Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Curator. Tate Britain, London, 28th September 2010.



I meet Lizzie Carey-Thomas for a cup of tea at Tate Britain. She’s been a curator here for over ten years, curating both fast-paced projects of a few months such as the Turner Prize and Art Now (which has up to five shows a year) and historic loan shows that take years to organise. Having just curated an exhibition of Rachel Whiteread’s drawings, she is now researching artists such as Cerith Wyn Evans who were on the periphery of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement, and have become influential because of the interdisciplinary nature of their practices.

We meet to talk about curating, a job that seems both glamorous and daunting – cliques, names, money, fairs, biennales. Carey-Thomas is modest and smiley; she emphasises the importance of choosing specific pieces of artwork over names, and considering how each piece operates in space, a recent example being Fiona Banner’s two fighter planes. They entered the Tate in fragments and were reassembled; upside down, one hung and one on the floor, now like prehistoric terrors that have deafened the Tate to silence.

Carey-Thomas comes from a Batchelor of Arts background, and cut her teeth in a six month internship in Chicago followed by a job at the British Arts Council curating foreign exhibitions and the Venice Biennale. She is unsure of the worth of curatorial MA courses as opposed to vocational experience, and is certain that the latter is vital with or without post-graduate qualifications.

She emphasises simplicity: artwork should be capable of operating independent of any textual explanation, and any text present (often “as little as possible”) should “show and not tell. Because after all, it is visual art. Otherwise why isn’t it a book or an essay?” Providing degrees of information, ranging from a brief caption to a more extensive guide is one way to ensure the audience can read as little or as much as it wants.
Simplicity in writing style is best too. She says hers has become simpler, and she has less and less time for convoluted art writing and hackneyed descriptions (“defies categorisation”, “blurs boundaries”). 

Biennales also produce mixed feelings in her, because while she respects them as a tool for urban regeneration (Folkestone an example), the emphasis put on money and high-profile curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist can be distracting. Many can be disappointing, Liverpool’s current ‘Touched’ Biennale is a possible example (surely all art work is supposed to touch you). Resorting to spectacle is another biennale symptom, neither good or bad, just predictable and inevitable.  Maurizio Cattelan’s Berlin Biennale of 2006 however, echoed Carey-Thomas’ aim of selecting specific artwork, in relation to its environment, rather than creating an all-star artist list.

Curating and writing at Tate requires a compromise between accessibility and intellectual or artistic integrity.  When working with Nicolas Bourriaud on Tate Modern’s ‘Altermodern’ exhibition in 2009, Carey-Thomas put this into practice: Tate Modern’s international audience of all ages and interests met one of France’s leading intellectuals. She says the exhibition was successful partly because it could be experienced independent of any text. Altermodern’s curation did not impose too much structure, something that would have been reductive and artificial. The artists involved were genuinely curious about the concept of Altermodern: a global hypothesis rather than statement, description not movement. Curating, she says, is about making a survey of artworks that speak to each other, “themes emerge over time”. It was only as it was hung that Carey-Thomas and Banner realised the full power and possible meanings of the aircraft installation, for instance.
Curating the Turner Prize also involves bridging between the art-world and the manic media coverage that follows it. Building a trusting relationship with the four nominated artists is vital so that the curator can speak in a fluent and succinct way to the press. To précis is a curatorial skill.
Like a tutor, a curator will inevitably feel less touched by some art than others, yet have to remain supportive and neutral towards the artists selected by the panel. Also like a tutor, a curator plays a certain degree of devil’s advocacy, and criticises the artists in order to catalyse work that forms one of the year’s most high-profile surveys of contemporary art.

Tate Britain’s remit is British art from 1500 to the present day, with some overlap with Tate Modern in the latter part. Its new director, Penelope Curtis plans to make more of Tate Britain’s collection, both to conserve funds and to highlight the gallery’s identity as somewhere where historical and contemporary art meet. It will be interesting to see where she, Lizzie Carey-Thomas and its other curators take it.