Curator of the Month: Sim Panaser, Morley College London

This month's curator explains the unique experience of curating at a learning institution and describes how acquiring key works was a highlight of her career.

How did you start out as a curator?

My first museum encounter was at Birmingham Art Gallery on a school trip when I was ten. I remember entering a circular gallery space which was hung floor to ceiling with paintings and being blown away.

Whilst studying English Literature at university in Sheffield, I visited the Graves Art Gallery and Site Gallery regularly. They were very different spaces, one focused on permanent collections and the other contemporary art commissions. Both equipped me with knowledge of contemporary art practice, and enabled me to identify connections between historic and contemporary art.

I also became interested in the ways museums and galleries offer an alternative space from our everyday lives. They are a space to pause, reflect and re-examine the world, and they have the power to connect, transform and shift perspectives. These ideas remain as motivations for my practice today.

After University I gained a place on a Museums Association traineeship scheme and spent two years as trainee at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. I also completed a Masters in Museum Studies and a Masters in Research to consolidate my research skills.

What was your first job in the curatorial world?

After my training programme I moved on to be a Curatorial Assistant for the North East Regional Museums Hub. I worked closely with so many different museums and galleries across the North East to deliver co-ordinated programming, such as arts festivals and regional exhibitions, often organising supporting loans from national museums. I learned much more about partnership working and collaboration – often I would need to organise exhibitions and collection displays at different venues and work together with established curatorial teams – so this role really developed my communication skills alongside a lot of patience and diplomacy.

After this I became the Keeper of Art at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, and my experiences of partnership and collaboration from my previous role were crucial in securing this position.

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

I think curators must demonstrate the same curiosity and open-mindedness we request of our audiences. We need to challenge the status quo to provide new and different perspectives while keeping our privilege in check, if we want our exhibitions and displays to affect audiences and make a difference.

Curators need to develop a mixture of hard and soft skills including critical thinking, research and project management skills, alongside being able to communicate complex ideas in ways that are accessible. You need to be a good listener, brilliant collaborator, and it’s important to be flexible and to learn from other people who might not have the same background as you. Curators should stay abreast of contemporary culture more widely to ensure that the exhibitions we are curating are resonant to audiences today.

Can you tell us about a highlight in your career?

I curated the Henry Rothschild Ceramic Study Centre at the Shipley Art Gallery, which featured over 300 studio ceramics from Henry Rothschild’s personal collection, and I was also responsible for acquisitions of craft and design at the Shipley. I secured the acquisition of important works for the permanent collection, including an Isokon Long Chair designed by Marcel Breuer, which belonged to the artist Kenneth Rowntree, and works by Barnaby Barford, Gareth Neal and Sara Brennan.

Recent highlights at Morley include the first solo show by the British-Nigerian artist, Joy Labinjo. There was a lot of interest in Joy’s work by different galleries so I was really pleased that she chose Morley to have her first ever show. Last year I also worked with the video artist Elizabeth Price, for an installation at Morley on the themes of the politics of higher education and protest. I’m so proud to have brought this work to Morley as it’s the first time the gallery had delivered work on this scale and with such a renowned artist.

What’s special about working at your institution?

Morley is an incredible place; it’s an adult learning college that was set up in 1889 and is one of the country’s oldest providers of adult education. In 1969 the College established a permanent public gallery which sits adjacent to the College. The College also has a significant art collection which includes murals by Edward Bawden and John Piper.

Everyone who attends the College is embarking on very personal journeys, whether it is returning to education after a long period of time, coming to education for the first time, learning a new skill or trying something new. This diversity and context make it a vibrant and rewarding place to work.

The college’s ethos resonates with my personal values: that learning should be accessible to all, that arts and culture are vital in our everyday lives, and that a collaborative approach should be taken to the formation of knowledge.

What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?

My favourite object in the collection is an etching by Denzil Forrester of the famous reggae artist Jah Shaka playing his sound system. Denzil is well known for his bold paintings which capture the collective energy of dub and reggae club nights during the 1980s. However, this work is devoid of colour, instead the focus here is on the dynamic lines and how these lines transform the figures into an amorphous mass, as they sway to the sound. For me, this really captures the sonic world of the nightclub and dub sound systems, and I also love how you can predominantly see the backs of heads, no one is gazing back at the viewer. Everyone is there for the music and really feeling it!

Sim Panaser was recently the recipient of an Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) Foundation Conference Travel Fellowship enabling her to travel to New York City to the AAMC & AAMC Foundation annual conference. The fellowship was supported by Art Fund.

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