Curator of the Month: Victoria Howarth, Jerwood Gallery

The curator, who is a recent Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant winner, shares her career advice and explains why she loves working in Hastings.

Name and job title:

Victoria Howarth, exhibitions curator, Jerwood Gallery.

What inspired you to become a curator?

It wasn’t always my plan to work as a curator: up until my first year at sixth form college I planned to train as a musical theatre performer, and my first degree was in English Literature. At university I became more and more interested in fine art, taking part in student exhibitions and living with the fantastic art collection at New Hall. I’ve always loved storytelling, researching and writing, and wanted a career that allowed me to learn and explore, and to work closely with other creative people. Through voluntary work, postgraduate training and various roles in galleries and museums, I realised that working as a curator was the perfect job for me.

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

It’s been a convoluted journey! After graduating with my Literature degree I volunteered at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and then took up a curatorial internship at the V&A Theatre & Performance Archive in London, which turned into three years of part-time work as a curatorial and archive assistant. During this period I also worked part-time on the front desk at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, where I volunteered on some fantastic community projects. After graduating with my Master’s degree I worked at Towner in Eastbourne as part of the front-of-house team and then completed a six-month curatorial internship with collections curator, Sara Cooper. Sara inspired me to embark upon a distance learning Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Studies with the University of Leicester. This course, and my time at Towner, confirmed my desire to work as a curator, and I have no doubt that both contributed hugely to my successful application to work at the new Jerwood Gallery in my hometown of Hastings.

Work and study aside, it’s the people that I’ve been lucky enough to work with in the art world that have had the biggest impact on my career, and I am so grateful for all the encouragement, opportunities and support that I’ve had. This really is a wonderful sector to be a part of.

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

There have been so many. Breaking our fundraising target for Jerwood Gallery’s Art Happens campaign with Art Fund was such a wonderful moment – the whole team was leaping around the office! Mark Haddon from the Telegraph calling the Prunella Clough show that I curated ‘a magical little exhibition’, and Frances Spalding complimenting my exhibition labels, were profound career highlights. It is such an honour to have been awarded a curatorial research placement at the Yale Center for British Art, and with the help of a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant from the Art Fund I will be able to explore opportunities for future exhibitions and collaborations in New York City after my placement at Yale this autumn.

Being part of the launch of Jerwood Gallery was an incredible experience and a huge challenge – I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on such little sleep, and I’m very proud of what we achieved. Our Jake and Dinos Chapman exhibition was the most challenging show that I have worked on to date, involving setting up a live tattoo parlour in the gallery, craning a sculpture into the courtyard, lowering the ceiling of one gallery space to five feet above the floor, and installing their seminal work The Sum of All Evil, which weighed over a tonne and took a team of technicians a full week to assemble.

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

Work hard, be helpful, say yes to a range of opportunities, go to everything, read everything, volunteer, listen to advice, get involved with community arts groups, keep an open mind, make sure you know your stuff, and if you can, complete a postgraduate Museum Studies degree.

What’s special about working at Jerwood Gallery?

Hastings is a unique place with a beautiful country park nature reserve, the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in the country, a thriving artistic community and excellent festivals throughout the year, so the location of the gallery makes it a very special place to work.

Working closely with artists on their exhibitions is a treasured part of my job at Jerwood Gallery – it’s such a privilege to be able to visit artist’s studios and to work collaboratively with them. The best thing about working at Jerwood Gallery is being able to work with such an inspiring group of people day to day. I have a huge amount of respect for all my colleagues, and working with such a dedicated, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and encouraging group of people is very special indeed.

What is your favourite object in your collection and current exhibition, and why?

Marcus Harvey has created some fantastic new works for our exhibition Marcus Harvey: Inselaffe. Marcus is such an innovative artist, and our exhibition includes some exciting large-scale pieces that combine ceramic elements with photography and paint on canvas. His new bronze Maggie Island is a powerful, nuanced sculpture, a real exhibition highlight for me, and I am so pleased that we are able to hold Marcus’s largest exhibition to date in Hastings.

There are so many fabulous works in the Jerwood Collection that I couldn’t choose a single favourite. Rose Wylie’s Silent Light (film notes) which hung in our launch exhibition, and Rachel Howard’s You Can Save Me which featured in her exhibition Rachel Howard: At Sea are highlights for me. My affection for these works is deepened by my love and respect for Rose and Rachel as artists and people – I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them both. The idea for our exhibition Prunella Clough: Unknown Countries was sparked by the two Cloughs in the Jerwood Collection, Back Drop and Grand Union Canal, which are also favourites of mine.

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

I’m currently training for my first marathon, so that’s taking up most of my free time at present! I love the theatre, visiting exhibitions, baking, eating, singing with my jazz band, travelling, yoga, swimming in the sea and reading (we have recently set up a Jerwood Gallery book club which has been huge fun). Some friends bought me a trial flying lesson for my last birthday and I’m absolutely hooked – if I could find some way to afford flying lessons I think this could become a real addiction.

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

I loved the Kettle’s Yard display at Hepworth Wakefield. I spent a lot of time at Kettle’s Yard as an undergraduate and have been very lucky to curate two displays from their collection at Jerwood Gallery: In Focus: Alfred Wallis and Horizons: Kettles Yard at Jerwood Gallery. It was a moving experience to see this fabulous collection exhibited in the beautiful spaces at the Hepworth, and I think it’s wonderful that these works are being exhibited in different contexts around the country, enabling visits from people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy them.

Marcus Harvey's Inselaffe is at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, from 16 July to 16 October.

Find out how to apply for an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant.

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