Interview with Academic researcher, tutor and curator
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I did my first degree (BA hons) majoring in Art History and English Literature at the University of Canterbury in my hometown of Christchurch in New Zealand. I moved up to Wellington after finishing my degree and started working at a bookshop. While I was there I decided to contact the head of art history teaching at Victoria University to ask whether I could do some tutoring. We got on, so he offered me some work teaching on undergraduate courses and I subsequently enrolled in an MA. I was part of the first intake of MA students at the university -- there were only a couple of us and I was the only one who worked on campus so I had a huge office to myself. I also got the opportunity to work as an art reviewer for the local broadsheet, The Dominion, and became the Wellington correspondent for the journal Art New Zealand. After I'd finished my MA, I had an urge to go abroad. I bumped into an artist friend of mine who recommended me for a Goethe Institut exchange programme so I ended up in Berlin. The programme was only for a few months but I ended up staying for four years, teaching English to pay the rent. While I was there I co-curated my first exhibition with a fellow New Zealander, also on the Goethe Institut programme. We put together +64 -- an exhibition of New Zealand artists living abroad at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin. I then wanted to learn a little bit more about curating as a practice, so I moved to London to study curating at Goldsmiths University. The course emphasised independent curating (rather than institutional), so afterwards I worked on various independent curatorial projects in London, Estonia, Rome, Singapore, New Zealand and elsewhere. I also co-founded a short-lived curatorial platform called 1:1 projects (London and Rome) -- a non-profit organisation which supported various projects. At a later stage I enrolled on a PhD at Central Saint Martins and became an associate lecturer on BA and MACCC.
What was your experience like studying within art education? For example, did you always want to be an art historian, curator and critical writer? Did you have anxieties about entering the so-called "real professional world" that was to come after university?
In my first degree, I enjoyed literature and art equally. I fell onto the side of art history almost by default -- because I'm very shy I thought it would be easier to teach art history because it relies on slides of images rather than pure text! I've always been a little wary of the 'real professional world' hence my preference for independent curating and writing in my earlier career. And I never really left university!
What was your experience like working in a gallery? Were there any aspects of this that may be commercial? How may this experience be different from maybe working in a commercial institution?
I have collaborated with many galleries (as well as artists, curators, academics etc.) I've never been involved in commercial aspects per se.
In our research, we round that students are skeptical their own art education, stating that they feel like art schools don't help prepare students for the professional world. What is your response to that? Are they wrong to be skeptical? Should they be more critical? Why or why not?
I hope that an art education helps students to be curious, critical and independent, and through these skills hopefully they can learn to navigate and shape the 'art world' to suit their own purposes. This is easier said than done since artists and curators need to eat and pay the rent etc. and the art world tends to rely on goodwill rather than fair pay. For this reason, artists and curators need to be both single-minded and be prepared to diversify -- see any work experience as a new perspective on individual practice and don't expect to land the ideal job (or opportunity) on graduation. Just work out how to survive well enough to pursue your own work. It requires a great deal of persistence, but it pays to build up a portfolio of independent practice that shows your creative ideas and what you value and also how you are able to work with the resources you have. Position the work in a field of practice. Collaborate. Find like-minded people. Often the most interesting projects develop from necessity and the simplest of means. Start small and keep building.
As a BA Fine Art graduate myself, I found that UAL was able to prepare me for the professional industry by elevating my 'branding' skills. For example, we do CV checks, they help you build your own website and artist cards (business cards), they aid us in making artist statements, as well as give us opportunities to practice articulating your work publicly. They never taught me how to price my work, or even mention the monetisation of my art. They often mention gaining unpaid experiences to develop my portfolio, and even encourage artist-led shows, in which I end up paying out my own wallet to secure gallery spaces or materials. Although these experiences were very helpful, I found that they encouraged me to participate in grassroots, non-profit and small galleries, rather than larger institutions. Do you agree with this sentiment? Do you believe that art education is just merely not as compatible with commercial and for-profit models? Why or why not? Is this problematic or just the nature of art academia itself?
In the commercial world, there are many examples of dealer galleries or collectors who are very much committed to supporting artists apart from purely transactional purposes. Also, many artist-led spaces and platforms have figured out alternative 'for profit' models. Art education at CSM is, in some ways, a reflection of the wider institutional models available so I don't think it's incompatible with commercial models per se. But rather than replicating some dim reflection of a stereotyped version of these institutions and models, it is worth studying them with a view to changing them from within in order to reflect changes in contemporary practices.
As mentioned before, we are conducting these interviews with industry professionals to gain some research and information that may be helpful for Foundation and Undergraduate students art school, especially those who may be concerned about their transition out of academia. If you could go back in time to when you were an art student finishing your degree, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you have have for current students?
Persist. Don't be invisible. Don't try to fit yourself into a box. Don't fall for neo-liberalism -- it's a trap designed to control and manipulate identities. Find varieties of work for rent that are flexible and rewarding, and enjoy it for what it is. It's not going to last forever. Diversify.