Curator of the month: Chelsea Pettitt, Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge

  • 1 March 2016

The head of partnerships at Wysing Arts Centre talks about doing what you love.

Chelsea Pettitt in Wysing Arts Centre’s ceramics studio Photo: Mark Searle

Chelsea Pettitt in Wysing Arts Centre’s ceramics studio


Photo: Mark Searle

Name and job title

Chelsea Pettitt, head of partnerships at Wysing Arts Centre.

What inspired you to become a curator?

I came from a fashion and anthropology background. It wasn’t until 2005 when I was living and working in Beijing that I was really inspired to consider how art and anthropology are linked. I ended up frequenting the Dashanzi art district and attending some incredible events and exhibitions by emerging Chinese artists. They were experimenting with their bodies, performance and sculpture to question Chinese society and culture. It was then that I realised artists were anthropologists – capturing humankind at our best and at our worst, and forcing us to take a position.

What was your first job in the art world – and how did you get to where you are now?

My anthropological focus led to an internship at Pump House Gallery for an exhibition about the history and uses of smoke. I was also working in the ticket office at Southbank Centre so when a curatorial assistant job became available, I was given the chance to work on major exhibitions for the Hayward Gallery.

After a few years, I was promoted to assistant curator for the Hayward Touring programme and led on multiple touring projects across the UK. After eight years, I felt it was time to try out a different kind of organisation where I could be more involved with high-level decision-making and strategy. When such a progressive institution as Wysing Arts Centre created this new role, I felt that I had to take a chance on it and apply!

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

There are two highlights that I can think of instantly. The first would be working closely with Mark Leckey on his exhibition The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. It completely changed the way I think about art and exhibition-making, opening me up to a world of daily objects and non-professional artists alongside artefacts and ‘high art’. How Mark saw everything sitting equally on the same level was really inspiring.

The second would be leading the pilot year of our programme The Syllabus at Wysing Arts Centre, an alternative learning opportunity delivered over one year. I feel privileged to support and work closely with 10 incredible artists thinking about what’s important for them and how organisations like ours can really offer support.

Andy Holden, The Dan Cox Library for the Unfinished Concept of Thingly Time, 2011 Photo: Paul Allitt

Andy Holden, The Dan Cox Library for the Unfinished Concept of Thingly Time, 2011


Photo: Paul Allitt

The biggest challenge is coordinating the East Contemporary Visual Arts Network (ECVAN) which is made up of 18 organisations and individuals that come together to lead the contemporary arts vision in the East region of England. It’s a challenge to think about what’s best for all of us, what we stand for, and how to unite so many voices and make things happen. At the same time, the possibilities for the project are endless so it’s very exciting to steer the programming for ECVAN. Our forthcoming symposium Working Together at Focal Point Gallery, Southend is the first thing I’ve organised with the network.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

My advice would be not to get caught up on the title ‘curator’. The word is being tossed around so loosely now that it’s not really about the title anymore, but what you actually do. Think about what you really enjoy. Organising exhibitions? Working with artists on new commissions? Critical writing? Researching? Leading discussions? Supporting art students or young artists? There are so many jobs out there which allow these things to happen so be open to them. Also, work outside London and you will have many more opportunities.

What’s special about working at Wysing Arts Centre?

Wysing Arts Centre is a really unique place, partly because of its physical location just outside the research capital of Cambridge, on a farm with public sculptures, studios, a 17th-century farmhouse and a gallery nestled among forest and fields. But it’s also because our focus is entirely on how we can support artists, whether that’s to research, develop new work, encourage professional development or find new opportunities through partnerships. We have an impressive alumni of artists in residence who went on to achieve great things and feel that Wysing offered them something valuable at a key point in their careers.

What is your favourite object in your collection/exhibition and why?

At Wysing we have quite a few sculptures dotted around the land. One of my favourites would be Amphis, which was built in 2008 by the local community with their own recycled materials and led by artists Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser. It stands as a proud testament to community architecture and is also used for some of our events.

David Toop, Archives Unspooling, 1973/2015 Photo: Paul Allitt

David Toop, Archives Unspooling, 1973/2015


Photo: Paul Allitt

Our current exhibition, The Practice of Theories has a plethora of inspiring works so I couldn’t just choose one. Andy Holden’s The Dan Cox Library for the Unfinished Concept of Thingly Time (2011) centres the whole exhibition with a selection of theoretical and fictional books alongside his sculptures. David Toop’s Archives Unspooling (1973/2015) –made up of rare audio recordings from the BBC, interviews, sound recordings and musical references – is also brilliant. These works satisfy my belief that artists are modern-day anthropologists.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

I love travelling to new countries, but on most weekends I can be found walking in the countryside or working on the allotment. Besides that it’s usually seeing exhibitions, talks and events with my friends. It’s important to me to try to find a balance between the art world and the rest of the world. Oh and I love hosting dinner parties, but haven’t had much time to do that lately!

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

I am going to sound biased now, but Wysing has the privilege of Florian Roithmayr working in one of our studios. I found his exhibition at Camden Arts Centre seriously beautiful. There were some experiments in concrete which I had never seen before and the gallery space, with its high windows and sunlight streaming through, highlighted the delicate nature yet strength of his sculptures so well – they had real presence. It was also great to see former Wysing artists in residence Rachel Maclean and Bedwyr Williams’ new films as part of British Art Show 8 in Leeds. They were the highlights of the exhibition for me.

The ECVAN symposium Working Together: How Artists Impact Institutions is taking place at Focal Point Gallery, Southend on 2 April 2016. We are offering 10 bursaries for travel and admission.

The Practice of Theories is at Wysing Arts Centre until 10 April 2016. The next open call for The Syllabus programme will be announced in March.

Tags: Curator of the month