In Conversation With... Victoria Walsh
Victoria Walsh, Head of Programme, Curating Contemporary Art (MA Visual Arts Administration, 1994) has a unique insight into the past, present and future of curating at the Royal College of Art. As one of ten students selected to the Arts Council-funded Visual Arts Administration Programme (a forerunner of the College's current Curating Contemporary Art Programme) in 1992, she returned to become Head of Programme in 2013. She talked to us about the changing face of curating, international visions and the lingering smell of turpentine…
RCA I’m interested to hear about your time as a student on the Visual Arts Administration MA – it’s fascinating that you’ve been both a student and a Head of Programme.
VICTORIA WALSH I have a particular perspective, having been part of the first cohort of the Programme. It’s hard to communicate now just what that moment was like, and what the climate for contemporary art was like. The art world was much more localised, fragmented and parochial.
Teresa Gleadowe, who had been Head of Information at Tate and had worked at the British Council curating exhibitions, would bring in the most extraordinary list of artists, curators and museum directors. In that first year we had people like Catherine David, Clementine Deliss, Jean Christophe Ammann, Helen Chadwick, David Sylvester, Kasper Koenig and Jon Thompson.
Looking back, I can say that one of the things the Programme has always done, and continues to do, is give students the appetite and confidence to create change and curate with risk. Rather than accepting things as they were, everything was about creating new opportunities. It was about lectures, artists, curators and critics coming in and discussing what they were doing, and students getting involved in those projects. It was building towards two elements that continue to define the ethos of the Programme: the theory and practice of curating.
RCA I’m struck by the artist names in those early exhibitions: Vito Acconci, Matthew Barney. It’s incredible to have such high-profile artists in a student exhibition. Can you tell me more about that?
VW The CCA exhibition project aimed to introduce London audiences to new works and artists, and there was a strong emphasis on commissioning rather than curating existing objects. The idea of working with artists to create new work in site-specific environments rather than handling objects that belonged to dealers or lenders only really transferred that relationship into a much more dynamic one. It became much more of a dialogue.
RCA What was it about the Programme that enabled you to keep pushing at what it means to be a curator?
VW Although there was no timetabled interaction with other schools or programmes, being in a small art school meant that there were many informal chances to connect with different types of artists, architects and designers which we did. The confidence you gain as young curators talking to artists about practice, and the smell, tactility and messiness of being around materials and studio spaces – you walked into a building every day that smelled of turpentine – meant that a sense of trying things out, of starting conversations with artists rather than artworks and objects was where the energy and curiosity came from rather than just in books and catalogues. The value of the art school context can’t be underestimated, and it’s why I’m delighted that Curating Contemporary Art is now closer to fine arts as part of the School of Arts & Humanities.
RCA Turning to your role as Head of Programme, can you talk a little about current context around the Programme?
VW Over 25 years, we’ve had 300 students from 42 different countries. Whereas the Programme was originally set up to help foster young British curators and raise interest in international contemporary art we’re now working, teaching and learning in a global cultural field. The word ‘curating’ can now cover any number of types of practice and activity, and our students come from countries with very different histories of working with artists, collections and audiences. There is no fixed idea of curating in the Programme.
RCA And how is that reflected in the work of the students?
VW What we do is introduce all our students to the two foundations of curating: the theory and the practice. There’s still a dissertation – writing is fundamental to being a successful curator – and students choose the type of curatorial practice that they want to focus on in their group projects. Compared to 25 years ago, where the emphasis would have been on object-based curating or commissioning inside galleries, the projects now reflect the spaces in which curating currently takes place – including online.
RCA Can you talk more about the projects that students can participate in that help to facilitate these ideas?
VW Three years ago we launched the Graduate Partnership Project strand of the second year. This gives students the opportunity over a year-long period to work in collaboration with a key national arts organisation to develop a project – from proposal to realisation – that reflects a particular kind of curatorial practice, for example commissioning in the urban context; curating online, collection-based exhibitions; interdisciplinary public programming. All the projects enable students to learn and understand what it means to curate in a public context of audiences, fundraising and marketing. To date our partners have included Beaconsfield, Delfina Foundation, Gasworks, Lux, Nottingham Contemporary, The Photographer's Gallery and the Pump House Gallery in Battersea.
RCA How do you see this environment developing in the future?
VW One of the shifts we’ve seen is in the emergence of the ‘curatorial’, a new form of practice in which it’s very hard to distinguish between the practice of the artist and that of the curator. Programming and commissioning have collapsed that relationship, so curating is as much about creating fictional scenarios, spaces and speculative contexts, as gallery-based exhibitions.
RCA Can you expand on how you think curation will continue to transform?
VW One important factor is that we’re still only beginning in the sector to understand what the impact of the digital and technology has had on artists’ practice, curating and audience-engagement. There’s a whole new world opening up with digital-born works online and of course the online art market is also driving significant change. We’ve come to understand that through the students as much as through artists. Over the next 25 years, we won’t just be working through the gallery or in public spaces, but in online, virtual spaces and spaces that none of us can yet imagine. The role of the curator as mediator will continue, but the responsibility to create and support how culture is valued will become increasingly more urgent as the distributed culture of the internet assumes ever greater prominence.