Curator of the Month: Julie Milne, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

The chief curator of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums shares her career highlights and talks about the importance of tenacity in the art world.

Name and job title:

Julie Milne, Chief Curator of Art Galleries, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (comprised of the Laing Art Gallery, Hatton Gallery and the Shipley Art Gallery)

What inspired you to become a curator?

From early on my passion for art has always been coupled with a love of galleries and museums. When I was a child I enjoyed visiting museums and national trust properties, exploring objects and paintings, enjoying them aesthetically, and working out how they were made and where they had come from. I appreciate the environment of museums because they take you out of yourself but conversely make you reflect and analyse more carefully the world around you. So really my inspiration has originated from these experiences, I have always cherished the museum and gallery environment.

I was in the ceramics gallery at the V&A recently and the pleasure of seeing such wonderful objects displayed so beautifully was a real lift to the spirits. The new Serpentine Pavilion was also a real thrill.

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

My first curatorial role as assistant keeper of the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield was very creative and I gained knowledge and experience of organising art and craft exhibitions and thematic shows deriving from the interdisciplinary collection of the Guild of St George. This was preceded by a degree in fine art at Leeds University, time spent as an artist, the completion of the museum and galleries studies course at Manchester University and much volunteering in between!

Later in Sheffield as keeper of the Mappin Art Gallery, I was responsible for the visual arts collection and the exhibition programme which encompassed both historical and contemporary art. With the advent of Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, I became curator of contemporary art. When the job of curator of the Laing Art Gallery came up it was an opportunity for promotion and to move back home to the North East. With a restructure at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums in 2012, I became chief curator of art galleries.

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

I have been around quite a long time so there are a lot of highlights and challenges to choose from!

The 2004 refurbishment of the Laing Art Gallery was a real highlight. It wasn’t a huge capital redevelopment but it had such an impact on the perceptions and the profile of the gallery. I envisioned this from the strengths of the collection and the historic building and rationalised the use of existing space. The best aspects of the original architecture were redecorated and the collection redisplayed, a new watercolour gallery was created and a new interpretation area was added.

The building development also marked changes in the programming. For instance, in partnership with National Gallery and Tate, alongside the enhancement of historical exhibitions, I focused the contemporary programme around the context of the Laing itself. This has provided challenging insights for existing visitors and gave us the opportunity to draw in new audiences.

The Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University is currently closed for a £3.5m capital redevelopment and is due to open in September 2017, and I am absolutely sure the reopening will be another highlight. It is embedded in the Fine Art Department and is an unusual and beautiful Edwardian building combined with 1960s Brutalist architecture. Hatton also houses Kurt Schwitter’s only surviving Merz Barn Wall, a construction comprised of found objects and plaster created by the artist in a Lake District barn. The plan for the redeveloped project is to dynamically and sympathetically bring these elements together so that the gallery functions as a great space to show and experience art. The building improvements will be mirrored by programme developments based on the unique history and context of the gallery and the collection.

The biggest challenge now is the current funding climate. With year-on-year budget reductions in local government funding, the organisation has had to adapt to survive in a difficult economic environment. This has necessarily meant a change in my role, meaning I use my creativity in different ways to generate income while striking a balance with my curatorial and managerial role. Two years ago, at the Laing Art Gallery, we began charging admission for special exhibitions and whilst this has worked well in some ways, exhibitions as we all know are extraordinarily expensive to produce. There are no quick fixes and year-on-year we having to think of new ways to fill the widening gap left by diminishing public funding. This is the new reality but we hold such fantastic cultural assets that we have to find a way through this.

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

I think be tenacious and don’t give up. It’s hard getting a job in the arts – it was when I started out and it’s harder now. I think this also applies to when you do finally get a job – you have to be pretty determined to get things done. It’s great working in the arts but whether it’s working in a local authority, national or an independent gallery, nothing is easy. Don’t stop loving what you do, it’s definitely worth all the effort.

What’s special about working at your organisation?

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) is a federation of museums, a joint service that runs nine museums and an archive service on behalf of the four local authorities on Tyneside and Newcastle University. The organisation is pretty unique sharing expertise across a wide area. I work as chief curator of art galleries responsible for running three galleries the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University and the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead. I have core responsibility for the leadership of the galleries including the designated collections, curatorial and learning programmes combined with managerial responsibility for the budget and staff including curatorial, learning, and front of house. Working across the three galleries presents a special creative challenge sharing collections and specialist staff but also honing and enhancing the creative vision for each gallery, showcasing what is unique about each gallery in their specific settings, context and locale. It’s a wonderful job and I have a great team.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?

One of my favourite paintings in the Laing Art Gallery's collection is The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah 1852 by John Martin. Born in the North East, Martin spent most of his early life here before moving to London to further his career. He is known for his large scale apocalyptic paintings. They are dramatic visionary works based on the Bible, history and mythology. In 1821 the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence described him as the most popular painter of his day and at his exhibitions his paintings had to be railed off to protect them from the crowds of admirers. I enjoy the overblown drama of his work and how it connects with the cinematic experience. He was known to have influenced film directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith and the cinematographer Ray Harryhausen who memorably from my childhood worked on the film Jason and the Argonauts. The Laing holds one of the most comprehensive collections of his work in the world and the artist was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition in partnership with Tate in 2011.

A favourite work from the Shipley Art Gallery is Philp Eglin’s ceramic piece Two Nudes Under a Tree 1992. This is an exquisite piece. The artist's work is rooted in the tradition of folk pottery and shows the strong influence of Staffordshire figurines of the 19th century but it also connects with a fine art tradition reminiscent of the attenuated figures of Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Dutch mannerist painter Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael (1566–1638), his painting of The temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden, 1614 is also part of the Shipley collection. For the Shipley’s Centenary in 2017 we are planning to bring these two works together and other companion pieces across the fine art and contemporary craft collections showing visual, thematic and narrative connections.

The collections across the three galleries are an amazing creative resource that we continue to show, enhance and grow. They are at the core of what we do and seeing great works like these every day remind me of why I joined the profession.

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

The best exhibition I have seen recently is Making and Unmaking, conceived and curated by fashion designer Duro Oluwu at Camden Arts Centre which includes paintings, photographs, sculpture, ceramics, tapestries and fabrics by more than 60 artists. Those featured range from Anni Albers and Fernand Léger to Claude Cahun and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Meredith Frampton. The exhibition takes textiles as its foundation but it's themes range from the artistic process, gender, sexuality to the connections between clothing and art. The whole thing is a collage, a visually rich aesthetic and intellectual experience that subsumes the senses and the mind.

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