After 34 years working for the Crawford Arts Centre/ Fife Contemporary, it’s time to look back and look forward. Staying with one organisation for most of one’s career is very unusual within the arts but the experience has been one of fairly constant evolution and change rather than stasis. Less unusually, life and work have been intertwined.
Starting and Sustaining
My undergraduate research led to my role as the guinea pig student curator at the recently created university art centre in St Andrews which I subsequently returned to as Director. The centre had then just become independent of the university which equated in many respects with being poorer and more insecure. As it had emerged out of a battle over the value and place of culture however, the team started with a fierce determination to maintain and develop the quality programming. A certain stubbornness and conviction have then supported the organisation through further challenges. Although vulnerable through its small scale, the accompanying flexibility and nimbleness allowed it to survive beyond expectation. Continual hard work and an ability to change have secured essential public funding – most significantly when the Scottish Arts Council and Fife Council yet again showed confidence in major organisational change to pioneer delivering a programme free of a venue. Developing direct and special relationships with artists across Fife as well as the public has been a welcome result.
Artists and makers
While my historically-based art and museum training focused on objects, my career has been more about working with the artists and makers who have created the exhibits. An altogether more complex, sometimes demanding but enriching experience. I’ve always been conscious that my work exists because of the artist’s – it’s their reputation and ideas being exposed. Balancing the artist’s ambition to present their work in the best possible way, with the limitations of our and our partners’ resources, can create tensions. I apologise to artists for any tetchiness they experienced … Balancing the occasional stress, my career highlights have come from experiencing the work and insights of exceptional artists and makers from the local to the international.
Curation is a term which has grown in meaning and stature within (and beyond) cultural fields. When I started out, it was restricted to describing the care of museum objects; but it then superseded ‘research and selection’ to encompass the tasks involved in exhibition-making, and it now feels like it extends that definition in more subtle, indefinable ways. I’m wary of the curator vying with the artist for acclaim, but a fan of guest curators (especially artist curators) bringing fresh ways of experiencing work and associated ideas. Inviting collaborators to bring their expertise and viewpoints has been essential to broadening and keeping the programme relevant.
Partnership with other organisations has also added value. Establishing STEC (Scottish Touring Exhibition Consortium) with colleagues in public galleries outwith the Central Belt resulted in a wide range of exhibitions and a nationwide network of friendships. Further networks and partnerships were fostered by the privilege of taking part in curatorial trips organised by the Scottish Arts Council / Creative Scotland. I’ve also particularly enjoyed creating projects with colleagues in Welsh organisations.
Dialogue between craft and visual art
From its university inception the organisation has promoted craft as well as visual art. The questioning of hierarchy and exploration of the dialogue between media has been core to the programme. My affinity to craft probably goes back to my grandmother’s pride at coming from the Aubusson area with its tapestry heritage as well as the colourful Breton pottery we used in her home. This instinctive pleasure has been reinforced by meeting makers and learning about process and concepts.
The value of encouraging an interest in art and craft
Building on the kind of support I benefitted from, we’ve tried to encourage others to explore and gain experience, through school pupil placements and a Summer School, to student and early career paid internships. A curatorial traineeship focused on cultural diversity complemented the regular guest curator opportunities. Giving artists tangible support to freely develop their creative practice through the grants, bursaries and mentorships of the national VACMA (Visual Art and Craft Maker Awards) scheme has been a struggle but one I doggedly tried to maintain.
Exhibitions have been at the core of the public programme and its recognition, but providing opportunities to meet artists and explore everyone’s creativity through residencies and engagement activities have been as important. After roaming with (and not altogether successfully driving) a mobile gallery around Scotland, I was convinced that providing access to the broadest possible public should be a basic aim, while recognising that connecting them with the many benefits of art required a range of strategies. Meeting groups of people through targeted projects has enlarged my knowledge and understanding of the barriers they face in life as much as it has hopefully provided them with a positive creative experience.
Arts organisations often have a fragile existence. Episodes of major adversity have tested us but memories of survival highlight the positive. A threatened removal of public funding led to a support campaign (I still have the t-shirt although it sadly no longer fits…) including a Barbie doll window display. When a homophobic group tried to close down a student production in the studio theatre, firm resistance and support again came from the organisation’s voluntary board members and a diligent police inspector who provided the expertise and staff to keep the show open.
In reflecting on my work experience I have resisted an initial impulse to list favourite exhibitions or artists met. There are too many and I have appreciated the variety of insight, wonder and challenge they have provided as well as personal generosity and kindness. Similarly, I have avoided naming specific partners and board members in case I leave someone out (and my memory for names is sadly increasingly fallible…). I would however like to record my gratitude for the crucial support provided by Chairs of the board at key points over the years and my fond admiration for an elderly cleaner who contributed a cheering combination of humour and broadmindedness.
The only people I must name are my former colleagues Susan, Arlene and Stefanie. If this blog equates the organisation with me, it is not because I have been essential to it but because my work has always been bound with, and made possible by, a close long-standing team. They will help Kate as she familiarises herself with the organisation and I am confident that it will thrive and develop under her stewardship. I look forward to experiencing the future programme and pledge to support but not interfere!
Once I realise that I am not on some strange holiday, I plan to remain part of, and contribute to, the visual art and craft community. My board membership of a couple of artist-run Fife art organisations and an archive to sort will provide useful starting points.
Top image: opening of Diana’s JD Fergusson exhibition at the Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews, 1982. L to R: unknown person, Robin Spencer (Art History), Louise Annand (Chair, JD Fergusson Foundation), Diana Sykes, Prof Martin Kemp (Art History)