Curator of the month: Clarissa Corfe, Harris Museum & Art Gallery

The contemporary art curator at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, talks about breaking into the industry.

Name and job title:

Clarissa Corfe, contemporary art curator at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery.

What inspired you to become a curator?

I was lucky enough to tag on to the end of an exhibition tour in what was then Tate Gallery when I was young. The curator was talking very enthusiastically about the way in which Cubist artists strove to ‘smash up the perspective’ in painting. The sense of subversion and urgency within the medium got under my skin. From that moment I was hooked and decided I wanted to do something in the modern or contemporary art world.

What was your first job in the art/museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

I phoned up the Liverpool Biennial to beg for a job, so ended up working in the entrance of an enormous 1930s building, the main exhibition space, selling catalogues. I made lots of friends and connections there with recent graduates like myself. When the exhibition ended I volunteered in the biennial office carrying out evaluation, collecting press cuttings and evaluating the economic impact of the biennial on small businesses. It was a fascinating eye opener into the importance of good marketing.

Around that time I also had the opportunity to co-curate an exhibition from the Lowry collection in Salford, organise talks for recent graduates at Tate Liverpool, as well as other smaller projects. I have since worked at Arts Council England, East Midlands which was a brilliant insight into arts development on a more strategic level; identifying the gaps within the infrastructure, seed funding, and assessing lots of applications. Then I went to work at Castlefield Gallery which was great in giving me the freedom to experiment with lots of different curatorial approaches and then I got the job at the Harris Museum. So my interests are really broad and I think it’s helped me gain quite a rounded understanding of the art world.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of interesting and talented people through work, so there have been many highlights. But that aside, one of the highlights has to be when we won the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award in 2014 together with artist Nathaniel Mellors. I had been following his practice for a few years and thinking of inviting him to produce a new film. I had already been talking to him about including a work in an exhibition that uses the Theatre of the Absurd as a starting point, repetition, farce and tragi-comedy. When the opportunity came to apply for the CAS award it was a really great chance to do something really ambitious. We will launch his new film Ourhouse, Ep. -1: Time this month in the exhibition Nothing Happens, Twice.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Daydream, follow your nose, collaborate, be nice to people and work hard.

What’s special about working at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery?

The building is incredible in all its northern and imposing grandeur. It’s a physical representation of time. Layers of knowledge are represented at each level of the building with Assyrian and Parthenon friezes. The exterior is neo-classical, a representation of a former style of architecture, almost like a prop or stage set. This has been my starting point in developing the Dance First, Think Later contemporary art programme. It has looked at notions of performativity and the human condition, absurdity and tragicomedy. I’m interested in notions of performativity within different mediums.

What is your favourite object in your collection/exhibition and why?

We will be acquiring Nathaniel’s film Ourhouse Ep. -1: Time, which will be my favourite. The social history collection is fascinating and has provided a fertile source of inspiration for the contemporary art programme. For example artefacts associated with Will Onda (who was a local filmmaker, clown, acrobat and town councillor), and objects associated with the Dick Kerr Ladies Football Team. We also have some fantastic ceramics, for example a Staffordshire, salt-glazed stoneware bear jug, an enormous perfume bottle collection and Lucian Freud’s Still Life with Squid and Sea Urchin.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

Every holiday I’ve ever been on has revolved around biennials or exhibitions I’ve wanted to see and that has been really useful in contributing to an understanding of international contemporary art. That aside, I like the countryside, film and singing.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

Clam Jam at Royal Standard in Liverpool was a quiet revelation. And in the last few years, I have enjoyed most exhibitions curated by What, How & for Whom/WHW. I’m fascinated in works by artists who have a completely different set of cultural references and experiences to us.

The exhibition Nothing Happens, Twice, including Nathaniel Mellors’ film Ourhouse Ep. -1: Time​, is at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, from 6 February to 4 June 2016. Entry is free to everyone.

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