Maintaining relationships with local artists is a key part of the Pictorial Collection Curator’s role. How would you go about fostering those important connections?
This was not the worst interview question I’ve been asked. In fact, as an emerging museum professional (EMP) the answer seemed simple at the time. But fast-forward six weeks to a new job at Puke Ariki and a new city where I knew nothing about the local art scene and I was suddenly hit with the size of that task.
My situation also involved another kind of EMP: the established museum professional. My predecessor still works at Puke Ariki, now as a manager. During her lengthy stint as curator she worked tirelessly to establish and nurture relationships not only with local artists but also between the artists themselves. She initiated regular ‘artist meet-ups’ and maintains a database of artists with whom she is in regular contact. Her passion for the cause is inspirational, and she has built an impressive audience for Puke Ariki. As she has really put in the hard yards those crucial networks were already in place when I arrived. But as the new curator I faced a particular challenge. How do I maintain those connections? How do I form new ones? And how do I become the ‘go-to’ person in place of the previous curator when she’s still around?
The answers to these questions came in the form of an exhibition called Home Work: Taranaki Art Now. Developed in response to the artistic community’s desire to share their work with the region, the show aimed to strengthen relationships with that community. I inherited my role as co-curator (along with former colleague Charlotte Stace and local artists Dale Copeland and Wayne Morris) from my predecessor, and began work on it almost from day one. We put the call out to all Taranaki artists to submit up to three pieces for consideration. The response was phenomenal: we received over 460 submissions from just over 200 artists! Over several days the curators chose 95 works that represented the breadth of creative practices in what was clearly a highly active art scene.
I then worked with other staff and artists to write labels, co-ordinate events, develop PLAYnes (an interactive artwork involving paper planes!) and a street art mural within the museum, and promote the show. It was an exciting opportunity to talk with artists en masse and to get myself known in the community. The exhibition also coincided with the inaugural Taranaki Arts Trail, which gave me the chance to visit artists in their studios and to talk with them about their practice. The whole experience was invaluable in helping develop my own connections and in reinforcing relationships with Puke Ariki. After all, artists are essential to the vitality of our communities, and for museums and galleries it’s crucial to maintain productive links with the people who could be your strongest supporters or your loudest critics.
So, what if you don’t have a regional art exhibition to curate? The simple answer is get out there. Do your homework! Find out who your predecessor’s key contacts were and meet them for coffee. Visit open studios. Attend exhibition openings and talk to people instead of loitering around the nibbles. It can be difficult, especially if you’re an introvert like me. But the effort you put into those relationships will be rewarded with support for your institution, unexpected opportunities, and if your region is anything like Taranaki, the chance to meet some incredibly warm and generous people.
Poutiaki Kohinga Whakaahua | Curator Pictorial Collections, Puke Ariki
Home Work: Taranaki Art Now was supported by the TSB Community Trust and New Plymouth District Creative Communities NZ