Adrian George MA (RCA) AICA FRSA is a curator, commissioner, writer and educator with 16 years experience working in some of the most influential art institutions in the world including the New Museum, New York; Tate Modern; Tate Liverpool and the Government Art Collection, UK (which represents British visual culture in over 430 locations around the world).
Now Associate Director, Exhibitions at the ArtScience Museum of Singapore, this interview from April 2015 discusses his then current role at the UK Government Art Collection.
What does your role at the Government Art Collection entail?
It is a very busy role and my responsibilities include everything from making exhibitions, displays and projects to commissioning and acquiring works of art. I lead a team of research curators who deliver everything from interpretation texts to publications, education projects and public tours to postgraduate curatorial projects. I'm responsible for the day to day care of the Collection which I delegate to technicians, registrars, new media officers and curators of documentation and collection management. So just keeping on top of that is enough...
What do you most enjoy about what you do and where you work?
What I enjoy most about what I do it working with and supporting artists, seeing their works presented in extraordinary and important locations around the world. I enjoy engaging with people who encounter those works of art and sometimes seeing a moment of revelation when they realise what it is, what it means or could mean.
Working in the GAC is quite unusual. We are often perceived as being political, where in fact we are far from it – we must be entirely impartial all the time. However, working for an arts organisation within a government department gives us the chance to see first hand the twists and turns, the complexities and challenges of the political arena.
When did you first know you wanted to be a curator?
When I finished art school I knew I was never going to be a great artist – I knew I would never make a living from it. So I really didn't know what I was going to do at that point. I had been organising student exhibitions and various projects that offered a platform for some of my artist-friends to show their work – and someone suggested that I might consider an MA in Curating.
To be honest I was not sure what that meant. I did a bit of research and thought that yes, probably, my nature and skills seemed to fit. A certain practicality is needed, one has to be organised, a communicator who can also lead a team. What I felt I did not have was the critical theory and art history that forms a sort of foundation for curatorial practice. The MA at the RCA provided that and a whole lot more.
Have you come into contact with many RCA graduates' works through your position at GAC?
Many actually... Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Bowling, R B Kitaj, Idris Khan, Chantal Joffe, Gillian Carnegie... the list goes on and on. All of these RCA alumni artists are in the Collection I'm responsible for.
Which has been your favourite?
I like the new generation actually, so I have a soft spot for Idris Khan's work, Gillian's work and the photographer Sunnifa Hope whose work we bought from her RCA degree show. To be honest though my favourite work is always the next work that we acquire.
What is the GAC looking for when it selects or places works for its collection?
This is a difficult question – it’s more a case of what doesn't work than what I'm looking for. For instance, although we have over 400 locations where we place works of art, most of them are not museum scale. So works which are very large are tricky for us to acquire (although it doesn't mean we aren't interested in the artist and it might turn out we commission something at a future point).
We can't have work which is overtly political in one way or another and we tend to avoid works which have a short life expectancy, so nothing that is designed to be destroyed or fall apart in a short space of time. Works of art that have very particular installation conditions – needs a black box space or the floor to be flooded is impossible... or anything that is too noisy can be a problem. Other than that I tend to look at everything and as much as possible!
Do you keep in touch or come into contact with many other RCA alumni?
Actually yes, quite a few, especially the curators from my class year. Many of us are working in the museum or cultural sectors and our paths often cross at events, private views, conferences etc. Some of the artists from that time too are doing well and I see them around and about… it is always nice to bump into someone.
Tell us about your recent book launch.
The Curator's Handbook, which came out in February 2015, is my attempt at recording all the tips, advice and information that curators and museum directors across the world have given me over the years! Many of them I interviewed for the book, so it’s quite international. A lot of what is in the book I wish I'd known at the beginning of my career.
The UK launch was at Christie's, St James's and I was really touched that on a busy 'art night' so many of the contributors to the book and other art world friends made time to come and say hello! In Hong Kong I was part of panel discussion that was followed by a book signing – it all happened at the same time as Art Basel Hong Kong which meant that the event was packed with people! It was really fun and I met a lot of new collectors who have since been in touch to say how useful the find the book!
I've just found out that the book is to be translated into Japanese. I'm thrilled about that and I'm hoping that we can find a publisher for a Mandarin Chinese edition too! With so many museums opening across Asia I think some of the insider information in the book could be invaluable.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline for the future?
Well, I've been approached to write another book, so I'm just starting to think about that and chat to a few people. It’s very early days on that. I'm helping some younger curators with three projects they want to produce in London... that is quite tricky actually. I'd forgotten how tough it is when you are starting out. I'm helping with contacts, venues, some sponsors too perhaps (fingers crossed).
I'm doing something for ART15 art fair in London, I'm giving a talk at a conference in Marseille at the end of May and in the Autumn I'm giving a series of lectures in Taiwan. In between all of that I will need to make around 50 new displays of works of art from the Collection once we know what the outcome of the Election will be. No matter what most of the current displays are likely to change.
What did you value most about the RCA?
During my time it was the lectures in History of Visual Culture and twentieth-century philosophy that were transformative for me. Those were the things that I really needed to learn and the things that my previous studies had not given me. It was like a door was opened in terms of the way I thought about art. The networking opportunities that were provided were incredible and probably gave me a helping hand onto the first rung of the ladder... even before I started work many of the people I was working with I'd already met and they knew me. It sort of gave me a bit of confidence that otherwise I don't think I would have had.
"The networking opportunities that were provided were incredible and probably gave me a helping hand onto the first rung of the ladder..."Adrian George
MA Visual Arts Administration, 1998