Curator of the Month: Grace Davies, National Trust

Grace Davies tells us about working with artists who push boundaries, and gives an insight into the National Trust's People's Landscapes programme, which explores stories of social change connected to the British landscape.

How did you start out as a curator?

At school I had a brilliant teacher who introduced me to modern and contemporary art, and it fired a passion in me that has never gone away.

I studied Fine Art at university in Brighton, where I became very involved in organising exhibitions in spaces from galleries to old shops, former public conveniences to a disused cinema.

After graduating, I was lucky enough to secure an internship at a museum of contemporary art in Arizona, and from then on have worked within a variety of different arts organisations.

What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn from your role?

My internship in Arizona taught me not to underestimate the complexities of presenting contemporary art practice to the public.

I was able to work across departments from the technical designers to the curators to the learning team, and I saw first-hand the detailed planning that went into presenting what seemed from the outside a simple, seamless exhibition.

Their approach to working with volunteers was particularly inspiring, and it helped me understand volunteer management, as well as the depth of engagement needed to build a shared understanding around how the work is communicated and presented.

What is a typical working day like for you?

I like to think that I spend my time like the landed gentry, walking around grand estates and dreaming up impressive plans for artistic commissions, but the reality is somewhat different.

I might be visiting a site in order to help the property team develop a brief or to facilitate a workshop to support understanding of the processes involved in working with an artist, or I might be immersed in contracts and loan agreements, liaising with marketing and communications teams, supporting evaluation and funding reporting. Each project throws up its own unique challenges and opportunities.

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

I think it is vital that a curator has a strong belief in the value and importance of art and the artist, and an ability to create a clear, reasoned rationale for why your exhibition or commission proposal should be realised.

It is this belief and rationale that need to be consistently maintained and reinforced in order to carry you through all the logistical challenges.

With the belief must come empathy, diplomacy and strong communication skills, which are needed to elicit the support required to make the idea become reality.

Can you tell us about a highlight in your career?

The thing I find most rewarding about my work is enabling artists to realise an idea that would not have been possible without your belief in it. Unlocking those incredible ideas and bringing them to the public, so that they can experience the beauty, care or perceptiveness of the work, is exhilarating and keeps me inspired and engrossed in my work.

I love listening to audiences unpack the work together and engage in debate about it. Most of all I love the way that the most powerful artworks can bring people together.

Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator?

It’s tough when the people around you – whether colleagues, stakeholders or audiences – fail to engage with a project or idea that you believe in. Artists always like to push boundaries, and this can understandably make people nervous.

Doubt can be extremely pervasive, and you must work hard to gather all your inner strength and resolve to find a positive way forward for all involved. Sometimes it is the seemingly small logistical challenges that can completely immobilise a project, and this can be even more frustrating.

Can you tell us about the process of working on the National Trust People’s Landscapes programme?

People’s Landscapes is a national programme that explores stories of social change, passion and protest connected to National Trust places. We wanted to develop a national art commission that responded to some of these stories.

The first thing I did was appoint producers Kate Stoddart and Jane Greenfield, who are experienced at working with a wide range of sites and artists. We chose to enlist the advice and guidance of artist Jeremy Deller, whose artworks often explore narratives around protest and social change. His knowledge of several of the sites and stories we had chosen to explore was insightful and helped us to appoint our commissioned artists.

Our producers worked closely with the artists and teams at each site to respond to the stories of the site, the communities that surround them, and the issues that face us today and in the future. It was vital that we worked in a joined-up way across all of the commissions in order to share learning and promote shared messages and narratives.

It has been a complex and challenging process but one that has enabled some incredibly powerful artworks to come to fruition. This bold and ambitious way of working would not have been possible without the support of public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and additional support from Art Fund.

What’s special about working at the National Trust?

It is a great privilege to work for the National Trust, who have such a broad remit and who look after so many incredible places. I think the importance of the work it does in caring for and conserving nature will continue to grow, in light of the evidence we are seeing of a decline in nature.

I believe artists and their work can play a key role in highlighting these challenges and helping us to come together to support our collective responsibility around looking after our natural environment. I’m excited to be involved in making this happen.

Exhibitions, installations and events as part of the National Trust People's Landscapes programme, supported by Art Fund, are currently taking place across the UK. More information can be found here.

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