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New Ways Conference report

22 February 2011

January 27 saw the presentation of the New ways of Curating conference; Artist-led ‘break-ins’ hosted by The New Art Gallery, Walsall. The conference was curated and moderated by Tim Brennan, one of the New Ways’ documentation artist, who has a practice built around working with archives, history and politics through the use of the guided walk, curating and photography.

His design of the conference aimed to present 3 main areas for inspection. First among these was to enable New Ways of Curating’s artist/collection collaborations to platform their work to date through a series of short concise presentations. Each grouping was then asked to briefly consider the main challenges for both artist and organisation. The overwhelming response indicated the necessity and success of communication and the willingness on behalf of host venues to open their collections to interpretation via the exhibition and event format.

Using the above as a basis, delegates were encouraged to consider the overlapping roles of artists and curators and the various permutations (artist, artist-curators, curator-artists) and the raised media profile of the curator (in the art world) over the past 2 decades.

A series of workshops or ‘breakouts’ were offered as options to delegates. These involved Bob & Roberta Smith conducting a tour of his exhibition ‘Life of the Mind’; Julian Walker working with a group to consider the object or artefact as fragment, and Tim Brennan’s ‘walkshop’ at which he invited his group to ‘trade’ the role of guide in order to lead him through the public and private aspects of the building and its functions.

The second half of the conference saw of New Ways’ associated projects or ‘community of interest’ detail some in depth updates. These included contributions from New Expressions – in Plymouth/South West who had engaged with a city wide approach to enabling artists into the civic collections; Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery who are involving artists and their ideas in the core planning of their accommodation review, and information from the Wedgwood Trust on how artists are re-assessing their collection.

The afternoon session was equally as comprehensive in its aim to unpick further the relationships between the regulated (broadly speaking ‘museums’) and unregulated (the SME artist-curator, freelance curatorial initiatives, commercial contemporary art galleries) worlds of curating – a session that involved key institutional reflections from Frank Caldwell (Sandwell), Antonia Harrison (Compton Verney) and Stephen Snoddy (The New Art Gallery Walsall) flowed seamlessly into the final plenary session.

The conference was a success in its balance of presentation and delegate input. It was oversubscribed – the constraints of space meant that a maximum of 90 delegates could be recruited. The constitution of the 95 delegates who were squeezed in exceeded expectations and comprised national organisations including the MLA, Arts Council, Crafts Council, National Trust, TATE, Art Fund, Government Art Collection; organisations from all 9 English regions, including Renaissance Hub and non-hub museums; representatives from Turning Point; artists; archivists; curators of art; arts & heritage; independent curators and PhD students.

The overwhelming sense from the conference is the will for further opportunities to meet, debate and discussion and a willingness for more partnership and collaboration. There is sense is that old silos are being dissolved and, whilst the current economic constraints are far reaching, there is an appetite to form new collaborations to work further across boundaries.

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