Five things you need to know about curating

  • Untitled painting by Patrick Caulfield (RCA Painting 1963)

Rózsa Farkas is the founding director and curator of Peckham gallery Arcadia Missa, and has also worked with South London Gallery, Galerie Andreas Huber, the ICA and the Showroom, among others. She's a research fellow at Central Saint Martins, and lectures at Chelsea and Camberwell. Here, she shares some of the advice she's drawn from experience, about what you need to know as you begin curating shows

1. Studio visits are still vital

We might now be “after” the internet, with “Instagram collectors” buying works that they’ve only seen an image of on social media, yet having a conversation with the artist or their estate is still the primary site of research for good curation. Although studio visits might not take a traditional form anymore. Knowing the artist and having many conversations with them over time is often one of the best ways to understand their work, but studio visits can also be Skype meetings now, or, depending on the artist’s practice, a meeting in person that doesn’t involve sitting in a studio.

 2. Be comfortable with following your intuition

Having good relationships with artists is at the forefront of creating a great show with them, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with what they think should be exhibited. The artist may want to show their latest work, or perhaps they don’t want to show something that has been seen elsewhere. However it’s your job to think about the context – will the work fit in the space and conceptual framing? – and audience – is this audience likely to have seen this work even though it’s been shown elsewhere? If you have built up a good relationship with the artist then an open conversation about which works to show should be enjoyable, as they should trust your opinion as you should trust theirs. Trust as the foundation of the relationship should mean that you can reach decisions that everyone is happy with.

You are always learning, taking things in, researching in various ways. Don’t be afraid to let an idea evolve and change even when it’s already begun to be realised. You want your work to be dynamic and if it is changing it is often because what you were originally working on is being done or overdone within the art world already.

 3. You are not an artist

“Curator as artist” or “artist as curator” are terms that are loosely bandied about. Taking these literally can create completely insensitive curation. Often the best moment of an artist curating something is when it’s a collaborative project with other artists. Rarely can an artist occupy the role of artist and curator while still producing an exhibition that holds the right balance between showcasing their own work and an exhibition idea that also holds the work of others. Than Hussein Clark’s exhibition The Violet Crab is an example of a successful artist-curator project. However, there is a long history of artist-led projects and spaces, and artists do much better taking on many of the roles of exhibition production than curators do. The curator is not an artist. This is something to bear in mind, not to prevent you being experimental with your curation of shows, but to be sensitive to not suffocate the intentions and meanings of an artist’s work with your own ideas. To put it simply: the work should not be squeezed into the curatorial idea, but the curatorial idea should take its lead from the meaning of the work.

 4. Be on time

AV will almost always take longer than expected, delivery of things can’t be relied on, people need breaks, you may change your mind more than you expect, and everything else. Being stressed during the installation of a show is part and parcel of putting an exhibition together, but you can minimise this by being organised and giving yourself enough time to be thoughtful during the installation. Realistic scheduling will also make for a much better feeling among everyone involved in the show. Getting your timing right and giving yourself an installation that is as painless as possible means making deadlines and schedules for the delivery of works, for press and copy, for documenting the work, for any previews, and even for things like cleaning up/prepping the space before install etc.

5. Balance the books

Budget management is half the job. This sounds awful and uncreative, but finding the money for your project is not just the job of independent curators, but is also part of the work of those in institutions.

There are various ways to source funding for your project. One of the most obvious ways is through Arts Council funding. If you are applying for Arts Council funding it is always advisable to have sought out funding from elsewhere, which you are asking the Arts Council to match or add to. This could be done in a few ways: one is having the gallery or institution commit to a certain amount of money for your budget should you be successful in an Arts Council bid. You can also apply for other grants, or approach patrons for support. Only approach patrons with projects you know matches their interests, and if you know them, or know someone that can introduce you to them in good faith – do not cold call people!

Crowdfunding is another way to fund shows, but this should be the last option, as you are aiming for the "crowd’s" support to be in the form of attending the exhibition, sharing it online, blogging about it or perhaps buying prints or publications that go with it, thus it is usually better to avoid crowdfunding and potentially exhausting your audience prematurely.

Once you have your budget you need to manage it. Good budget management involves being clear with the artists about how much they have for a fee and/or production costs, and working out your budget based on the fact that there are additional production costs to those you give the artists: paint for walls and floor is sometimes needed, shipping and transport of work, maybe flights and accommodation for the artists, screws and fixtures and fittings, equipment you may need to buy or rent, any structural changes you need to make to the space, such as blacking it out or putting in an extra wall, printing costs for posters and press releases, drinks and invigilator fees.

When you start curating it is often your role to manage the entire budget and consider many of the hidden costs. Thinking of everything will mean that you are as honest as possible with those you work with about the money that is available, which is better than suddenly not having the money you have promised someone, or going over budget. If you happen to have money left over, it can be spent on future projects or divided between the artists involved and will be a nice surprise for everyone. Overall, organisation is boring but adds to a good group working experience and helps you make a fantastic show.