A Day in the Life of…Nottingham Contemporary’s Head Curator

With Nottingham Contemporary right on our doorstep and showcasing a range of exhibitions, Kathy Noble, the Head Curator of the gallery, gives Impact an insight into a day in her shoes…

“A day in the life of a curator is never the same. It could involve sitting in the office writing a billion different emails, or it could involve travelling somewhere in the world to meet an artist, or seeing shows and people for research. It could be a day of team meetings, catch ups with staff, or it could involve presenting future programmes to potential sponsors. It could mean sitting in the library reading books, identifying works for a big historical group show, or standing in gallery spaces with an artist helping them decide how to install a major new commission. Programme meetings are essential; future programmes are discussed and shaped from conversations about things we’ve seen recently or have been researching for a long time. But this is only one part of what is an incredibly varied job.”

Did you always want to be a gallery curator?

I actually wanted to go to art school and be an artist when I was still a dreaming teenager. My parents refused to let me though, so I did history of art at Warwick University. I enjoyed some courses and despised others – for example, one specialising in bricks! It was only in third year, doing a course called ‘Art Within Walls’ I realised how much I loved contemporary art and how interested I was in how people experienced this. The course did not focus on curating as such, rather on how it was nearly always artists (apart from the odd visionary curator) who radically changed the way art works are displayed in museums and galleries. Now I’ve done this job for a long time, I still think artists have the best ideas!

What path did you take to reach your current position?

I left University and was completely lost. All I knew was I needed to earn money and couldn’t afford to do an internship. I did a series of horrible jobs then went to Goldsmith’s to do an MA in Curating. It was a strange but valuable experience, it taught me that anything is possible if you fight hard enough. Following this I worked at the Arts Council and The Architecture Foundation then got a job at Tate Modern as an Assistant Curator. There I worked on numerous performances and commissions and was promoted to Curator (Interdisciplinary Projects). Recently I opened the new spaces, ‘The Tanks’, leaving to become Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary. Becoming a curator was very, very hard to begin with. I thought I was a total failure and had no hope of becoming an actual curator. But with various sideways moves, a bit of luck and an enormous amount of hard work, I seem to have been able to do interesting things!

What is the best thing about your job?

The best thing is working with artists, having the freedom to have ideas and engage other people in those ideas somehow.

Is there a downside?

The downside is that it’s badly paid, underfunded, takes over your life and the admin is relentless!

How do you go about sourcing new work for the gallery?

With future programmes we weigh up a number of different things. Artists we find very interesting, both historical and more recent and emerging, alongside the overall shape of the programme that year, balancing solo shows, group shows, types of work by medium and content. We also consider wider issues such as scope of work shown from across the globe and balance of male and female representation. At the core is passion for the work we show.

Finally, what advice would you give to anybody interested in pursuing a career as a Curator?

I don’t think a curating MA is the only way. I am not actually sure how useful they are in terms of learning – although they do provide a good network of contacts, which is essential. Two things I did that really helped were working as an artist’s assistant for a while, having very direct experience helping someone make work, and then writing. I write for Frieze, Art Forum, Art Monthly and various other magazines – writing regularly helps me process thoughts about art, artists and what is going on in the world; essential for having good ideas!

Kiran Benawra & Lauren Wilson

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