me], which was like, ‘if you just put away, £15 a month into a savings account that was bearing a bit of interest…” I think I was definitely in the romantic view of the artist of being poor. And never having any money, and I think I kind of embraced that and said ‘Oh I don’t care [about money]’ but I think I actually did. I think it would be much smarter to be like ‘Oh I don’t care, but actually I’m putting £15 a month away’ [both of us laugh]. I think you just drip feed it, and not think like … ‘I can’t do anything about this because it’s just too big [of a problem]’. A few basic financial good sense can actually put you in a very good position.
That’s really helpful. Just to follow up on what you were saying, I remember when I was at Chelsea, and we had to find spaces outside of school in order to showcase our works. But I just moved to the country, and I wasn’t able to sign up to ArtsTemps fast enough, and I just didn’t really have the funds to fund spaces. We were encouraged to either find these spaces and rent them ourselves with our own money, or get creative and find cheap to free spaces. I think a lot of students were really uncomfortable and really angered by the fact that they already had to pay high tuition fees, and yet the school couldn’t spot them like a £100 each or something to find a space that was mandatory for the course curriculum. Do you think that this kind of thing is a little problematic? In terms of the curriculum structure? Especially if we are talking about saving money as a student, and a lot of that money goes into making artworks and things like that. I think that’s where the romanization of being the poor artist, kind of comes in.
I think the story you just told me is a really good wake up call. I can see how somebody...how that mentality got embedded and how the people who kind of set up that idea just never imagined the consequences that you just described. It was probably meant as something that was done in good faith, about a can-do attitude, and to create the circumstances in which you can go do something. Like I was just describing before, in alinement with education and sort of the grassroots and DIY. As a tutor, or as a person who is writing and setting something up, I think we often really forget what it’s like to be starting out again, and the real consequences of something that you say that is easy and light for you, but might actually be a real challenge for somebody in a new position...It’s a good thing to mention back [to us]. I hope that was helpful!