Q&A with MCA’s Anna Davis | ArtsHub Australia – ArtsHub (subscription)

Posted: July 31, 2017 at 10:32 am

MCA Curator Anna Davis with installation view, Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2017, courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney the artist, photograph: Anna Kuera

ArtsHub sat down with Museum of Contemporary Art Australias (MCA) Curator Anna Davis to try and determine what it means to be a contemporary curator, and how exactly one starts out on that career path.

Davis joined the MCA in 2009 having trained as an artist and being a bit of a “Jill of all trades” across the visual arts sector grounding that she feels makes for a more rounded curator.

Her string of exhibitions include the touring survey, Louise Hearman (2016), New Romance: art and the posthuman (Co-Curator with Houngcheol Choi, 2015 & 2016), Energies: Haines & Hinterding (2015), Martu Art from the Far Western Desert (Co-Curator with Megan Robson, 2014), Workout: 7 days of experimental performance (2013), Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro (2012) and Primavera 2011 and 2012.

Davis’ most recent project, a survey of Australian artist Jenny Watson, is now showing at the MCA.

What is curating for you, Anna Davis?

For me, making exhibitions is an experimental and creative process where you test out ideas and hopefully discover new things. This is the approach I enjoy the most, creating a kind of laboratory with artists and their works, allowing opportunities for new ideas to emerge and then setting the public loose inside to see what happens.

I think thats why I particularly enjoy working with artists on new commissions and works that involve improvisational or performative elements theres an element of risk, which can be stressful, but theres also genuine experimentation and I think that is really important when you are dealing with contemporary art and artists.

The term curator is used very loosely today. In your opinion, what differentiates the exhibition hangers and the curators?

I dont know if there really is much of a difference, its just language really, but I think curator is a useful term for describing what is a complex job that involves much more than just hanging work.

I would say that being a curator of contemporary art involves working closely with artists, lots of creative thinking, loads of research and writing, an awareness of how to work with spaces and audiences, and how to put art into new contexts and raise new questions or ideas through an artists work.

Hayden Fowler, Dark Ecology, 2015/2016, installation view, New Romance: art and the posthuman, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, image courtesy and the artist, photograph: Hayden Fowler

How did you learn to be a curator?

Ive learnt to be a curator in a few different ways on the job, working independently, and in big and small arts organisations, through university study, and by being an artist in my previous life (I mean before working at the MCA!). I have an honours degree in Fine Arts and a PhD in Media Arts from COFA, UNSW, and I think all that academic research and practical art making has played a role in my work as a curator.

A lot of my curatorial learning experiences have come from working outside major institutions; Ive done things like curate video art programs for the Big Day Out and organised small media art exhibitions as part of This is Not Art festival and Electrofringe in Newcastle.

Straight out of art school (around 1997-8), I lived in Amsterdam for about a year. At the time it was a real hub of video and media artists, and alongside my own art practice I also worked on art events in non-traditional venues like squats, nightclubs and markets. One day, I rocked up to the offices of the World Wide Video Festival (which ran from 1982 to 2004) to volunteer my services and I ended up getting paid work as a production assistant on a huge exhibition of video art at the Stedelijk Museum, and also working closely with Israeli artist Michal Rovner.

These were amazing experiences and helped me realise that being a curator in a museum was something I might want to do in the future.

That slide between big institution and ground roots independent projects is an interesting one. How did that translate when you returned to Australia?

Back in Australia I worked for dLux media arts in Sydney for a number of years as a kind of assistant curator/project manager. I worked with some great people, and because it was such a small organisation putting on really ambitious programs, I got a chance to do a bit of everything and I learnt a lot.

Ive also worked at the Art Gallery of NSW doing everything from being an information desk officer, while I was finishing my PhD, to Assistant Curator working with Victoria Lynn when she curated the Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media Arts, and with Wayne Tunnicliffe on contemporary art projects

Its exciting to try and incorporate experimental methodologies into an institutional framework and to involve the public in different ways in this process. I guess out of the shows Ive curated at the MCA, Workout: 7 days of experimental performance (2013), Energies: Haines & Hinterding (2015) and New Romance: art and the posthuman (2016) were the ones really modelled around that kind of thinking.

David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, installation view, Energies: Haines & Hinterding, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2015, image courtesy and the artists, photograph: Christopher Snee

Has your foundation as an artist helped your career as a curator?

Being an artist, even a lapsed one, helps a lot because you have access to creative modes of thinking and perhaps a better understanding of what its like to put yourself and your work out there, and all the challenges and possibilities that come with that.

I think being a curator is a creative and collaborative role, and my art background definitely feeds into how I think about making shows and how I work with artists.

Do you need to be a perfectionist a lateral thinker? What is it that makes a good curator?

I would definitely say a lateral thinker more than a perfectionist! Although, it can be a good idea to have at least one perfectionist on your team while you are getting a catalogue to print.

I think there are lots of different types of good curators and maybe thats what makes it interesting. If youre working in contemporary art, then I think an ability to work collaboratively and creatively with artists is essential, as is having lots of ideas.

You need to be excited about art, and what it can do, and be willing to shift and change things at any moment.

Working in a big museum like the MCA, you also need to know how to work in a team and within particular institutional parameters, but also know when to try and push at the edges.

Patricia Piccinini & Peter Hennessey, Alone with the gods (detail), 2016, installation view, New Romance: art and the posthuman, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, image courtesy and the artists.Photograph: Tim da Rin.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Definitely working with artists to create something new. I love the research process and coming up with ideas for a show, and then working closely with artists and the MCA team to make an exhibition come to life in the museum.

Its funny, but I find that no matter how much pre-planning you do, you never really know exactly how an exhibition is going to work until the art and the artists actually arrive, which is kind of nerve-wracking, but I enjoy it.

I also really like the process of creating exhibition designs and floorplans. Thinking through how an art work is going to feel or operate in a particular space and in relation to other works and different audiences.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a curator?

Writing endless emails, managing budgets and writing wall labels

Recently I had the opportunity to work in Seoul, South Korea on a collaborative exhibition called New Romance, with 18 artists from Australia and Korea, which was amazing but also a huge challenge.

Working in Asia, in a different museum environment and in a new language was harder than I thought, but it was also an incredibly rewarding experience and something Id love to do more of in the future.

What would your advice be to someone starting out along the curatorial path?

If someone asks me this question, I usually say the best thing they can do is start by putting on their own very small scale exhibitions or events, (even in their own apartment) or creating an independent publication and working with actual artists and art works, in whatever capacity they can.

In other words, doing something in the real world, rather than just thinking or reading about it.

I also think that documenting your curatorial projects is really important. Ive learnt that the hard way, after doing lots of things before we all had mobile phones or digital cameras and now not having anything visual to show for them. Its so important as an artist or a curator to have good documentation and it can really help when it comes to applying for a job or a grant.

There arent that many jobs going with the title curator, so Id also say its a good idea to be a bit broad minded in your job search and thinking, and look for ways to work slightly to the side of that title and you never know where it could lead.

Read: Career Spotlight: Curator

First published on Saturday 29 July, 2017

Continued here:

Q&A with MCA’s Anna Davis | ArtsHub Australia – ArtsHub (subscription)

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