Curator of the Month: Natasha Howes, Manchester Art Gallery

The Senior Curator at Manchester Art Gallery reveals how she cut her teeth in the contemporary art world and highlights the importance of challenging perceptions and taking risks as a curator.

How did you start out as a curator?

I fell in love with art history at school, before going on to attend Birmingham University to study the subject and quickly realising that I wanted to work in a gallery. After that I did a year’s work experience at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, and also earnt money as a slide librarian in the art history department. After graduating from my MA in museum studies at Leicester, I got my first job at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, so I was very quickly plunged into a world of contemporary art – and have never looked back.

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 role at the Ikon was as exhibitions co-ordinator – I organised the shows which the director (first Liz-Ann MacGregor and then Jonathan Watkins) curated and also toured Ikon’s exhibitions nationally and internationally.

I learnt about how to work with living artists (I had only studied historic artists before, so meeting living artists was really inspiring), to commission new work, to hang and install different types of art, and to work with different types of architecture. I also started to gain an understanding of the international contemporary art world, to forge contacts at galleries around the world and understand the mechanisms of gallery administration, including loan forms, condition reporting, handling and packing, display methods and transport.

What is a typical working day like for you?

There is no typical day. I lead a team of nine curators with expertise in fine art, craft and design, costume and contemporary art. I regularly meet with members of my team to discuss upcoming projects and check in on the concept and selection of work, the budget, and any challenges around delivery. I might be proofing interpretation, signing off press releases, writing grant applications, selecting images for marketing, developing projects with the learning team, planning previews or briefing our visitor services team.

Currently, I’m working with Martin Parr who was in Manchester last week shooting his new commission, so I was busy making contact with people and organisations he wanted to photograph.

I’m also working on a nationwide Leonardo da Vinci show of his drawings in partnership with the Royal Collection to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death, which will open at 12 venues on the same day.

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

For a curator who works with contemporary art, their job is to enable and facilitate an artist’s vision. Once we have invited an artists to make a work, I love working with them, seeing how their ideas take shape and helping them realise their ambition. You need to be flexible, diplomatic, persuasive, efficient administratively, tenacious, energetic, a creative problem solver and collegiate. Putting on a successful exhibition is all about team work.

Can you tell about a highlight in your career?

Recently, I was involved in the New North South, a three-year partnership between the north of England (Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds) and Biennials in South Asia – Kochi-Muziris, Karachi, Lahore, Columbo and the Dakar Art Summit. I was able to research in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and I was inspired by the artistic scene there, which is energetic and thriving.

We opened five solo exhibitions by South Asian artists last September, which was a challenge to install so many spaces simultaneously – but the preview was an amazing celebration with all the artists and their networks, and really fantastic for us to be able to bring so much great work to Manchester.

Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator, and what would you say are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?

One challenging moment was when I was working on We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today and our major new commission was not collected from the artist’s studio in Cameroon. For a few days it looked like it might not make it in time for the opening and we would have a big hole in the show, but luckily the transport agents pulled out all the stops to get it here in time.

More generally one of the biggest challenges today is resources, with fewer staff and budgets being squeezed, as well as applications for grants becoming even more competitive. However, this means that we need to be more creative, working with smaller budgets to achieve maximum impact.

Manchester Art Gallery is currently running the exhibition Annie Swynnerton: Painting Light and Hope as part of the Royal Academy 250th anniversary celebrations with support from Art Fund. What was it like putting this exhibition together and running it as part of a nationwide programme?

My colleague Rebecca Milner curated this show with the academic Katie Herrington. This has proved to be a brilliant partnership as it combined original research of an overlooked artist with making the first exhibition of her work in nearly 100 years (the last one was at Manchester Art Gallery in 1923).

Manchester-born Swynnerton was a pioneering professional artist who challenged convention in art and life. She was a passionate supporter of women’s right to vote and campaigned for better opportunities for women artists, setting up the Manchester Society of Women Painters. We have a number of her works in our collection and brought these together with many loans from public and private collections. She was also the first female Associate Royal Academician, so the timing was right to do this show in 2018 with the 250th anniversary of the RA and the anniversary of Votes for Women.

The support from Art Fund has enabled us to extend the ambition for the project and publish a catalogue, host a feminist takeover event and make a short interpretative film about the show.

The exhibition highlights Swynnerton’s role as a champion of women’s rights, and it seems like Manchester Art Gallery have been attempting to engage its audience in a wider debate about how collections can be interpreted with regards to prominent issues in the 21st century. What do you think are the responsibilities of a curator, is it about presenting beautiful art or highlighting topical issues as well?

Swynnerton successfully campaigned for women artists to be allowed to participate in life drawing classes from the nude – previously women had to draw draped bodies. Her paintings of women are very different from those in our collection made by male artists for male patrons. She represented women of all ages and walks of life, challenging conventions of beauty and capturing female power, strength, hope and potential at a time when women’s roles and opportunities were changing.

One of the issues we are very engaged with at the moment is about representation in the collections, particularly our late-Victorian paintings. We’re asking ourselves questions about how works from the past connect with issues of today and how our civic institutions can be more representative when the majority of the collection has been made and collected by the white, male elite. We are interested in whether galleries, together with people, can create new meanings and what the role is for activism within the museum. We believe it is our responsibility to challenge, provoke and take risks and it is more important than ever to continue the dialogue about how artistic and cultural representations of gender, race, class and sexuality affect cultural perceptions and behaviours.

What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?

I delight in the design collection – we have annual changing displays on design – and I am really looking forward to the next one, Nordic Design, in which we are showing iconic furniture, stunning fashion and gorgeous lighting, ceramics and glass.

One work with which I have a particularly strong connection is Michael Craig-Martin’s Inhale (Yellow) 2002. This reminds me of Manchester Art Gallery’s reopening in 2002 after a £35 million capital project; I curated the opening exhibition by Craig-Martin called Inhale/Exhale. It featured magnified objects painted directly onto the walls of the gallery space and a canvas on the opposite wall, making it appear as though these objects were ‘inhaled’ into the canvas and then ‘exhaled’ over the walls. Inhale (Yellow) was the first work I was responsible for acquiring and Art Fund generously helped us buy it.

Annie Swynnerton: Painting Life and Hope runs at Manchester Art Gallery until 6 January 2019.

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