Curator of the Month: Sophie Williamson, Camden Arts Centre

Sophie Williamson discusses her Gasworks Fellowship Programme and advises young curators to leave London.

Name and job title

Sophie Williamson, Programme Curator, Exhibitions

What inspired you to become a curator?

Going to art school was inevitable; I’d always had my heart set on it. I did my undergraduate degree in Fine Art at Goldsmiths. We had an amazing amount of freedom with our time and pretty much all learning was self-directed. It taught you to be autodidactic and how to develop your own direction. However, there was also intensive critical feedback, with an expectation to substantiate everything we created. This in-depth academic and critical engagement, both in the practical side of the course and the theory aspects, really suited me. I soon discovered though that being alone in a studio didn’t! I much preferred collaborating with others. My art practice was quite curatorial, built around interests in interpretation, narrative and the experiential. It made sense when I graduated to pursue the aspects of this education that had most inspired me; I followed my research interests and fell into a curatorial position, but immediately recognised that this was the direction that I wanted to go in. I worked in various different roles internationally over the next six years, followed by an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the RCA, before starting at Camden Arts Centre.

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

I always had jobs growing up. As a teenager I ran art classes for younger kids from my parents’ living room. Throughout my degree I also juggled numerous different jobs, paid and unpaid, varying from gallery front-desk work, envelope stuffing for exhibition mail-outs, tutoring, photographer's assistant, and being involved in various artist-run initiatives (as well as the obligatory late-night shifts in the student bar to make ends meet). Most were menial, but the experience of seeing how different artistic contexts operated was really formative.

My first full-time job was for the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006. I had written my dissertation on the impact of the proliferation of new biennales outside of major art centres and was keen to see this pan out in practice. I turned up in Singapore a few months before the exhibition opened – with no money, planning to volunteer for the biennale during the day and get a bar job in the evenings. Luckily the team took a shine to me and gave me a full-time, paid position on my first day. In the lead up to the opening, I worked closely with the curatorial team, headed by Fumio Nanjo, and later once the show opened, with the management team to coordinate the 550 volunteers that kept the show running. There were 110 artists, many of whom were making new works. Added to the complexity of the project was that of the 19 exhibition locations, only a few were dedicated art spaces – one was even a dilapidated ex-military base, which had to be cleared of a snake infestation before we could start installing! It was really exciting to a part of such an insanely busy moment. There was a real buzz and many long-term friendships were borne out of the giddy exhaustion.

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

I’ve always enjoyed being involved in projects from the start; there’s something so exhilarating about finding your own way with things and the knowledge that you’re laying the groundwork for something to develop in the future. I’ve worked on several biennales. For these large-scale projects you’re inevitably thrown into an entirely new environment, and for the inaugural edition, with no previous structure to launch from, you have to be able to hit the ground running more than ever.

I was part of the founding team for Raven Row, initially as gallery manager and later as exhibitions organiser. I worked there for five years, but when I started, several months before its launch, the building was still full of builders; it was incredible to be part of the team transforming a beautiful but neglected building into a refined and elegant art space. We were a small, close-knit team of only five people, each working tirelessly towards its opening. We also recruited a wonderful front-of-house team, many of whom still work there eight years on. Although it was very much the director’s vision, we were all so invested that I think we probably all felt like it was our baby too. I still feel like that when I go back to visit.

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

Get out of London! It’s an unfortunate reality that most people going into the field will have to undertake a great deal of unpaid work to build up experience on their CV. In London this makes professional progress really challenging for anyone without financial support coming from elsewhere. And competition for early career positions is staggering. Even for internship positions at Camden Arts Centre we’ll receive hundreds of applications, most of which will be over qualified for an entry level post. But there are so many exciting things going on elsewhere all across the country, where there’s more opportunity to be meaningfully involved in projects during the early years of your career.

What’s special about working at your gallery?

Without doubt: the people. We have the most wonderful team of staff, volunteers and freelancers, each of whom bring something special to the fabric of Camden Arts Centre. And this sense of community extends to all the artists we work with too; everyone is enveloped into the folds of the extended family.

Working on the exhibitions is always a close collaboration with artists; we invite them to make a show with an open slate where they can propose whatever they like, which is quite rare, I think. We choose people whose work we love, so its easy to trust that they’ll make a brilliant exhibition. The exhibitions normally evolve quite organically, coming about through extended dialogue and conversation. It’s a lovely way to work, and extends throughout the Education Programme and Public Programme too; wherever possible the programme is very artist-led, and based on collaboration and openness. This ethos is a cornerstone to Camden Arts Centre, and I sense that it resonates not just with people we work with but with our audiences too. It’s a space that belongs to everyone.

Which has been your favourite exhibition to work on and why?

Choosing a favourite exhibition from the time that I’ve worked here is impossible! There have certainly been some highlights though: Emma Hart’s manically chattering anxiety-inducing furniture; Ben Rivers' 16mm film documenting the devastated islands of Vanuatu, the fragility of the images teetering on the brink of a post-apocalyptic future; and Glenn Ligon’s multi-screen video installation of Richard Prior’s emphatic, poignant body language. All of which, coincidentally, were new works, which has obvious added excitement when you’re developing the show.

Working with Ruth Ewan to collect all 365 plants, vegetables, minerals, farm tools and animals of the French Revolutionary calendar was – despite the mammoth challenge – and incredible venture, learning about so many aspects of nature and history that I’d previously known nothing about. And it was so magical to see the plants and trees transforming in the gallery over the course of the show.

Another joy that sticks in my mind was receiving Moyra Davey’s mail art works, each day arriving to work to find another little artwork folded neatly on my desk. I often think about her work. She manages to evoke a wonderful stillness and depth, with an accumulated heuristic consideration underlying each image. Both her photographic and video works are deeply personal yet understated, with an un-rushed contemplation of the world that I aspire to. She also started me reading Jean Genet. The Miracle of the Rose is now one of my all-time favourites!

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

I’ve just got back from a month-long residency with Bisagra in Lima (through the Gasworks Fellowship Programme), so I still need to catch-up with shows in London. My experience in Lima has completely transformed my perspective on the art scene in London though.

There’s very little state funding for the arts in Peru – even the main contemporary art museum, the MALI, is a privately funded organisation – and there are very few commercial galleries, even fewer supporting contemporary artists. Nevertheless, there’s a feisty drive from individuals and grassroots set-ups, working to build upon the fragile and fragmentary art scene. It was really inspiring to see people coming together from all different backgrounds, to create platforms for art as a space to discuss interests and ideas that aren’t catered for elsewhere in the cultural landscape. I was hosted by Bisagra, a gallery and event space, with a sporadic yet lively programme, which really epitomised the energy and ethos of the whole art scene in Peru. It’s run by a collective of artists and curators, each bringing different skills and interests, but most importantly doing everything with passion, fervour and humour. In such an establish art ecosystem, in London especially, this frivolous, exuberant spirit is rare to come by. Maybe we all take ourselves a bit too seriously.

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

Two years ago, I moved into a rundown Victorian house, so realistically most of my weekends are spent covered in rubble and dust in a seemingly endless renovation project. I love having the opportunity to work with my hands though. To relax, I enjoy making my way through an eclectic reading list, listening to podcasts and watching shit TV in unequal measures, rambling around London aimlessly, and eating and drinking way too much with friends.

The art world is such a sociable place that it’s easy to fill every weekday evening with various events, openings and talks; there’s always so much more to see and do, I feel like there’s never enough time! Since getting back from Peru though, I’ve realised that I want to spend more of my spare time exploring other fields; I love being so absorbed in the arts, but I’d also like to find time for sciences, languages and technologies, things which I loved as a child and have since neglected. I get quite geeky about anything using logic, so I’d love to learn how to make chronometers and finally get my head round how to work out how to use my Arduino!

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