On November the 24th, Jane Alison from the Barbican, and James Brett, founder of The Museum of Everything, came to YCN to discuss the world of curation.
In the fourth event in our Two of a Kind series — which has included talks on creativity within the charity sector, the secrets of setting up shop and the business of fashion — last night’s talk at YCN truly lived up to its title, bringing together two very different figures from the curatorial world into one room to discuss the role of curation and what it means to them.
Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, took to the stage first, detailing how she began at the bottom, hanging pictures on the walls of Barbican shows, and worked her way up from there. “Curating has always been fascinating to me,” she said. “I’m in a very privileged position and I’ve never forgotten that.” She proceeded to talk about the difficulties facing people looking to get into the art world now, compared to when she first started.
“When I got into this, there wasn’t much competition. Now, we’re receiving over 400 applications for an Exhibition Assistant role.” From there, Jane gave a short history of the Barbican, from the building itself to the various galleries and shows that it has put on over the last few years, bringing particular focus to the Curve gallery which has staged some of the most talked about exhibitions in recent times — most notably with Random International’s Rain Room. “We had endless plumbing issues,” Jane recalled. “I remember when we first went into the space to test it out, we came out absolutely soaked.”
She then ran through a series of past exhibitions, giving little snippets and stories on each one that helped provide an insight into the trials, tribulations and quirks of the curation process. Some particular highlights included The House of Viktor & Rolf in 2008 — “that took fashion design exhibitions to another level” — and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's installation of zebra finches and electric guitars in 2010, which she still regularly receives comments about to this day. Before wrapping up, Jane then gave the audience a little glimpse into some of the upcoming shows that will be gracing the Barbican throughout 2015.
It was then the turn of James Brett, the impassioned founder of The Museum of Everything, to take to the stage, beginning by stating his reservations about the term ‘curation’. “Curation is a complicated idea,” he said. “I think the word curation, ultimately, is a bullshit term. In my opinion, it doesn’t really exist.” On that bombshell, he then pressed play on a short film about The Museum of Everything, before running out of the door to find a coffee to combat his severe jet lag, following a recent return flight from Australia.
A few minutes later, he returned with a Red Bull in hand and proceeded to talk about how art, quite simply, should be something that moves you. “We as human beings relate to things on an emotional level far more than we do on an academic one” he explained. “The shows that I related to the most in Jane’s talk were the ones that provided an emotional connection.” That provided the basis for the rest of James’ talk, as he spoke about how the ultimate aim, for any exhibition, is that the people attending it change from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. “It should be about feel,” he said. “People should be moved.”
Narrative, he noted, plays a huge role in making people feel something. “All of our shows go from a beginning to a middle to an end. Many of the more formal exhibitions at the big galleries don’t have a narrative — it's more academic. That’s why, most of the time, you leave feeling slightly dissatisfied.” With a background in film, James likened it to a Hollywood blockbuster, explaining that however bad the film might be from a critical point of view, a strong narrative would leave the viewer satisfied at the end. In contrast, he said, many art house films fail to resonate with people because they focus more on production values than storytelling.
He then talked through some of The Museum of Everything’s past shows, highlighting the importance of picking the right space, the vast amount of work that went into the Peter Blake exhibition back in 2010, how they put on a show at Selfridges exclusively featuring the work of self-taught artists with disabilities, and his belief in supporting non-professional artists as a whole. Throughout James’ talk, his spirited, irreverent, and no-nonsense approach to the world of art shined through, drawing the audience’s attention to some of the injustice and snobbery that exists, and discussing how he hopes to play a small part in changing that.
Nearer the end of the talk, he spoke out against some of the bigger museums and galleries, criticising them for excluding artists who don’t fit the ‘art’ mould. “That said though, it’s wonderful to have something to react against. The Museum of Everything wouldn’t exist if we didn’t.”
An enormous thank you to both Jane Alison and James Brett for taking the time to come to YCN and share their views and experiences from two very different standpoints. Although this was the last event of 2014, keep a close eye on our events page to find out what's coming in 2015.
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Location:72 Rivington Street,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:24th November, 2014 at 6:30pm
End:24th November, 2014 at 8:30pm