1. You’ve been FACT Liverpool’s CEO for nearly 3 years now. Before that, you were the founder and, for 25 years, director of Arts Catalyst, one of the UK’s most distinctive contemporary arts commissioning organisations. What were three big lessons you learnt on that journey?
Over those 25 years, I learnt that change is constant and an organisation has to be nimble and responsive. In the time I was at Arts Catalyst, we had to keep changing and evolving, as the cultural, technological and economic landscape kept shifting. I think that’s why Arts Catalyst is still going strong, three years after I handed the reins over to younger colleagues. It was imbued with a culture of flexibility.
And it’s just as well I learnt how to be flexible before coming to FACT and the last two years! It’s harder to be nimble in a much larger organisation like FACT – and one with such history. But I believe FACT has shown its ability to be extremely responsive to its changing environment and to what our audiences and communities need and are saying to us.
A second lesson was that artists are what arts organisations are about. They should be at the centre of them. I feel sometimes people forget that. Those relationships have to be nourishing and supportive, not exploitative and extractive.
A third lesson was shifting my understanding of the notion of curating. I didn’t come out of an art school or a curating course, and for a long time I didn’t call what I was doing ‘curating’. I had this idea that, to be a curator, you needed a deep specialist knowledge of art history and how to display objects in a gallery. Instead, I was thinking about Arts Catalyst as a sort of laboratory or research facility, where artists and scientists could experiment with form and ideas. (We got asked “Is that art?” a lot.)
The practise of Curating was originally to do with caring for objects and collections (the word “curate” comes from the Latin word curare meaning ‘to care’). But then, during the 90s and 00s, there was this growing idea, particularly among smaller organisations, that curating was also how we thought about the relationships between the art organisation, artists and public. Now that I’m at FACT, my curatorial practice is less about exhibitions (I have an exhibitions team) and more to do with an interconnected set of decisions about how the institution itself operates, its values and its context, and how we work with people..
2. As Chief Executive of FACT you have the chance to platform exceptional experiences at the intersection of society, art and technology. What excites you most about working in these cross-sections? Why do they fire your imagination?
We’re immersed in technology as a society and yet, psychologically and legally, society hasn’t kept up with the impact of technology – how it shapes our behaviours, how it excludes certain groups of people, how it impacts society. We need to understand these technologies, including emerging technologies like AI, biotech and bio-metrics, and have real societal conversations about them. Artists bring such extraordinary perspectives and perceptions to working with technologies. They can make them really beautiful and seductive but they can also ask deep and urgent questions through their art-works.
3. Throughout your career you’ve worked with some big names including Marko Peljhan and Carey Young. Which artist’s work has spoken to you the most from a personal perspective?
I’m going to dodge the question, because when I worked with those “big name” artists you mention and many others, like Tomas Saraceno and Otolith Group, they weren’t big names at all. They were all young emerging artists; I was drawn to them by their ideas and their visions. Sometimes really audacious, crazy ideas. That’s what excites me. At FACT, we also want to seek out emerging talent and give them opportunities and platforms. Sometimes that means we’ll work with big names because that attracts audiences, who may then also encounter the work of other artists earlier in their careers. I think FACT should primarily be about nurturing the next generation of artists and filmmakers.
4. Post COVID-19, what are some of the biggest challenges FACT is facing that our readers should be aware of?
The health of the sector; particularly the artists and the workers. The sector has taken a massive hit from the pandemic and there is a lot of care that needs to go into its recovery.
Then the fact that our audiences have suffered, and many will continue to suffer as costs rise. People have less spending power. We still need to earn money to support the free work that we offer – our exhibitions and work with young people.
We have a responsibility to understand what the role of an organisation like FACT should be in an ongoing pandemic and during the continued challenges we face. How do we provide more opportunities for young people, for example, who have been massively hit by the pandemic? How do we provide hope and joy and inspiration and help people connect with others and their own emotions?
5. When you’re curating an exhibition, what are some of the key things you look for? What are some of the criteria you hold in your head when bringing different pieces together?
I like to commission new work, so the exhibitions I curate are usually full of work I haven’t seen before it arrives for the installation. I look for artists to work with whose visions excites me, whose ideas give me the thrill of a new perspective. I also tend to curate through a set of inquiries around a particular theme. For example, at FACT during 2020 we had a theme of the Living Planet running throughout the year – looking at our relationship with animals, nature and the environment. Currently, we have a theme called Radical Ancestry through which we’re exploring our sense of belonging, and how our cultural and biological heritage affects that sense of belonging. Our new show Let the Song Hold Us is part of this theme and inquiry.
6. Your own writing crosses over with subjects including space and the arctic. Why do you think ecological themes speak so strongly to you?
Originally, I was interested in the ‘global commons’; domains identified in international law that don’t fall under the control of any one country but to which all countries should – in principle – have access. The high oceans, the atmosphere and outer space and the Antarctic. That was my starting point and over time, through my work as a curator and writer, I expanded this interest to the “planetary commons”, a term I use to describe the natural resources of the planet and the spaces where they are found, which include the oceans, atmosphere, outer space, the Arctic, the Earth’s crust, and so forth.
I’m very interested in principles of shared ownership, resource justice and sustainable stewardship. These ideas resonate through my writing and curatorial practice, although they’re probably not currently apparent in my work at FACT.
7. What parting advice would you give to anyone who wants to work in similar areas to you? How might someone emulate your success?
It’s very hard to advise younger people today, because the world is a different place from my early career. The opportunities I had may not be open to them. I was the first person in my family to go to university but I went on a full grant (not a loan). There were more jobs around, so career progression in my twenties was fast. I would say that maybe my strength has been tenacity. Even when I felt under qualified or under valued, I still had this conviction in my ideas and a stubbornness to make things happen. And I love ideas. So my advice would be; be open to ideas and alternative perspectives. And be stubborn.
Let the Song Hold Us is now at FACT and features the works of Korakrit Arunanondchai & Alex Gvojic, Zinzi Minott, Tessa Norton, Larissa Sansour & Søren Lind, Ebun Sodipo and Rae-Yen Song.
Arabic Opera Performance (Lorissa Sansour & Soren Lind) is on at FACT Saturday 21st May 2022. Tickets are currently available.
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