Being an independent curator

 12 July 2013

Independent curator Cecilia Wee challenges the term 'curator', giving insight into this changing position along with 5 tips for independent curating.

Curator Cecilia Wee shares how the term 'curator' is being redefined and how she curates a show. Image: Cecilia Wee.
Curator Cecilia Wee shares how the term 'curator' is being redefined and how she curates a show. Image: Cecilia Wee.

Cecilia has curated exhibitions in Berlin and the UK, including co-curating the Anti Design Festival, which reached 20,000 visitors over 10 days. 

But she describes herself as an independent curator, meaning she isn't tied to any one organisation or collection.

Being an independent curator

Cecilia defines an independent curator as: "curating outside, but often with an institutional context.

"You have freedom to move around with no fixed curatorial department and no fixed collection."

Travelling is common in Cecilia's job. She has travelled abroad and around the UK to work with different organisations.

"I have curated events and exhibitions at UK and European institutions, like Akademie der Künste Berlin, Chelsea College of Art and Kew Gardens

"It's important to develop trust when working with another organisation. They may have differences of opinion, but will 'buy in' to your expertise and support the project ideas if trust has been established."

Changing the definition of a curator

Starting off in music, she changed career to focus on performance art, and decided that she wanted to be a curator – just not a permanent one.

“I wanted a sense of independence.

"I am at the event from the morning to the end of dinner with the speakers, making sure everything is running smoothly."

"The great thing about being an independent curator is that you’re your own boss. But you're under pressure to keep focused and set your own targets.”

According to Cecilia, the term ‘curator’ is being redefined. This comes from increasing explorations into digital art and live performance, and questions like 'what is art?’.

“For me, a curator gives the overview on the cultural value of a project, but also has the ability to bring together ideas, people and objects.

“It's only quite recently that live performance has been recognsed as an artform in mainstream art institutions. For instance, the Tate Modern Gallery had a performance art festival in the Tanks in Autumn 2012."

Independent curating the Artquest Conference

“My friend Russell Martin and I set up Rational Rec at the Bethnal Green Working Man’s Club to do monthly art events, experimental performances and debates. This relationship also led to my role in curating the 2013 Artquest Conference."

The process for curating the exhibition involved a lot of work.

"I brainstormed and developed a concept with Russell from Artquest. We set targets and aims for the conference, including number of attendees, target audience demographics and why is Artquest doing it.

"With this idea confirmed, we looked for the venue and confirmed this. Then, I approached and confirmed the keynote speakers and workshop leaders.

"Logistical stuff like the catering, AV equipment and room arrangements are finalised, and then we start promoting and selling tickets for the conference through email and social media marketing."

Communication is key when it comes to keeping everything in check – especially as Cecilia is representing the organisation, but is not a permanent member within the organisation.

"I make sure that I confirm all speakers and send round final details with a detailed schedule and confirmation. This also includes making sure the Artquest staff are up to speed with their roles.

"As curator, I am at the event from the morning to the end of dinner with the speakers, making sure everything is running smoothly."

Working with visual and performance artists

Getting the right people for keynote speakers and workshop leaders is important for the success of an event.

"A curator gives the overview on the project, but also has the ability to bring together ideas, people and objects."

“Keep an eye out for people to invite, artists that you’d like to work with and people in the arts that you respect. This network you build can be useful down the line when you have other projects.

When briefing the chosen speakers, Cecilia says that it’s best to accomodate both the institution and the artist.

“When discussing ideas with artists, suggest something that they’d like to do as well. Suggest different mediums for delivering their information, which would excite audiences – like a workshop or a video.”

5 tips for independent curating

1) Be interested in artists

"Being interested and listening to people and ideas keeps your art knowledge up-to-date. I did a short course on the Clore Leadership Programme and it taught me a skill called active listening, to help us engage more with what we’re hearing.”

"A sense of humour with people can defuse sticky situations, and being sympathetic to the needs of the artist encourages a good relationship."

2) Keep notified about news in the arts

“I recommend:

3) Prepare to work long hours

"Be prepared to blur the boundaries between work and social life. I find that most of my fruitful discussions take place outside ‘the office'.

"You do need determination to want to put in your time. Being independent means the end result must be great, otherwise you risk your reputation."

4) Keep your communications and notes organised

Updating your website and connecting with people on social media can be simple ways of keeping up with your contacts.

“You can also use Skype to do international calls free. I like using a paper diary so I can see what I have in my pocket and change things at a glance."

5) Get advice and support about curating

As with any career, getting the right advice and support is important to help you on your way.

“You can go to Artquest and ask for advice. I like to think of them as the citizens’ advice bureau for visual artists and curators. You can find information on business plans and other useful areas on the website.”


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