Curator of the Month: Laura Smith

From delving into Glasgow’s art scene while at university through to co-curating the Turner Prize, Laura Smith tells us about her diverse curatorial career, revealing how an idea in a job interview turned into a fully fledged exhibition.

We spoke to Laura ahead of the opening of her latest exhibition – Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings – which was supported in its research phase with a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant from Art Fund and runs from 10 February to 29 April, 2018

Name and job title:

Laura Smith, Curator, Tate St Ives

What inspired you to become a curator?

I studied Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art, which I loved. We had an amazing amount of freedom and a lot of self-directed learning, as well as pretty rigorous critical feedback and academic training. I think this all taught me to be fairly autodidactic, to challenge myself, and to develop my own direction. But I just don’t think I ever had it in me to make it as an artist – I was always much more interested in other people’s work. Plus, I quickly discovered that being alone in a studio doesn’t work for me and that I am much more comfortable working and collaborating with others.

In Glasgow at that time, the art scene consisted of a small and social network of artist-led spaces, studios, temporary exhibitions and performances, as well as galleries and museums. There were also empty shops around the city and access to them was much more straightforward than it is today. I think that being part of this concentration of artists, musicians, designers and writers, as well as the relative simplicity of inhabiting different spaces across the city, made me realise that arranging and curating exhibitions and sharing ideas and research across my peer group in this way, was what I wanted to pursue.

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

I’ve done lots of bits and bobs over the last 15 years. I have been an invigilator, a receptionist, an occasional technician, and a (very bad) German to English translator at a museum in Berlin, I have run art workshops for kids and adults, and done a fair bit of editing and writing. But I guess my first proper job was as an Assistant Curator at Nottingham Contemporary, which I got when I graduated from my MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the RCA. That was when I knew I was on the right path. I had a fantastic time there with a really inspirational manager in Kathy Noble. I think at Nottingham I learnt how to consolidate all of my experiences and interests and begin to think about how to channel them into a programme (in my mind) of exhibitions, events and research.

Before working in Nottingham I had done some freelance writing for Tate St Ives and had spent a good deal of time in Cornwall, curating (with a friend and colleague, Maria Christoforidou) a self-led exhibition and series of performances and events which we funded through Arts Council England, Gulbenkian Foundation, European Creative Enterprise funds and partnerships in Cornwall – including Tate. So when the role of Curator at Tate St Ives was advertised, I felt like I had a good understanding of the region, its audiences and what it meant to be curating for a national institution in a small, rural context. I never dreamed I’d get the job but I thought I might get an interview, and that that would be worthwhile experience in itself.

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

Every exhibition I have worked on has been a highlight and a learning experience. I recently curated a Rebecca Warren solo exhibition for Tate St Ives’ new 500-square-metre extension, and that was both thrilling and terrifying. I have admired Rebecca’s work for so long that it was an incredible experience to work so closely with her: she creates such visceral, urgent works of extraordinary depth and beauty. But that said, the pressure of curating the first show in Tate St Ives’ much-anticipated new gallery was quite full-on.

Curating and programming the existing gallery at Tate St Ives, while building a huge new gallery alongside it, has probably been the biggest challenge. The extent of the building work meant that we had to shuffle our programme in the existing gallery quite substantially; we had to delay exhibitions or pull them forward, close the gallery at certain moments and work with an array of specialists and their tools – like diamond drills, seismologists and volcano experts. It was worth it in the end, but it was difficult when also maintaining a responsibility towards the works and artists on show, as well as the audiences who were visiting the gallery.

Thinking more about highlights though, I also had the privilege to co-curate Turner Prize 2016 which, again, was an incredible and humbling experience. The demands – of timescale, public reception, media coverage, etc. – for the nominated artists are so intense that it was an honour and a challenge to navigate all of that with them.

What’s special about working at your museum?

The exciting thing about Tate St Ives is that we are a national institution in a regional context. Having access to, and being able to contribute to, the Tate collection and all of the artists associated with it is such an enormous honour and privilege and one which I am ever-grateful for. This, coupled with the freedom and autonomy that being situated in rural Cornwall provides, is quite a special concoction. I feel able to develop new projects and test new ideas in a way that I might not be able to elsewhere.

The museum is so closely connected to its audiences and to the artists working here (Tate St Ives is also the only Tate site with a residency programme, so we frequently have artists – in addition to those that live here – to stay for between one and 12 months). I see those audiences and artists every day, on the beach… in the greengrocers… or in the pub… and they frequently tell me what they think. This is so valuable as it means that each project or exhibition can be responsive and thought about through their eyes.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of curating the Virginia Woolf exhibition – how did the idea come about and what did you set out to achieve?

It is actually an exhibition that I proposed in my interview for this job five years ago. And in many ways it is quite fitting that it will be the last exhibition that I work on here before I move to Whitechapel Gallery in a month’s time. The idea came about really in two ways: I have always been a big Woolf fan and was excited that the lighthouse here – Godrevy Lighthouse – is her To the Lighthouse lighthouse. I was also interested in finding a way of curating a large-scale group exhibition that looked at the world and at themes of landscape and domesticity from a feminist perspective.

So the exhibition uses Woolf’s writing as a lens through which to look at the visual arts. It follows her notion that creative women ‘think back through our mothers’ and charts that lineage, mapping a non-patriarchal ancestry between Woolf, her contemporaries and artists who share an affinity with her work – whether such connections are tangible, anecdotal, geographic or imagined.

The themes of the exhibition came about through reading and re-reading Woolf’s writings in order to find a structure within them that I could use to build the exhibition. Woolf and her family spent every summer at Talland House in St Ives until she was 13 and it became the place where, for the duration of her life, she identified happiness and her stimulation to write. She repeatedly evokes the house and the ocean and landscape beyond it in her writing, building a dynamic relationship between rooms and houses, and land and sea. St Ives is also where she first encountered early feminism. During her summers in St Ives Woolf met Joseph Wolstenholme, brother of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, one of the 19th century’s most active workers for suffrage, who enthused the young Woolf with feminist politics.

For the adult Woolf there were two kinds of equality: one in which women gained admission into the world of men (the vote, access to education, financial independence, etc.), which of course she strove to attain; and another kind, which involved remodelling the very foundations of society to allow women and men to live on their own terms, the charting of a new and unknown territory. In her explorations of these different types of equality, Woolf manipulated those contrasting references to the house and to landscape. She frequently identified the house as a symbol of Victorian conventions, traditions and conformity – all of which she wanted to escape – and to reclaim the room for her own ends. And for her, landscape and wilderness became metaphors for freedom and empowerment beyond the constraints of her times, which allowed her to ‘take my mind out of its iron cage and let it swim’, as she wrote in her diary in 1920.

So the exhibition mirrors these two types of equality through its depictions of both landscape and interiors, as well as images of the self in public and the self in private, all infused with a feminist perspective.

What are your favourite objects in the exhibition and why?

I couldn’t possibly say. There are 270 works in the exhibition by over 80 artists (all of whom I admire massively) and the works come from across the world and across history, from the 1850s to the present day. There are very early 19th-century experimental photographs; surrealist automatic, stream-of-consciousness drawings; paintings and sculptures that play with the conventions of portraiture, landscape and still life painting; hand-painted silk wall hangings; videos and documentation of performance art; wall murals; ceramics (including Woolf’s own teapot, hand-painted by Vanessa Bell); early 20th-century textiles; archival material; suffragette paraphernalia (including a snakes-and-ladders-like suffragette board game in which you have to escape from prison); and some extraordinary contemporary painting and sculpture.

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

See as many shows as you can, read as much as you can, meet as many artists as you can, work with as many people as you can. Be prepared to take risks, be kind, trust your instincts, work hard and say ‘yes’ to a range of opportunities.

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

I thought that Disobedient Bodies at The Hepworth Wakefield (curated by JW Anderson) was fantastic. It combined modernist and contemporary sculpture with couture fashion, playing with how the human form has been reimagined by artists and designers across the 20th and 21st centuries. It was ahistoric and irreverent, and also kind of delirious in its gender subversions and ‘disobediences’, but it was also very generous in its inclusions and design. It offered a lot, all with the atmosphere of a party or social gathering.

I also thought that the inaugural Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year was a vital, exciting and overdue inclusion, and that Alison M. Gingeras’ Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics selection at Frieze London last year felt cogent and bold and necessary.

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings is at Tate St Ives from 10 February to 29 April 2018.

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