Curator of the Month: Sasha Morgan, Bold Tendencies

Director of education Sasha Morgan works with local communities in South London as part of Bold Tendencies, a seasonal public arts and cultural programme in Peckham.

Here she describes how she became an educational curator, and reveals what we can expect from the 12th Bold Tendencies programme.

How did you start out as a curator/arts educator?

I had a longstanding interest in and curiosity for art history. I was a geeky child who liked nothing more than to spend her summer holidays lurking around the Natural History Museum and the V&A.

The secondary school I attended had a strong historical connection with the Desenfans family, who co-founded Dulwich Picture Gallery. Due to this institutional connection I spent long, leisurely Friday afternoons in the gallery, becoming great friends with the staff and of course the fabulous permanent collection.

I studied A-level Art History informally during my gap year and then took up a place at Cambridge University studying Social Anthropology. This gave me a very grounded and methodological approach to thinking about material culture and the global language of aesthetics.

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

My first job in the arts world was as a curatorial assistant at the Geffrye Museum. I was lucky enough to be taken on by the wonderful Michael McMillan, the British curator and playwright. He was happy to take a chance on me despite my non-standard art background. In fact, Michael said he saw my social science background as a plus, and was very kind and taught me a lot about how to take my understanding of cultural production and apply it in the service of telling meaningful stories that the public could engage with.

The exhibition we worked on in 2005 was titled the 'West Indian Front-room' and gave me a great opportunity to learn and understand how a museum functioned, and the process of creating an engaging space for discussion, thought and learning.

What is a typical working day like for you?

Bold Tendencies operates on a seasonal basis. We develop the programme during the autumn and winter, ready to open to the public from May right through to September.

In the off-season a lot of my time is spent with the programming team, which shapes the overall intellectual direction for the following season's sculpture commissions. I mull over that and marry that up with my local intelligence about schools and educational institutions in our part of Southwark, identifying interlocking themes or ideas that I think will be fruitful for local pupils and families to explore.

Once the themes for the education programme are established I go out on school visits, meeting teachers across the borough to figure out what ways we can work together and what Bold Tendencies can offer by way of support or access.

I have a group of part-time art-education specialists that I then bring in to deliver the programme. We also have an internal Art Trainee Programme, supported by Art Fund, that gives me access to a lot of incredibly talented young creatives.

We are coming up to the halfway point this season and are about to open our flagship project MY MUSEUM, which teaches primary-school-aged children about curation. We work with schools for a term and at the end of it, a full exhibition populated by the children's work – but also directed and shaped by them – is installed. This year's exhibition is The Animal Mirror – exploring the ways in which animals have opened up, and continue to open up, insight into the human condition. We will open the new show on 4 August in conjunction with a new choral composition exploring the same theme by Kate Whitley.

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

I think you need to be curious. I think you need to resist the temptation to 'dumb down' topics for young children. They don't need it. Young children are so tactile and sensorily attuned that they are absolutely in the right place to engage with whatever aesthetics you want to throw at them.

We do an exercise called 'Ask the Artist' – it's where a group of kids spends a period of time, say up to 20 minutes, with one of our installations. We then call the artist on the phone right then and there and they share their reflections and response to the work with the artist, and also have the chance to ask any questions that occur to them.

Artists who have participated find this a fascinating experience and have said how challenging, refreshing and surprisingly penetrating the questions asked are.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Bold Tendencies programme – how did it come about, and what can visitors expect this year?

Bold Tendencies is unique in terms of the rich mix of what it does, and where and how it does it. For more than a decade Bold Tendencies has transformed its car park home with a programme of contemporary art, orchestral music (hosting the BBC Proms with the Multi-Story Orchestra in 2016 and 2017), opera and architectural projects including Frank’s Cafe and the Straw Auditorium designed by Practice Architecture, Simon Whybray’s pink staircase and Cooke Fawcett’s Peckham Observatory. With immersive public spaces and spectacular views across London, the project has attracted more than 1.5 million visitors so far and celebrates the free enjoyment of public space in the city.

In the autumn of 2017 Southwark Council ended years of uncertainty, confirming Bold Tendencies’ future in the car park building with the offer of a new long-term lease. Recognising this change of position, the Bold Tendencies 2018 visual arts programme asserted a thematic annual commissioning process, this year focusing on the broad yet pertinent subject of Ecology.

Through 10 major new commissions on site, the richness of the topic is approached from a broad range of perspective and scale, creating a dynamic interchange between a roster of international artists, all at different stages in their career and practice; all with particular areas of interest and research.

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

For an educational curator the biggest challenge is time and access to your key client – children and young people. We are a tiny organisation and the biggest thing I struggle with is maintaining healthy, functioning relationships with our partner schools.

Teachers are incredibly busy and driven to serve their pupils. But high workloads and rapid turnover often mean that, with the best will in the world, it's very difficult for schools to take out the time we'd like to develop our more unusual project ideas.

I think as the Bold Tendencies education programme grows this will get easier because we will have more time to be in the schools, and more time to shape what we do to work in their circumstances.

Bold Tendencies' 12th summer programme runs 18 May – 22 September 2018, 7th-10th Floors, 95a Rye Lane, Peckham, London.

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