Curator of the Month: Dominic Paterson, Hunterian Art Gallery

The Hunterian's curator of contemporary art discusses the importance of taking risks and explains how a career teaching art history led him to curating.

How did you start out as a curator?

I’ve worked as an art historian for the past decade, and before that I completed a PhD, so my route into curating is a detour from a more academic trajectory [in curation]. But living and working in Glasgow has given me an amazing range of opportunities to engage with artists, writers and curators over the years.

Being invited to write on contemporary art, to talk about it in public contexts and sometimes to collaborate on artistic projects gradually brought me closer to the process of making exhibitions. I’ve been lucky enough to work on installation teams over the years, to organise screening programmes, make books with artists, arrange performances, set up residencies and undertake them. All these things played a part in fostering a desire to plan and deliver exhibitions as a curator.

The opportunity to curate a contemporary art programme at the Hunterian, the University of Glasgow's gallery, is a fortuitous one for me because I can bring the academic context into contact with contemporary art practice.

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

Securing a curatorial role at the Hunterian alongside my academic job certainly had to do with the knowledge of modern and contemporary art that I’ve built up as a researcher and teacher. However, I think that having worked closely with artists and having learned a lot from them about how one can navigate big institutions and get things done was equally important.

Before being officially appointed as curator of contemporary art I had helped the Hunterian stage some events around their exhibition programme, including a performance of John Cage’s Speech, and workshops on printmaking and portraiture. Then in 2016 I invited curator and writer Mihnea Mircan to develop an event for the Hunterian with some Masters students studying on the Curatorial Practice (Contemporary Art) programme, and that was an important stepping stone too.

Working part-time at Glasgow School of Art was important too, because it meant spending time talking with young artists about how they saw their own work and others'. I’ve also learned a huge amount from inspirational people in Glasgow whose work and ways of working are really exemplary.

Katrina Brown at the Common Guild and Francis McKee at CCA have been particularly important in that regard. Through Katrina I’ve had the privilege of bringing artists such as Karla Black, Phil Collins, Jimmie Durham, Sharon Hayes, Simon Starling, Corin Sworn and Richard Wright to speak at the university, and ‘a synchronology,’ my second exhibition at the Hunterian, was a collaboration with the Common Guild. I worked with Francis on a research project and as a trustee of CCA, and remain very much in awe of his intellect and his generosity of spirit.

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

A rapport with both artists and audiences; the capacity to multitask; the ability to be organised and think ahead; a feel for how artworks take on particular presence in space and in relation to other works; and the ability to budget and allocate resources wisely.

I would say that the curators I admire also have singular visions and real conviction about particular artists and artworks. Practical skills are invaluable, but I think courage is vital too – especially at a historical juncture where institutions are challenged to think anew about their place in the world, their political meaning and agency, and how they support critical voices and visions. Curators need to take risks to care for contemporary art practice I believe.

Can you tell us about a highlight of your career?

I am very proud of all the exhibitions I’ve made to date, but was especially delighted with the reception of the most recent – a solo exhibition with Ulrike Ottinger.

Meeting Ulrike in Berlin and having her agree to exhibit with us was a real career highlight. Through her friendships with figures such as Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, Ulrike’s life touches some hugely important moments in 20th-century art history, and in her own right she has been an incredible, influential artist and filmmaker – bringing her work to Glasgow was just a real honour.

Of course, the Hunterian receiving a Moving Image Fund award (an Art Fund project conceived in partnership with and supported by Thomas Dane Gallery) is also a highlight – a very transformative and exciting moment for me and the collection.

What’s special about working at your museum?

The Hunterian’s collection is built around the work of William Hunter, the pioneering anatomist, Royal Academician and collector. That means that we have an encyclopaedic body of holdings, reflecting both the promise and the problematics of the Enlightenment view of the world. I have colleagues with expertise in geology, entomology, numismatics, zoology and other disciplines – it’s always fascinating to speak with them about their work with our collection.

We also have wonderful prints and paintings, and the much-loved reconstruction of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s former home. All this material, especially in the midst of a university, means that there are so many opportunities for contemporary artists to find resonant themes, perhaps especially when it comes to thinking critically about history and the present.

What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?

Part of what I love about the collection is its sheer variety – artworks and anatomical specimens coexist with bird skins and Mackintosh furniture.

If the gallery’s Brutalist architecture could be considered an object I might pick that, but we have a particularly good print collection, and there are two Rauschenberg works in there that are favourites in a way. As well as being beautiful works by a truly important artist, they remind me of Douglas Crimp’s reading of Rauschenberg’s printmaking as gathering together heterogenous material in a way that confounds the museum’s categories.

Dominic Paterson is curator of contemporary art at the Hunterian Art Gallery and a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow.

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