Curator of the Month: Susan Lord, Bury Art Museum
- 25 May 2018
This month’s curator was recently the recipient of a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant from Art Fund. Here she gives us an insight into switching from a career in fashion design to working in museums and galleries.
How did you start out as a curator – what inspired you to take this route and what kind of training and study did you undertake/experience did you gain?
I went to art college for two years after leaving school, specialising in Fashion Design. I then began my own business designing and making clothes, as well as spending four years travelling Europe, eventually buying a piece of land in Spain and living a self-sufficient lifestyle.
Eventually, I came back to the UK and began to piece together my love of art, objects and history and came up with the idea of working in museums and galleries. In 1997 I studied for a BA in the History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, followed by an MA in Art Gallery & Museum Studies at Manchester University.
While studying for both my degrees I worked in a few volunteer positions. The first of these roles was at Rochdale Museum Service. It gave me a thorough grounding in documenting and caring for a museum collection. I was also an education volunteer at Bankfield Museum and at Manchester Museum, and I cannot stress enough how much these volunteering opportunities helped me in my career.
What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn there that helped you secure your next one?
My first paid job was as a Documentation Assistant in Manchester Art Gallery’s fine art department. I then progressed to Collections Assistant and helped to coordinate the installation of the Gallery of Craft and Design when the gallery was just about to reopen to the public after a long period of closure. Working there was a great training ground for me; it was a privilege working with such a great collection. I learned about teamwork, how to be organised, and about taking on responsibility.
My next job was as Documentation Officer at Manchester Jewish Museum. This post involved selecting images and oral history excerpts, seeking copyright clearance and digitising MJM’s collections for the National Archives website project ‘Moving Here’. I was able to make this leap because of the opportunities and training I had received at Manchester Art Gallery.
What is a typical working day like for you?
When you work for a smaller museum you have to be prepared to muck in and pretty much do anything that comes your way. A typical day could involve anything from writing a funding bid, answering a collections enquiry and undertaking research for an exhibition to attending team meetings, booking flights and accommodation for visiting artists and helping the front of house team set up for an exhibition opening.
Can you tell us about a highlight in your career, perhaps a project you worked on, recognition or a certain milestone?
The show I curated last summer, Random Archive, was a highlight. It was in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Special Collections Gallery, Dr Hannah Allan, the Digital Archivist at MMU, and Yiota Vassilopoulou from Liverpool University, who was the show's Philosopher in Residence. I wanted the exhibition to explore innovative thinking around art archives, and to push boundaries of how art archives in the UK can be accessed, displayed and interpreted.
The idea came about after chatting to an artist about their experience of accessing an archive; they felt it was a terribly uncreative process. I wanted to curate an exhibition that questioned ways an art archive could be accessed. The exhibition focused on the Language Art collection, housed in Bury’s Text Art Archive. It was organised into several sections: an archive maze, a bibliomancy section, a reading room, and a digital gallery. The artworks on the walls were curated using a lateral thinking technique called ‘Connecting the Unconnected’, which meant the artworks were grouped under the following randomly chosen words – sex, gun, shadow, and motor.
I'm interested in exhibitions that excite and stimulate their viewers and that command and work with the space they sit in. My aim was to curate an exhibition which looked totally different to how people think an archive show should look.
Running alongside the exhibition, funded by Arts Council England, were a series of workshops which explored feminist/DIY archives, LGBTQ archives and DIY digital archives, plus a symposium at the end funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Juggling funding bids, artists commissions, philosophers, workshop coordinators, and organisations was certainly an eye-opener.
Have there been any particularly challenging moments, and what would you say are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?
I'm currently working on loaning an exhibition, Anthropometria, from a museum in Japan called Intermediatheque. It was devised by fashion designer Naoki Takizawa, the former director for Issey Miyake. For this exhibition I've teamed up with people from the Fine Art Maths Centre at Central Saint Martins to deliver workshops that focus on maths and art, which I'm really excited about. It has been challenging pulling together all the funding we need to make this show happen and negotiating with Japanese transportation companies and museums because of the language barrier.
In 2016, I devised and delivered a Developing Exhibitions course for the British Council’s International Museums Academy in Greece, which was part of their Transforming Future Museums programme. This really pushed me out of my comfort zone but it was so rewarding to do. I flew out to Athens and Thessaloniki to deliver the five-day courses, these were then followed up by a series of mentoring sessions. I also wrote an accompanying toolkit which can be accessed via the British Council's Cultural Skills website.
Possibly one of the most challenging and exhilarating times for me was when I was the lead courier of a large touring show called Towards Modernity: Three Centuries of British Art which consisted of paintings from museums in the Greater Manchester area. The exhibition toured to six museums in China in 2013/14. I couriered the artworks on the Zhengzhou to Changsha leg of the trip, and the sense of responsibility I felt for all those paintings was palpable.
Among the biggest challenges a curator faces are constantly looking for funding for exhibitions, collections care, and trying to balance this with the desire to deliver outstanding shows as well as giving help and support to the artists.
What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?
Bury Art Museum’s star painting is Calais Sands at Low Water – Possards Collecting Bait by JMW Turner. I was somewhat nonchalant about it when I started working here, but that began to change when I started to courier the painting around the world – a trip to France, in particular, for an exhibition curated by Ian Warrell.
Seeing Bury’s Turner together with others in a new setting completely changed my perception of it and I fell in love with it. I began to explore more of Turner, and became particularly fascinated with his later, more abstract works. The following quote by Turner just sums up everything I find fascinating about his work: 'My job is to paint what I see, not what I know.'
Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants provide funding for travel and other practical costs to help curators undertake collection and exhibition research projects in the UK or abroad.