Curator of the Month: Robert Dingle

From running a small gallery in Brighton to joining Art Fund, Robert Dingle shares his thoughts on balancing independent curatorial practice with a full-time job in the arts.

Name and job title:

Robert Dingle, Independent Curator / Contemporary Projects Manager, Art Fund

What inspired you to become a curator?

As a Fine Art student at the University of Brighton, the artist Matt Hale visited our studio to talk about City Racing, the artist-run space in south London which he co-founded with artists Paul Noble, John Burgess, Keith Coventry and Peter Owen in 1988. He talked about what they were trying to achieve, how they set it up and the reaction they had. It was a pivotal and exciting moment for me because for the first time I could see a path of what life after art school could look like.

I graduated in 2005 with a sense of anticipation, excitement and trepidation. At the time, the Brighton art scene consisted of a small and social network of art spaces. There were still empty shop spaces around the city and arts funding was more plentiful. The combination of being part of a peer network of artists, musicians, curators, writers and funders, together with the relative ease of accessing space across the city, created an entrepreneurial, DIY attitude.

After graduating, I began to work closely with a friend who studied on the same course, Tom Trevatt. We heard about a small, vacant basement space in Kemptown. I remember the time we went to have a look; the place was damp with low ceilings and filled with crap. The next day we paid a deposit and signed a two-year contract with the landlord for a princely sum of £50 a month. We turned the space into an artist-run gallery called ‘thirtyfive-a’. Over the course of two years we hosted 25 exhibitions and events and the balance of our collaborative practice shifted firmly in favour of curating. In August 2007 we closed the gallery and enrolled on the MFA Curating course at Goldsmiths.

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

Throughout my degree I had numerous jobs. The most valuable of these was assisting the Artist Resource Manager at Fabrica Gallery. The Artist Resource – a source of information on local, regional and national opportunities, exhibitions and events for artists and arts professionals – opened my eyes to the art world and the different contexts in which artists worked.

My first job in a curatorial capacity came in 2010 when I applied for ‘’, a curatorial competition inviting MA and PhD students in the UK to curate an exhibition from the Arts Council Collection. Inspired by the work, ‘Portrait: Selection Committee for the Arts Council Collection (ACC), 1994’ by Catherine Yass, I wanted to explore the possibility this work offered for looking at the collection in terms of tracing particular moments in the Collection’s history and revealing how and why particular works came to be acquired. I relished the experience of studying at Goldsmiths, but what I gained working for the ACC was not just inspiration or the desire to work with collections, but an interest and fascination in how they are constructed.

After this, I was awarded a curatorial fellowship at the Contemporary Art Society in 2010. I remained at the CAS for five years. I joined Art Fund in 2015 as Contemporary Projects Manager, a new role that has allowed me to build networks, develop partnerships and established new projects and initiatives. When I look back on my time working at Fabrica Gallery, those institutions within the Artist Resource have come to life. They’re no longer names and places, but people and relationships, I have a greater understanding of what they do, their collections, the local context in which they operate, and the ways in which organisations across the UK fit together.

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

Throughout my career I’ve always maintained an independent curatorial practice, usually working with friends or colleagues to establish non-profit spaces like thirtyfive-a (2005-07) and Hold & Freight, London (2008-09), as well as curatorial projects like The Ballad of Peckham Rye, London (2013-).

Securing funding with The Ballad of Peckham Rye from the Wellcome Trust to support the project I am currently working on, ‘Correspondence O’, with artist Ilona Sagar, ranks quite highly. Not for the amount, but for what it represents and has subsequently enabled – essentially two people (myself and Ilona) spending three years putting everything we had into forming a project we believed in and felt to be both relevant and timely. The support from the Wellcome Trust has allowed us to develop two significant partnerships: one with the South London Gallery to show the work (December 2017), and another with Black Dog Publishing to co-produce, promote and distribute a publication alongside the exhibition.

I think this project has also presented my biggest challenge to date: how to compete for limited resources, funding, audiences, and press attention with organisations that are much bigger and better resourced.

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

See as many shows as you can, meet as many artists as you can, work with as many people as you can.

What’s special about working at your organisation?

Art Fund is a very special place to work for lots of different reasons, but in a nutshell I think it comes down to the work we do supporting regional museums and galleries and the people. I am always amazed by how much we achieve, not just in terms of the number of organisations Art Fund works with, but perhaps more importantly the way in which our support is given. There is a real ethos of developing projects, giving curators and organisations the freedom to create new ones, and perhaps most importantly of all, trying out and testing new ideas. I don’t think I’ve worked somewhere that is as supportive and has as many talented and passionate people under one roof – it’s an inspiring place to be.

What are your favourite objects in your exhibition and why?

Over the past 18 months I’ve been working with the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne curating an exhibition as part of their involvement in the Arts Council Collection National Partners project. I’ve been working with Brian Cass on the exhibition 'Now, Today, Tomorrow and Always' (22 July to 8 October) which brings together a range of artworks that explore how popular culture, and its vast compendium of imagery, words and materials has influenced recent contemporary art.

The title of the exhibition takes its name from The Smiths' song 'Shoplifters of the World Unite', a track featured as part of the album The World Won’t Listen, and referred to in Phil Collins’ work dűnya dinlemiyor. It’s an incredible work and features in the exhibition. Shot in Istanbul in 2005, the work documents the collaboration between the artist and the disaffected youths of the city who are seen performing Karaoke renditions of The Smiths. Its a tender, humorous, sometimes melancholic picture of society, the work is a study on the mediation and strength of popular culture to which, despite its boundaries, we are all exposed.

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

I have two children under five, so I spend the majority of my time outside of work with the kids between parks, farms, museums and the seaside. The Horniman Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery, South London Gallery and Tate are our regular cultural hangouts in London. For the past four years we’ve also had an allotment; it’s nice now that our eldest child has stopped destroying plants and instead taken more of an interest in watering them (and himself), maybe one day I will be able to interest him enough to do some weeding!

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

Less of an exhibition, but John Akomfrah’s ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ currently on display at The Tanks, Tate Modern.

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