Curator of the Month: Katie Boyce, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum

This month, Katie Boyce explains how an early appreciation for creating art turned into a passion for curating exhibitions, and speaks about bringing together Rugby’s collection with loans from the National Portrait Gallery and The Lowry in the upcoming show About Face, supported by Art Fund’s Weston Loan Programme.

How did you start out – what inspired you to take this route and what kind of training, study and experience did you undertake?

At first, being a curator was never on my radar. I studied Fine Art at Coventry University, and even though I enjoyed it, I found that I was more interested in how art was exhibited and positioned in space rather than creating it myself.

During my degree, I began volunteering at several local art galleries, and after graduating, I began working at the Herbert Art Gallery as an intern in their exhibition and events team. There I worked on touring exhibitions, research and exhibition development, and curated my own exhibition alongside a large national display. The Herbert’s senior exhibitions officer, Rosie Addenbrooke, encouraged me to look at the Museum Studies course at Leicester University.

My Master’s degree at Leicester was an intense year of learning, but I was able to combine my love of art with my passion for exhibition design and curation. I did a work placement at Nature in Art in Gloucester, where I learnt about collections care and management as well as curating exhibitions with commissioned artists. I was introduced to the different aspects of gallery work, how to look after the collections and preserve them for the future, as well as finding new ways in which to interpret them.

What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn from your role that helped you secure your next one?

My real foot in the door came when I secured a gallery officer role at the Alfred East Art Gallery (part of Kettering Museum and Art Gallery). The role involved me being a ‘Jack of all trades.’ I managed the exhibitions and events programme, collections management of almost 1000 works of art and the education programme for adults, as well as other activities and events. During the six years I spent at Kettering I gained experience in all aspects of gallery life and I believe this has enabled me to be more flexible.

In the last few years at Kettering I became a freelance consultant for the East Midlands, supporting museums and encouraging them to work with artists on various projects. This not only gave me more confidence in terms of sharing what I knew, but it also helped me network with peers and understand the climate within the region.

What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?

Most importantly, I believe you need to have a passion for your subject. It is important to be bold and challenge yourself to take risks. Collections need to be shown in new and interesting ways if we are to attract new audiences and keep existing ones inspired.

Curators need to be flexible and inventive, to be able to work on tight budgets and monitor the availability of new and existing funding streams in order to get the most out of the resources available; they need to multitask, be skilled in business, marketing, public relations, and fundraising. They also need to be skilled communicators, as they’re often the mediators between the museum, artist and public.

Finally, I think patience is another skill to have. It takes years to develop the knowledge, relationships and vision to be able to be a curator and I feel that too many people are in a rush to learn everything all at once.

Can you tell us a little bit about a highlight of your career, perhaps a project you worked on, recognition or a certain milestone?

I was shortlisted for a National Museum & Heritage Award for an exhibition I curated Collection Connections and also won best exhibition every year during my time at Kettering in the Northamptonshire Heritage Awards. However, I think my biggest achievement so far has been the book I wrote about the Alfred East Art Gallery’s collection. It was published to celebrate the centenary of the gallery and also the centenary of Sir Alfred East’s death.

Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator?

I think the biggest challenge for me and curators in general is being able to raise the funds to ensure that projects can go ahead. It is a very competitive field, which means that projects have to be special enough in order for them to stand out from the other applications.

I also think that resources are being spread too thinly and that to allow a service to thrive curators are having to multitask. Finding new ways to challenge and inspire audiences, not only with their existing collections, but trying to find the next new trend to be a part of.

About Face will see loans from the National Portrait Gallery and The Lowry come to the gallery. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of putting the exhibition together, and how these loans complement the artists’ works already in the Rugby collection?

Each year the Rugby collection is curated around a different theme and this year’s theme is portraiture, as part of the 2018 temporary exhibitions programme which explores ideas around ‘People and Place’. Visitors ask us questions about the artists represented in the collection.

With this exhibition, we hope to answer some of these questions and let visitors get to know our family of artists. To help us tell the stories of our artists we have borrowed works from the National Portrait Gallery and The Lowry with the help and support of the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund. These loans not only allow our visitors to have wider access to these national collections, which would normally only be seen in large city galleries, they also enable us to develop the Rugby Collection further, display it in new ways and gather new research.

The loans I chose to sit alongside our works represent all different mediums, and have allowed us to get some of our most prestigious artists’ works out on show, giving our visitors the chance to not only see an example of their work, but also to see how they wanted to represent themselves through self-portraiture. The loans were a way of getting to know our artists and where they were in their careers when they painted the work in our collection.

Rugby’s collection was built around artists of promise, which sometimes meant that works were unusual and not in the style they are known for. A good example of this is Lucian Freud’s Fig Tree; he is mostly famous for his portraits and so it is great for our visitors to see a work that is in keeping with his style alongside a piece of work that is not so typical.

This is what I wanted for the show; to give something back to our visitors so they could learn about the artists within our collection. It is a new way of displaying the collection and hopefully it will inspire visitors to want to know more.

What is the best exhibition that you’ve been to recently and why?

Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in 1960s British Art at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This exhibition was just a feast of colour and shape in a beautiful setting. The contrast of the hard 60s symmetry to the natural landscape really made the work sing. It was interesting to discover some of the works within the period that were not given the acclaim that they deserved.

The show was easily accessible as well with the subject and theme of pattern and colour inspiring young and old. The curation was very playful and it showed how sculpture during the 60s went through dramatic changes. It was also interesting to see paintings alongside linked to Op Art to connect with the shapes and repetition of the sculptural elements that were shown.

About Face: The Rugby Collection runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum from 30 March to 16 June 2018.

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