The lovely folk at Cass Art welcomed us into their Islington store with open arms for our latest Zealous Meetup! We all left feeling inspired and with a new-found energy to get out there and make our creative mark on the world.
Our panellists, Sally Shaw (Director, Firstsite) and Tina Ziegler (Director, Moniker Art Fair) offered a wealth of insights on their experiences as curators. With some hard work and lots of research, you don’t really need as many resources as you might think to get noticed. Money will follow energy, enthusiasm and great ideas.
Find your own voice
You don’t need a traditional arts background to follow your creative aspirations. Californian-born Tina started organising exhibitions in her late teens with some graffiti artist and breakdancing friends, at a time when she didn’t even know what the term ‘curator’ meant. Feeling somewhat lost while doing a Fashion Marketing degree, she turned her mind to what she was already doing – championing the contemporary urban art market. “No art world thought we had any worth really”, she revealed but as this was her ambition since the age of 13, it wasn’t a deterrent.
If there is one thing Sally has learned through her years of curating, it’s that intuition is an underestimated skill. In her words, “You know you have a good idea when things get twitchy and other people start looking really worried.” She and Tina have travelled extensively since a young age. A spontaneous trip across Africa in her early 20s made Sally realise that culture and art in every discipline is fundamental to everyone across the globe. She added, “It was the best and most transformative thing I have ever done because it made me lose my fear of getting stuff wrong.” When Tina moved to Barcelona, a city with no laws around graffiti (illegal in California), she quickly noticed how much the urban art movement was booming outside of the US. Armed with this reassurance, she set up a West London gallery focusing on the urban and pop surrealist movement, and later set up Moniker Art Fair.
For artists, Tina pointed out that it’s fine to be inspired by others but you absolutely must put your own stamp on it – a point echoed by Sally, “I love it when I see something and think, ‘What on earth is that?’” With the current political climate, it’s easy for artists to pounce on a creative opportunity to make a quick buck but Tina advised, unless you’re passionate about the issue at hand then don’t pretend to be. Curators will see through it. She wants to educate and inspire audiences who come to her shows so the challenge is in finding the right artists who can fulfil this goal.
Curators want to go against their intuition. They want to help new people come on board and grow new artists but it can be tough. Sally has worked with a number of artists for years but is trying to encounter art in a more relaxed way. She wants to discover artists who haven’t gone down the traditional routes – those who have invented themselves. This usually happens with younger artists at degree shows and “weird exhibitions in someone’s toilet in a flat somewhere.”
As Director of Firstsite in Colchester, Sally often gets phone calls from artists asking her for a show. She can’t always assist but explained that the intrigue is in how the artist responds to the challenge of making it work anyway. If you create a solution to make it happen, that’s a signal that you’re thinking differently and you’re prepared to work hard to make it happen. The only person in the way of what you want to achieve is you. With Moniker Art Fair just around the corner, Tina agreed with this. When you’re planning an art fair, it’s easy to get caught up in your profit and loss accounts but still, she has never lost sight of her vision.
As a curator, having too much money isn’t necessarily a good thing. You have to be more imaginative and it forces you to build your own version from the ground up. While doing her MA at Goldsmiths and juggling part-time jobs, Sally and some artist friends set up a gallery in an old Poundstretcher shop in Bristol. Selling some posters by artists they knew, they made £4,000 in one night at an auction. By the end of the year, they had made £100,000 and were invited to an art fair. People were giving them money because they were inventive and there were no galleries around who supported emerging artists at the time. If you have enough enthusiasm and energy, the resources will follow.
Embrace social media
Like it or loathe it, increasing numbers of artists are skipping galleries and using social platforms like Instagram to sell their work. Look at what the artists you admire are doing. Find exhibitions where you feel your artwork would be relevant and pursue those. Who are the people surrounding the artists you admire? Chase them. It’s all about research.
Tina is constantly on social media and discovers new art every day. Artists regularly contact her asking that she take a look at their work and if you’re a good match, she’ll always reply. Her advice? “Visualise who you want to be in the same room with”. If you want to get someone’s attention in the art world, you need to make sure you’re approaching the right person. Create your own positioning map of where you want to sit in the arts world. Understand your message and ask yourself, can this person really help me?
Sometimes it’s the attitude of people that grabs a curator’s attention, not necessarily the artistic outcome. Sally finds the way artists can construct a story in an Instagram image really exciting. It says much more about our times than a sculpture on a plinth in a gallery. With some determination, research and inventiveness, you can start making valuable new contacts right away.