This month I spoke with the brilliant Matt Smith, an artist and curator based in Hove, UK. Matt discussed the links between art and curatorship and the opportunities artistic residencies can give to both artists and museums.
As both artist and curator how do these two disciplines interact and interlink?
I worked in museums for about ten years before I started a practice as an artist. Both fields often (but not exclusively) work with material culture and as both an artist and a curator I am very interested in how objects can speak about the human condition, and help us understand both ourselves and others.
There are some incredibly creative curators who I would argue practice as artists within institutions as well as artists whose practice is so nuanced it could easily fall within curatorial practice. I find both these approaches very interesting.
My movement from curator to artist was in part due to the constraints I felt having to work with existing material in order to communicate with visitors. As an artist you have a greater freedom to make objects when the existing material culture leaves silences. Being removed from an institution allows you an unmediated, independent voice but is also an exposing place to be.
Can you describe your relationship with 'the museum' as an institution?
There are obviously many museums, and each one is made up of many individuals with different motivations, so to try and generalise about 'the museum' is problematic. However, museums occupy a very particular place in my life. The selecting, preserving and interpreting of our shared culture mean that museums can act as gatekeepers to history and - consciously or not - decide whose lives are recorded and whose are not.
In the 1990s I became interested in institutional critique and artists who explored how museums operate. Fred Wilson in particular had a huge influence on me with his work which repositioned museum collections from an African American viewpoint. The work of artists such as Fred Wilson, Joseph Kosuth (The Play of the Unmentionable) at the Brooklyn Museum and Hans Haacke (Give and Take at the V&A/Serpentine) fundamentally shifted my relationship with museums and made me much more questioning of how they operate and who they privilege within their narratives.
How have you approached museums and cultural institutions to ask to work with them to achieve artistic interventions / residencies?
I was incredibly fortunate that my first interventionist project - Queering the Museum at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (2010-2011) - was brokered by Shout! Festival in Birmingham. Shout! were interested in commissioning me and asked where I would like to show. I had a long history of visiting the museum and was fortunate that the exhibitions manager, Andy Horn, was willing to take a risk and push the project though. Since then, a number of organisations have approached me to work with them, which is a very fortunate position to be in.
Last year I was awarded an artist residency in the ceramics galleries at the V&A. The museum operates these on an open call basis.
Do you have any advice for artists looking to secure funding to support a project, intervention or residency in a museum?
I think that if the project is strong and the partners are in place, the hardest work is done. The Arts Council are often willing to fund artist interventions and residencies and are good at being very clear about what they need to see in order to release funding. It is important to remember that there are three parties involved - the artist, the museum and the funder - each with separate but hopefully overlapping needs.
What general advice can you give to artists and curators who want to work in or with museums?
I think there is a lot of advice for curators who want to work in museums, so I'll concentrate this answer on artists who want to work in museums.
I think it's really useful to keep in mind that artist interventions and residencies are seldom the core function of the museum and no matter how important the project may be to you personally, the care of the collections will, and should, take priority.
Therefore, unlike white cube spaces, there are constraints to working with museums and museum collections, in addition to the great joys and opportunities. The more you understand these constraints, and listen to the museum staff, the easier the working relationship will be and often the more freedom you will be allowed as an artist.
Artistic residencies are becoming increasingly common in museums. What are the best museum residency programmes you are aware of?
I think it really depends on the artist's practice, areas of interest and what they want to get out of the residency. Larger, more prestigious, residencies may not allow artists the same level of risk taking and freedom as those in smaller organisations. However, I think the main issue is finding a collection that you really want to spend the time exploring and responding to.
Did you always want your art to interact with museums? Did you do anything specific to influence your artwork to interact with museum collections?
A lot of my work as an artist involves casting readymade objects and repurposing them. This mirrors my curatorial experience of taking disparate objects from a collection and using them to create order or convey narratives. It was possibly unsurprising that this led to working in the interface between art and museums.
Much of your recent work has explored the relationship of LGBT communities with museums, galleries and historic houses. What have been your breakthrough findings and how are these new and important interpretations going to change our institutions in the years to come?
The idea of an LGBT community has problems. Whilst it is certainly useful to team up to address discrimination, any overarching grouping has the potential to erase differences of experiences within the group and homogenise it, often giving white men the largest voices.
Museums often use objects to represent groups of people - Jewish metalwork, Benin bronzes, medieval manuscripts. Unlike many groups whose culture is passed down from parents to children, there are few objects which can stand in for LGBT lives. Rather than universalising the group using totemic objects, museums need to work differently with interpretation about LGBT lives. It has been likened to detective work, looking into the cracks and fissures of collections since historically, the LGBT links with objects would often have been undocumented.
I have been particularly interested in how museums have made (in)visible lives which fall outside the majority. This lack of diversity in interpretation takes place for many reasons. Heteronormativity, like racial and gender bias privileges who we expect to see reflected in museums and so, unless we are told otherwise, we assume that objects were made, relate to, or were owned by straight, white men. This means that an alternative way of discussing and interpreting objects and their contexts might be needed to allow links between the collections and those people who live outside that mainstream to be heard.
We can all learn a lot from what Matt is saying. His final points on LGBT have already made me think differently and widened my mind. He has also perfectly outlined the opportunities and challenges involved in working as an artist with museums. To really explore museum objects we must reimagine their meanings and their messages and to do this we must ourselves embrace artistic thinking. Where the object may not communicate easily with visitors, or where a reimagining is more difficult could be one of the perfect places for artists to further our connections with the objects.
Artists - get out there and approach museums, heritage institutions and funding bodies with your intervention and/or residency projects and see what happens. Everyone - let's all support artists and promote the increase of artistic programmes and residencies in museums.
You can read and see more on Matt's website here: http://mattjsmith.com/
For more information on the V&A residency programme and their Open Studio events click here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/info/museum-residency-programme
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