Curator of the month: David Elliott, independent curator

David Elliott is the curator of Art from Elsewhere, a touring exhibition of major international works collected via an Art Fund scheme. He talks to us about the highlights and challenges of his 40-plus years as a curator, writer and historian.

Name and job title:

David Elliott. Independent curator, writer and cultural historian.

What inspired you to become a curator?

Discovering the collection of German Expressionist paintings at Leicester City Art Gallery when I was a kid and learning how they were brought there by Jewish émigrés. I was particularly impressed by the fact that these works would have been ‘arrested’ and burnt by the Nazis had they remained in Germany because they were branded and ridiculed as ‘degenerate’. If this was what being ‘degenerate’ meant, I wanted to know more, and be part of it.

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

In 1970, I organised a series, or festival, of exhibitions, films, performances and events – called Germany in Ferment: German Art and Society 1900 to 1933 – that took place across the city of Durham where I was a history undergraduate and then travelled to the art museums in Sheffield and Leicester. It examined the development of modernism in German culture from Impressionism until the National Socialist takeover.

After I left Durham I worked for a year as an art assistant in the Leicester City Art Gallery (and helped add to their wonderful German collection), then took an MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute. After this I spent two and a half years as a regional art officer/exhibition organiser at the Arts Council and then was offered the directorship of the Museum of Modern Art Oxford. I worked there for 20 years and in 1996 became Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm – the Swedish national museum of modern and contemporary art.

In 2001 I moved to Tokyo to set up the new Mori Art Museum and in 2006 moved from there to Istanbul to do a similar thing with Istanbul Modern. While doing this I decided to work independently and have done so since that time, working on a number of biennales and many other projects.

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

I have been hanging around the traps for a while so this is really difficult to say, but one of the highlights has to be negotiating the first loans of Russian avant-garde art to be allowed abroad from a private collection in the USSR. This was from the artist’s family for the Aleksandr Rodchenko exhibition in 1979 and enabled Museum of Modern Art Oxford, for the first time anywhere, to make a retrospective exhibition that covered all aspects of this artist’s work. At this time Rodchenko was persona non grata under the Soviet system so no Russian museum could have done this and in the West it was very difficult to get hold of genuine works.

But I have also organised big thematic shows like Art from South Africa (1990). I negotiated with the African National Congress (then in exile) that we would display the contemporary art of a new, dynamic, vital South Africa before, in fact, that country existed. It was not until 1994 that apartheid was finally dispatched and a democratic government took over. With artist and co-curator David Koalane, I visited many artists from different backgrounds in cities, townships and countryside throughout the country and was impressed everywhere by its creative desire and dynamic quality.

Happiness: a Survival Guide for Art and Life (2003), the inaugural exhibition I made with Pier Luigi Tazzi for the new Mori Art Museum in Tokyo was another milestone. It was a voyage through four continents of happiness: Arcadia, Nirvana, Desire and Harmony; juxtaposing Asian and Western art from fifth-century China until today that created synergies between east, west, old and new art that are now becoming more accepted in museum displays. And there have been many other exhibitions, small and large, including Social Fabric, new work by two young artists Mariana Hahn and Kwan Sheung Chi, that opened at the Mills6 Foundation in Hong Kong last week.

With regard to the biggest challenge, it was tough, but there was no alternative to, standing up for the display and purchase of Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard’s semi-autobiographical video All Gym Queens Deserve to Die. I commissioned it for Organising Freedom: Nordic art of the 1990s at Moderna Museet in 2000. The imagery in this work was extremely vivid and some people found it upsetting. A complaint was made to the police and all hell broke loose. I had no doubt that this work was aesthetically valid and ‘legal’ and explained why I thought so to both the public prosecutor and the media who, of course, were looking for a juicy story. Due process took place, the storm died down, and after nine months it was decided that there was no case to answer. Although Melgaard is better known as a painter, I have no doubt that this is one of his strongest and most haunting works.

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

Be curious and sceptical, work hard, learn as many languages as you can, read a lot, talk to people who are knowledgeable and whom you respect, especially artists. This will enable you to articulate your own way of looking at the world and art. Having established this, stick to it.

What’s special about working with Art from Elsewhere?

At a time when a continuing deluge of privatisation places the whole idea of a public domain for art, culture, and many other aspects of daily life, under severe attack, this is an unmissable opportunity to help consolidate and promote the Art Fund’s visionary initiative of providing serious funding and guidance for public museums throughout the UK to develop and expand their international collections of contemporary art as well as their research base. In this exhibition I have set out to show how museums today are amplifying what Leicester started to do modestly in the 1940s; reflecting the beauty and horror of the world, in all its complexity and interconnectedness, in art through the prism of creative analysis and empathy.

What is your favourite object in the Art from Elsewhere exhibition and why?

I dislike questions about favourites! All the works in this exhibition are there for a reason and the most important of these is that I think they are good, but they also tell different stories. In media, the works range from artists’ books, to videos, films and photographs, to large installations and objects, to paintings and drawings, some over five metres wide. A lot of them revolve around questions of value (aesthetic, monetary and moral), identity, control/power, and migration – hot issues – but others are quieter and less easy to categorise. Yet they all speak with strongly individual creative voices that could not be expressed in any other form.

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

There’s not a lot of it but, when it’s around, I really like hanging out with family and friends, walking in rugged countryside, reading, playing cards and drinking Islay malt whisky.

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

The one that sticks most in my mind is Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain curated by Catherine Lampert. I have respected his work for a long time but have often found it heavily introspective and a bit gloomy en masse. This carefully chosen retrospective transformed my view: the existential fog lifted and I found the mass and fluidity of his mark-making and the strange shifts and nuances of colour in his work absorbing, compelling and life affirming. These paintings provoke constant active perception while, at the same time, inducing a sense of heightened reality that, at times, has a quieting, meditative quality.

Art from Elsewhere is at Towner, Eastbourne, until 3 April and then at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and Arnolfini from 22 April until 17 July.

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