A new training course for aspiring curators from lower socio-economic backgrounds has been launched by three former Tate specialists. “So many people who would be interested in curating don’t even try to enter the profession because the courses are prohibitively expensive,” says Mark Godfrey, a former senior curator of international art at Tate Modern. He left the institution last year after publicly criticising its decision to postpone a Philip Guston exhibition.
Godfrey will run the New Curators training programme in collaboration with two co-directors: Kerryn Greenberg, former head of international collection exhibitions at Tate, and Rudi Minto de Wijs, who worked in the institution’s marketing department and served as co-chair of its Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) network.
Creating an inclusive profession
The cost of masters degrees, which have traditionally been the minimum requirement for curatorial employment at institutions like Tate, has mostly restricted the profession to those from privileged backgrounds. The Curating Contemporary Art MA at the Royal College of Art, for example, costs £14,175 for British students and £33,600 for international ones.
The New Curators course will be free to attend for both British and international students and will also provide up to 12 participants a year with a London living wage to cover the cost of rent and other expenses. Anyone with a BA degree or equivalent experience can apply to attend.
The teaching will focus on every aspect of a curator’s job, from organising exhibitions to writing curatorial statements and budget proposals. It will also prepare students for some of the challenges they may face in their professional lives by using real examples such as the controversy at the latest edition of Documenta which included an artwork with anti-semitic imagery. “Students need to think about what decisions they would take if they were working in those organisations: Do you take the work down? Do you put some text up? How do you navigate the situation?” Godfrey says.
Students will meet with a wide range of curators, artists and other arts professionals and will visit studios, galleries and museums in the UK and internationally. The aim is to give them a network of contacts and peers who can help support them in their careers to come.
The course will also include a mentoring and mental health component to prepare students for the realities of working in the field. “How do you deal with difficult artists? How do you deal with rejection and how do you deal with different environments where you feel under pressure meeting people from very different backgrounds to yourself? We’re working with organisations like Young Minds, a mental health charity, who are going to help us. Mental health is a huge part of building confidence and enabling you do do good work,” Minto de Wijs says.
A network of institutions
A key benefit of the course is that participants will complete the year by organising a major show in an important institution. The first year’s students, who will join the programme in September 2023, will curate a major show at the South London Gallery the following summer. They will oversee every aspect of the exhibition’s production, from communicating with the artist to installing the work, writing the press materials and engaging in community outreach.
In subsequent years, exhibitions will take place at one of the course’s multiple partner institutions which include the Barbican and Studio Voltaire in London, Haus der Kunst in Munich, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, A4 Arts Foundation in Cape Town and Sharjah Art Foundation in the UAE, among many others.
The teaching will be based at the South London Gallery (SLG) in Camberwell which has a long track record of community outreach and education work. “We have a history of funding various traineeships at the SLG but we’re not in a position to do something on this kind of scale which completely aligns with our values of social justice and promoting a more equal art world,” says its director Margot Heller. “Progress has been shockingly slow in some ways because the art world’s inequality is a systemic issue but we’re hoping that this programme will show people what is possible and that it will inspire others to do similar work. All of the SLG staff is excited about hosting these students and working alongside them,” she adds.
To fund the programme, the directors leveraged their network of contacts in the international art world. Founding donors include trustees of major museums including Tate and the Courtauld Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
One of them is Miyoung Lee, a former financier who serves as a vice president of the Whitney Museum in New York and also sits on Tate’s North American Acquisitions Committee. “We are desperately in need of programmes like New Curators which will create the art tastemakers of tomorrow. We can’t be selecting people from the same, small narrow pool over and over again. We need to broaden the pipeline so we can hear more voices,” she says.
Paying students for their time has a transformational effect, she adds. “At the Whitney, our summer internships used to be unpaid. We used to think ‘it’s an honour to be working at the Whitney,’ but our blinders finally dropped off and we realised that’s a very self-selecting way of bringing in only certain types of people into the museum. So, we finally endowed the internship programme so that interns get paid and once we did that it had a very dramatic effect as to who could apply.”
The New Curators course has a ten-year fundraising strategy in place, says Kerryn Greenberg. “This comprises individuals but also philanthropists with fully operational trusts and foundations and corporations to support our exhibitions programme. Over time, we are aiming to diversify our funding structure. We’re looking to have a really transformative impact and to do that takes a certain amount of money; it’s expensive to put on high-quality exhibitions and to give students the opportunities that are going to be transformative. This is not a cheap programme to run but we feel confident that we will find the money,” she says, adding that the programme has an ethical fund-raising policy in place not least because “young, aspiring curators take this very seriously.”
The application process for New Curators has been designed to be as inclusive as possible. It will not discriminate against those who struggle to express themselves in writing. Candidates will be asked to record an audio file of themselves talking about a “cultural object or event” which they believe is important. This could be “an exhibition, artwork, performance, publication, podcast, film, TV series, advertising campaign, music video, design, or fashion object,” according to the application guidelines.
“We’re looking for people who can explain what felt important and urgent” about the cultural event they choose to talk about and who “can show analytical thinking” in communicating this, Godfrey says. “That’s what curators do: they select things they want you to see and think about. That is the main thing we are looking for in the application process.”
The aim is to train 100 curators over the next 10 years. “We’re thinking about very different types of curating: there’s the curating of large museum shows but there are also small projects in artist-run spaces. We want to equip people to be absolutely prepared and effective if they go into a big, hierarchical institution but also effective if they want to start their own space up.”
• Applications for the first New Curators course, which launches in September 2023, are now open. The deadline for applications is 5 February 2023.