Senior curator at The Barbican

 23 May 2011

Jane Alison is Senior Curator at The Barbican, where she has worked for 25 years. Her work includes organising exhibitions and events, editing catalogues and managing a core exhibitions team of 12.

Colour after Klein, The Barbican, 2005
Colour after Klein, The Barbican, 2005

Senior Curator is a varied and busy position, and Jane is responsible for the day-to-day developments of projects within the main Gallery Space and Curve Gallery.

Becoming a curator

"Most people in this role would have studied art history, but I think that there are different ways into this role."

"It is an enormous privilege to have the budget, a great space and a year and half to make an exhibition."

Jane originally studied fine art at Edinburgh College of Art. After graduating she practised as an artist before realising that it wasn't for her.

"I was yearning to work with other people and have a clear path and structure. I'd always been interested in art history and I naturally gravitated towards this work."

She undertook an Arts Management MA at City University, gaining experience in community art and gallery education. Jane initially started working at The Barbican as a gallery assistant, "in fact, I worked hanging pictures at the beginning."

When a job for a curatorial assistant came up within the team, Jane applied and was successful. It was a case of, "right place at the right time. Then I just worked incredibly hard to get where I am now."

Ways to get into curating

Curating has become an incredibly competitive field.

"Having been involved in many recruitments and read hundreds and hundreds of application forms, I know exactly how difficult it is and how competitive it has become.

"In my day, I was very focussed. I took all the steps I could conceivably think of in order to get a foot on the ladder. Now, it really is very difficult and you have to be very strategic."

A good applicant for a curator position should have, "focus, great communication skills, intelligence, flair."

  • "Many applicants will have done an internship. They've often done curating courses at the Royal College of Art or Goldsmiths – that tends to give people an edge.
  • Experience of writing reviews or articles.
  • Pro-actively curated small shows in empty shops and done something really concrete.
  • You have to have flair to be able to make exhibitions, you need to be able to communicate clearly."

Building a career in curation

Jane's first role at The Barbican was a steep learning curve. "I was thrown in at the deep end in a way that would never happen now because it is more structured."

Within a year in the job, she was editing a gallery publication and accompanying touring exhibitions to the US as gallery representative.

"For me, it was hard, because it was sink or swim. But in another way, it was great because I was able to prove myself."

She gained a breadth of experience during these years, and has subsequently curated not only contemporary art but photography, architecture and design.

"Few people have that kind of experience that I have had."

Experience in curating exhibitions

Jane's breakthrough exhibition came in 1996, when she curated 'Jam', a show looking at the interface between graphics, fashion, interactive multimedia, music and 1990s youth culture.

"Many applicants will have done an internship. They've often done curating courses at the Royal College of Art or Goldsmiths – that tends to give people an edge."

It was a landmark exhibition, combining 'a mash of work' that audiences had not previous seen within a gallery context before. The exhibition proved to be hugely successful, attracting large audiences.

"It was incredible that I managed to do it here, in what you might assume would be a conservative context. It speaks volumes about the gallery and that it can be maverick in a way that other institutions can't be."

Other important exhibitions followed such as 'Colour after in Klein' in 2005 and 'Surreal House' in 2010. This exhibition included almost 150 surrealistic works – from Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Salvador Dali to contemporary artists such as Rebecca Horn and Rem Koolhaus. The lower gallery exhibition space was transformed by architects Carmody Groarke into a house, with works populating the various haunted and surreal rooms.

"It was a very risky, unusual project that to realise and to make happen was great. The thing about this job is that it is an enormous privilege to have the budget, a great space and a year and half to make an exhibition."

Developing a career as senior curator

Jane is currently working as Acting Head of Galleries whilst her colleague is on sabbatical. Whilst still involved with exhibitions for the coming year, Jane's remit has broadened for the moment.

"The head of galleries is essentially responsible for the overview, the bigger picture thinking and making sure that the entire programme is to schedule and to budget."

Crucial to this is fundraising. "There is a development department, but of course we are all tasked with supporting what they do." Part of this support involves the development of a patron programme, as well as as the attending of events where she can talk with trustees, members and potential sponsors.

Jane talks enthusiastically about the current Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition curated by Lydia Yee. The exhibition incorporates performances choreographed by Trisha Brown into the gallery space.

"What's exciting for me, is that it is the first time we've used the downstairs space as a performative installation. What's very interesting in the Barbican context, is that it is a multi-art centre and we're increasingly trying to work with colleagues in theatre, music in order to shape the programme. What's great about here is that we do things a bit differently.'

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