Cultivating Curators

“Curating, at the moment, is really hot and really sexy,” says Professor Catherine Speck.

“Curating, at the moment, is really hot and really sexy,” says Professor Catherine Speck. Speck is coordinator of Art History within the Master of Curatorial and Museum Studies, an academic and professional training venture between the University of Adelaide and the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). “Lots of people say they’re a curator. They’ll go out there, to a café, and hang a dozen paintings by their friend and they’ll say they’ve `curated’ it. But there’s much more to it than that.” Since the inception of the University and AGSA’s program in 2007, a new class of creative mind has been rising among Adelaide’s ranks of fresh-faced visual artists, writers and entrepreneurs. It’s a chicken-egg scenario, with increased engagement with Adelaide’s aesthetic real-estate either causing, or coming about as result of, a demand for curatorial professionals. Speck explains that these individuals have acquired, alongside practical skills about hanging works and cataloguing exhibitions, the depth of art historical and museological knowledge required to be a successful curator. This theoretical grounding is integral to creating intelligent, coherent exhibitions; curators can only hang works in interesting juxtapositions if they can see and appreciate those connections themselves. Four particular curators in the fledgling stages of their careers have passed through this program, and are entering or completing year-long placements in some of Adelaide’s most coveted gallery spaces: Carclew, Adelaide Town Hall and ArtPod. Adelaide City Council’s inaugural emerging curator Carollyn Kavanagh has just passed the baton to Polly Dance, while Craig Robert Middleton and Caitlin Eyre are rounding out one year as joint curators of Carclew’s front gallery. “The curatorial program is a critical part of our entire program,” says Carclew’s Allison Kane. “It’s just one way that we can work with curators, and that’s usually two per year, to give them not only the experience to install and curate exhibitions, but to work with early-career artists.” As young professionals, there is a preconception that they would prioritise working with young artists, but this is not always the case. While Carclew has a mandate to foster artists and creative thinkers aged 26 and under, Adelaide City Council has no restrictions on the artists with which curators engage, except that work must be fit for public display. Early-career curators, like those longestablished, often have broader interests. Respect for history has been fostered by their tertiary education and professional experience. Middleton, who has worked at the National Motor Museum and AGSA, has just secured a job as Public Programs Officer at History SA. Dance, recently returned from a year-long placement as mentee curator with Hobart City Council, is a self-confessed “nerd”, fascinated with archives. Dance recognises the imperative to work with young artists, but she identifies a duty to explore work broadly. “As a curator, it would be very irresponsible of me to not to curate equally,” she says. “It’s not just about emerging and established artists, it’s about our cultural backgrounds, it’s about placement, where they [artists] are in their careers and the work that they’re creating, and diversity of work. There’s a responsibility as a curator to curate across the spectrum, particularly with this program, because it’s so public [ArtPod] and it’s within one of our most historic buildings [Town Hall].” Adelaide’s recent attraction to re-imagined spaces means there are more opportunities for curators to become involved with the aesthetic landscape of the city. Open galleries like ArtPod off Pirie Street are part of this. Dance has built on Kavanagh’s engagement with the Pod, and has opened the doors to explore the 2D window as a 3D viewing experience. Sculptural works – like Mae Finlayson’s mixed-media hanging totems – are now viewable in their entirety. For Dance, this is enthralling, finding the “life within these spaces” and exploring the contextual tensions the galleries present. As Adelaide becomes more invested in the city’s visual future, the opportunities for clever and artistic engagement with space are growing. In this way, `emerging’ curators have fewer fears of the future. Arts SA describes a professional’s `emerging’ period as the first five years after practice, but already some of these individuals are finding steady work at reputable institutions like the SA Museum, Australian War Memorial, the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA) and more. Opportunities to appear as a guest curator are also on the rise, with grassroots gallery FELTspace at the helm. “In the past five years, there’ve been great changes in Adelaide,” says Kane, “and that’s in using spaces in creative ways and thinking outside the box to fill them and renew them. We’ve got access to a huge network of artists, and it’s in everyone’s interest to have these empty shops, and their shopfronts, be used for something, [such as] a visual arts space for people to look at as they walk past.”

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