Pin It
Curation

Four curators give advice on how to build a career from ground zero

Erin Christovale, Daria Khan, E-J Scott, and Brooke Wise share their tips on how to make your mark as a curator

Art 101 is a series of educational how-to guides from established to emerging artists and curators on how to navigate the contemporary art world

In an art world that is increasingly political, curators today have the power to create real change. A new generation of talent is awake to the influence such a position can yield, and are using their roles as organisers, arbiters, and activists to equalise an art world that has long been dictated by an elitist narrative. For the second instalment of Art 101, we asked four curators, Erin Christovale, Daria Khan, E-J Scott, and Brooke Wise to share their own advice on how to establish yourself as a respected curatorial voice in a hugely competitive world.

BE A SELF-STARTER: ERIN CHRISTOVALE, ASSOCIATE CURATOR AT THE HAMMER MUSEUM

Erin Christovale is Associate Curator at the Hammer Museum. Shortly after graduating with a degree in film studies at the University of Southern California, she rose to prominence as the co-founder of Black Radical Imagination, a film programme which has screened internationally at MoMA PS1 and MOCA Los Angeles, among others. After co-curating the fourth Made in L.A biennial alongside Anne Ellegood, Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum, she was invited to join the team as Assistant Curator. While Christovale now regularly features on influential art lists, her feet remain firmly on the ground. Here, she expels the importance of not waiting for permission to pursue a mission you wholeheartedly believe in.

“Be a self-starter. I would never have been a curator here at the Hammer if I didn’t just take the initiative one day to create Black Radical Imagination and to keep it moving no matter what. That initiative is everything. No matter where I am, just making it work, and doing it because I want it to exist. I wanted a consistent and wide-reaching platform to view experimental film/video by black filmmakers and visual artists within the African Diaspora, so Amir George and I created it.

“With that, I would say, slow down and do your research. When I started, I was moving so quickly because there was also this anxiety to produce as much content as possible in order to prove to myself and others that I could be a curator. I also think this anxiety stemmed from the fear of being erased from my creative endeavours like so many black women often do. Being in that kind of mode, I did miss out on things – like archiving things properly or providing a proper scholarship around certain programmes or going more in-depth with certain exhibition ideas. I feel like I’m just starting to learn how to slow down, which feels amazing.

“Authenticity is something that people can feel” – Erin Christovale

“It’s also (important to use) what you have. We all know social media is a powerful tool. Look for artists, get in contact with people. Do your own thing and don’t get so caught up in what other people are doing. Authenticity is something that people can feel.

“As a curator, it’s really about figuring out what kind of artists you are interested in and tailoring how you navigate the art world around that. For me, it’s really intuitive. It’s people who I can feel their spirit through their art – which sounds really corny! But, artists whose images just haunt you. You can’t escape them. Their visuals embody you.

“All of this creative desire really just stems from wanting to make space for collective conversations that I feel are important. All of my curating comes from questioning or wanting to bring to fore sociopolitical issues that are relevant. So for me, I always think of my exhibitions as a site of dialogue that’s responding to a current time or issue.”

IDENTIFY YOUR AREA OF CONCERN: DARIA KHAN, FOUNDER OF MIMOSA HOUSE

Daria Khan is a curator based in London. Since graduating from the RCA Curating Contemporary Art MA in 2013, she has worked on a series of international curatorial projects. In 2017, she founded Mimosa House, an independent, non-profit gallery space, dedicated to supporting artistic experimentation and collaboration among intergenerational women and queer artists. Below, Khan reflects on the importance of understanding your personal mission as a curator, from the kind of art you want to show, to the way you forge relationships.

“I always knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus on working with female artists with Mimosa House and that it was a project. It’s not like all my curatorial projects are exclusive to female artists, but this one definitely comes from a very personal perspective.

“This personal perspective often comes from the experience of vulnerability. The emotional side. You need to really feel for what you do – that’s crucial to moving forward, because, you face all these difficulties; fundraising, writing a different application every month, all the admin. There needs to be something deep which moves you forward.

“I like the interpretation of curator as coming from the Latin word ‘curare’, meaning ‘to care’ – that’s how I see my role” – Daria Khan

“I like the interpretation of curator as coming from the Latin word ‘curare’, meaning ‘to care’ – that’s how I see my role. Through personal connection, you establish this feeling of trust with the artist and little by little you build a mutual understanding. You need to allow time for this connection to form with any artist you work with. And through this process, you understand what you can do together.

“The main thing is to really know your area of concern. Know what area you want to make your little revolution in – then you learn. You learn to be persistent. You learn to chase people. You learn all that in the process because it becomes part of your necessity to progress. And so you learn all of those things on the way. I was probably timider before I started Mimosa House. Now I’m more like I’m going to write 100 emails, whatever, who cares!”

USE CURATION TO EMPOWER COMMUNITIES: E-J SCOTT, FOUNDER OF THE MUSEUM OF TRANSOLOGY

The Museum of Transology began as a series of community workshops in the queer Marlborough Pub & Theatre in Brighton in 2014. The collection began with the intention of halting the erasure of transcestry within the museum and heritage sector. It has since grown into the world's largest collection of artefacts representing trans people’s lives. Over 120 trans, non-binary, and intersex people have contributed more than 250 objects in total. Collecting is about to start again when it moves from Brighton Museum & Art Gallery to its permanent home at the Bishopsgate Institute in London in November. Scott is currently working on the curation of Queer the Pier at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery opening in December 2019, West Yorkshire Queer Stories – a new collection of 174 queer oral histories and new art commissions from all across the region, and Queer and Now 2020 at Tate Britain.

“My priority as a curator is to use curation as a form of direct action that empowers communities that have been misrepresented and underrepresented in museums, to find their voice and inject their telling of history into the way we think about the past in the future.

“Art is for everyone, but the industry is elitist. Work with artists outside the institution, and from the ground up. Volunteer as much as you can with curators you admire, even if it means working around the clock. It must be a passion – you won’t make it unless it is your life.

“(Curation) must be a passion – you won’t make it unless it is your life” – E-J Scott

“Curate, curate, curate. Put on displays everywhere and of any size all the time. Watch how people respond. Challenge yourself to tell the same story over and over in different ways until the idea that there is one version of the truth is banished from your curatorial practice – forever! Let the artists and the community inspire and drive the creative thinking surrounding the design and display.

“This is the whole point of museums: to provide a space where ‘difference’ and all the bigotry and fear that surrounds that idea, becomes ‘diversity’ and this, in turn, feeds into a broader social awareness about the richness of life’s tapestry. Curating like this – where the curator's role is to act as a conduit for misrepresented or underrepresented communities to tell their stories in museums, rather than acting as an ‘expert’ on a community, their rituals and beliefs – is to harness curatorship as a form of non-violent, direct activism that injects new understandings of the past into our awareness of why we are where we are as a society today, and what kind of world we want to create for tomorrow.”

KNOW YOUR WORTH AND ASK QUESTIONS: BROOKE WISE, INDEPENDENT CURATOR

Brooke Wise is an independent curator based between Los Angeles and New York. Her path into curating began as a final year student at Parsons when she curated an exhibition of her classmates’ work at the Bowery Hotel in New York City. From there, she has gone on to curate numerous exhibitions with a focus on spotlighting emerging artists. She is also the founder of Aloha Film Festival and Aloha Zine Fair.

“Financial support is always difficult. Especially as a woman, it can be hard to know what you’re ‘worth’, how much you can charge as a flat rate or fee for your specialised skill, and to speak up when you don’t believe you're being treated fairly. 

“When a gallery approaches me or I approach them about curating a show, we discuss if the rate should be flat, or a smaller flat rate, and then a percentage of sales. It’s really upsetting how many of my peers work for free or without proper compensation. It’s important to do your best and get paid or supported accordingly.

“Do more studio visits. Even the ones you’re not drawn to or don’t identify with. Do them all” – Brooke Wise

“For a non-gallery or white cube space, it’s really helpful to work with sponsors. This can help you cover your installation costs, your shipping costs, your art insurance, and you yourself as an expense. I’ve worked with sponsors for Aloha From Hell Film festival, as well as for my zine fair, and have always had a positive experience.

“Some early challenges I dealt with were getting spaces to trust me, getting older and more senior positioned people to have faith in me, and learning how to propose ideas. It’s important to ask questions, look to people with more experience for advice, and to educate yourself. Learn from them, find out how they protect themselves creatively and legally, and try to absorb as much info as you can to better yourself, your career, and your ideas. And do more studio visits. Even the ones you’re not drawn to or don’t identify with. Do them all. Meet as many people as you can, see as much art as you can, educate yourself constantly.”