Curator of the month: Brian Cass, Towner
- Towner Art Gallery
- 8 January 2016
The head of exhibitions at Towner, Eastbourne, talks about the importance of collaboration.
Name and job title:
Brian Cass, head of exhibitions, Towner Gallery.
What inspired you to become a curator?
As with many things, it was not really planned but circuitously discovered. When I was first exposed to visual art, while studying for an English Literature degree in Dublin, I felt I was immediately introduced to new ways of thinking, looking and reading – Brion Gysin’s comment that innovations in visual art are 50 years ahead of literature seemed very true at the time.
What was your first job in the art world – and how did you get to where you are now?
During my years at university, I worked at various jobs which increasingly brought me into the art world. I began by working as an art technician for a number of galleries and museums. This introduced me to a lot of the emerging younger artists, many of whom supported themselves financially by working as technicians or in other gallery roles. My art education began here, informally at first, working in galleries and through this community of friends and colleagues who talked and argued about art. I began copy-editing exhibition catalogues and writing pieces of texts for artists.
When I finished college, I was lucky enough to be considered suitable to be a gallery manager for The Model, a contemporary art centre in Ireland. I was also at the time attempting to make films and television programmes. The pivotal moment for me was when I was asked to manage a multi-venue James Coleman exhibition, which was developed in collaboration with other museums and galleries in Dublin. I realised I enjoyed, above other pursuits, working with artists to help their vision propagate as uncompromised as possible into the world.
“Collaborative working enhances the potential of every idea and project.”
What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?
Starting my role as head of exhibitions at Towner has been a major highlight. The challenge, as with all regional galleries, is to reach out to audiences. Engaging different audiences, and creating a dialogue between them and the art we show, ultimately ensures our long-term sustainability.
Overseeing the Turner Prize in Derry certainly confirmed the idea that the sharing of creative experiences with audiences can generate knowledge, fun and a strong sense of ownership of contemporary art. This was an incredible experience, not least because of the challenges involved in opening a new gallery and presenting such a high profile exhibition.
If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?
See as many exhibitions, read as many books, talk to as many people as you possibly can. Take time to let the material seep in, to work out what you want to do and what your passions are. Follow those interests on your own terms. Embrace collaboration between different disciplines and with other people. Collaborative working enhances the potential of every idea and project.
What’s special about working at Towner?
Since the new Towner opened six years ago, it has always aimed to create programmes that are both ambitious and artistically significant, while also retaining strong links with local communities. Getting the two working together is a great achievement.
It is also a very exciting time for Towner. For one thing, we have just been selected, along with the Whitworth in Manchester, to pilot the new Art Fund’s Moving Image Fund for Museums. This scheme, the first of its kind in the UK, will allow us to acquire works of contemporary film and video art. It is an incredible opportunity to start thinking about how to further embed moving-image artworks within our programme and our collection, as well as support moving-image artists and promote an increasingly important medium.
What is your favourite object in your collection/exhibition and why?
I feel I am only getting to know the collection, so it is difficult to choose. Yael Bartana is an artist I have admired for a while. Her stylised documentary Summer Camp (2007) is a powerful, complex twin-screen work which plays with time, mirroring and music to ambiguously interpret Israeli politics and the early ambitions of the kibbutz.
I was also immediately stuck by Derek Boshier’s Vista City (1964) when I first saw it – a large, bright, oddly shaped canvas which alludes to a city grid. Vista City is a great example of Towner vibrant contemporary collection policy, instigated in many ways by the great abstract painter William Gear, who was also the curator at Towner from 1958-64. His work at Towner laid the foundations of a major collection of post-war British Art. His early painting Winter Landscape (1949), also in the Towner collection, would be another favourite. It is an oblique statement about his relationship with the natural world.
Away from work, how do you spend your free time?
As my amateur football career was ended through injury, I have found myself following different sports with an unexpected enthusiasm. Music and reading have also always been incredibly important activities.
What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?
Ben Rivers’ recent exhibition Earth Needs More Magicians at Camden Arts Centre is one I really enjoyed. There is a strange, intuitive, almost dream-like sense to how Rivers shapes his films. Featuring older works, such as his remarkable Oh Liberty (2008), with more recent work, such as his beautiful twin-screen portrait of the painter Rosie Wylie in What Means Something (2015), it was a wonder to follow his evolving interest in people who live in their imagination as well as the margins of our world, whether they be hermits, remote communities or artists.
The Moving Image Fund for Museums is a pilot scheme launched by the Art Fund with Thomas Dane Gallery to share artists’ films with the nation.
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