Curator of the month: Gemma Brace, RWA

Thanks to a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant, Gemma Brace travelled to Jamaica with the curators of the forthcoming exhibition Jamaican Pulse. Here, she talks of the challenges and highlights of her career.

Name and job title:

Gemma Brace, exhibitions curator at Royal West of England Academy.

What inspired you to become a curator?

I think it is probably a combination of a love of art and a love of stories. There is obviously a huge amount of scholarship and practical co-ordination that goes into putting on an exhibition but at the end of the day I think curating is really about telling a story through a collection of artworks – or rather starting a story or a conversation that’s open for others to continue.

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

I started out volunteering for various organisations such as Centrespace, a local independent exhibition space, and an online magazine, trying to gain as much experience across the arts as possible while I undertook a part-time masters in history of art at the University of Bristol.

I was lucky that one of those opportunities – at Jamaica Street Artists, a large studio complex – resulted in a job offer to manage their studios. This involved such a wide variety of tasks – from organising their annual open studio, writing press releases and newsletters, to sourcing funding, day-to-day admin and coordinating external exhibitions – that it gave me a perfect introduction into how all the different roles in an arts organisation fit together.

I was also extremely privileged to have the opportunity to work within such a creative space, surrounded by artists, many of whom have gone on to become good friends or whom I still work with in various capacities. An exhibition the studio held at the RWA later led to a full-time job offer, and I have now been at the RWA for the last five years, working my way up from managing the artist membership to curator.

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

Last year I was incredibly fortunate enough to be awarded a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant by the Art Fund which enabled me to travel to Jamaica for a week with the curators of our upcoming exhibition Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora. I was able to meet many of the exhibiting artists in their studios, spend time in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s collection and gain a first-hand understanding of some of the artistic and political influences on contemporary Jamaican art.

Another highlight was an exhibition on John and Paul Nash, which I curated in 2014. It felt like a real turning point for me in terms of learning how to pull a show together – this was really brought home when for a moment, while working late in the galleries, that I had the Nashes' haunting landscapes all to myself.

I think my biggest challenge would probably be believing in myself. It’s an incredibly difficult time to be working in the arts, with ongoing cuts and job opportunities slowly disappearing but I am so glad I persevered, and the years of volunteering paid off.

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

It would have to be to persevere. Trying to find work when you’re starting out is really difficult, but having the opportunity to do something which I genuinely love every day is incredibly special – I’d hate to feel I’d settled for second best.

What’s special about working at the RWA?

The RWA is situated in a beautiful grade II* listed building; on the rare opportunities I get a chance to pause and take it in, it still surprises me that I get to come to work each day and walk into a building with so much history. Really though, it is the people. As an organisation, I think we seem to attract quite quirky personalities, but as a team it works and most days I either want to hug someone for being so supportive or fall off my chair laughing. Everyone seems to go above and beyond in their work and that makes for a really close working environment.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and exhibitions?

In our collection I’m always finding new favourites. We deliver a collaborative curatorial unit with the University of Bristol each year, so it always provides a new chance to rummage through the racks. A recent favourite is a tiny print by the sculptor Margaret Lovell called Sculpture in a Landscape – it’s tiny but I can’t stop looking at it.

In our exhibitions I am always finding new favourites. We had a Ravilious show in 2012 that first introduced me to the artist and it started a love affair, and I wish I could have taken home all of the Nashes' work. Right now I’m lusting after a small print of Corfe Castle by the artist John Everett and an exquisite oil painting called Nowhere by the artist Gill Rocca – both in our current exhibitions. I’m also really excited to see all the work come in shortly for Jamaican Pulse, particularly by Ebony G Patterson, who I had the chance to spend a morning with in her studio in Kingston.

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

Visiting art exhibitions when I get the chance, writing, collecting second-hand books (not ideal when you live in a tiny flat), travelling – I’ve just been to Copenhagen and fell in love with the beautiful setting of the Louisiana – yoga, walks with friends, buying vintage dresses I’ll never wear, watching films set in Paris, failing at crosswords and brunching.

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

The Yayoi Kusama work Infinity at the Louisiana was beautiful; it feels as though you are suspended among the stars. Then over the last year I’d have to say two very different shows: Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery, full of his gently waving soft grey trees which beckon you closer, and Anselm Kiefer at the RA – the sheer scale of his embers and ruins was incredibly moving. A space I will always love though above all else is the Musée Rodin; when you look at his work you can feel his hands upon the stone.

Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora is at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, from 25 June until 11 September.

Find out how to apply for a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant.

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