Curator at Tate Liverpool
Sook-Kyung Lee is a curator at Tate Liverpool. She combines the academic approach of a traditional museum curator with a remit to bring what is often quite demanding work to a wide audience.
Studying to be a curator
Sook-Kyung’s career has followed a fascinating trajectory. South Korean by birth, she took her BA and MA there, gaining her first position as assistant curator for temporary exhibitions at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul.
Seizing upon a training opportunity, she came to the UK and took a second Masters degree in art criticism. This helped her to gain further hands-on practical experience, and refresh her ideas about how art could be presented.
A return to Seoul for further study was followed by the award of a doctorate in the UK. She was then appointed a curatorial fellow with Arts Council England, working on regional projects in Norfolk. The post came under the remit of the Inspire Fellowship Programme’s diversity work, a mission to open one of the arts sector’s traditionally more elitist sectors to greater public access.
In 2007, Sook-Kyung joined Tate Liverpool, on the brink of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. “I was overwhelmed immediately,” she recalls with a smile.
Working as a curator
Putting on a major exhibition involves a complex set of logistical issues. Loans negotiations require both patience and persistence, divided as they are between institutions and private collectors.
"You’re quite free to start with a blank canvas, presenting an individual idea, and then developing it."
If a show is transferring from another institution, there will inevitably be some work that doesn’t make it. This may be need to be compensated for by adding work from other collections.
A main summer show at Tate Liverpool will need to appeal to a wide audience, including children.
Family activity areas often play an integral part in an exhibition, and the gallery’s educational team will generally work with schools and the wider community, as well as reaching out to teenagers through a scheme called Young Tate.
Developing a curator's career
Career pathways into curating are not necessarily narrow. Experience in applied arts isn’t necessary. As a higher-education option, Art History is a good bet, but Sook-Kyung points out that there are people coming into the sector with literary degrees.
There are specific vocational courses in curatorial studies, as well as museum and gallery training programmes.
The single most significant influence on a career, according to Lee, is the split between the public and private sectors, which is still very pronounced in the UK.
“The structure and focus of the two sectors is very different, and it’s hard to achieve much mobility between them.”
While the private gallery’s operations are very much based on its relationships with its artists – on a strongly business-oriented model, encouraging an artist’s career and serving its collecting clients – the work of the public galleries has to be more about sharing art with society at large. Taking a balanced approach and presenting the national collections with great institutional care.
Sook-Kyung Lee says that the most rewarding aspect of the job is its creativity. “You are helping to decide all the time what happens next. You’re quite free to start with a blank canvas, presenting an individual idea, and then developing it – often two or three years ahead of its public realisation – as part of a team.”
Such good ideas will do much to advance a curator’s career. The imperative, as always, is originality. Taking famous works, periods, ideas, and exploring the lesser-known aspects of them. Much research will be required along the way, which can only deepen and enrich your own encounter with art.