"sometimes I think I prefer viewing art in the studio than in a traditional gallery space."
Our interview with Curator Kristian Day
Could you talk about your background? What made you become a curator, is it something you have always wanted to do?
I come from Hull, which is currently the UK City of Culture. The city often gets shown in a bad light in the press but it's always had a thriving arts scene. Up until recently it was very much a do-it-yourself, almost punk, ethic that kept the scene alive so I’m proud to see it get the recognition it deserves. That ethic is probably instilled in me in some way, finding ways to put on shows without a massive budget to work with for one. I didn’t exactly grow up dreaming of being a curator but I always knew I wanted to work closely with creative people.
After lecturing for a few years I somehow ended up working for galleries down in London, including a decade working for a gallery in Mayfair. Ultimately though I was only carrying out the visions of my employers and always harboured a desire to do things my own way so, in April last year, I quit my job and spent the summer going around every gallery, degree show and studio that would let me in. I guess I had a sense of missing out all those years so found myself with a need to catch up and get involved again. I also knew that I wanted to truly collaborate with the artists in my projects rather than just take delivery of their works so it was important to get to know them first and find out what makes them tick before I launched my first exhibition. This probably goes back to my desire to be closer to the creation of the work, to understand the process more - sometimes I think I prefer viewing art in the studio than in a traditional gallery space.
What has been your biggest obstacle and greatest achievement as a curator so far?
I don’t really think of things as being obstacles as I always knew it was going to be hard work. If something gets in your way then you just have to find another way around the problem. It would be nice to have the resources to have my own permanent gallery for example but it’s actually been just as rewarding to put on shows in a variety of different spaces, plus I’ve made some great friends along the way who have been incredibly supportive of what I’m doing. So, yes there are challenges along the way but I like to think that they often lead to new opportunities.
There have been so many things that I’m incredibly proud of over the last year, it’s been a great ride. The first show back in late August was called Sampler, I honestly expected just close friends and the artists to turn up but we ended up nearly blocking the traffic on the street. It blew my mind that so many people had an interest in supporting contemporary painting. The next day a young guy came in and said he’d come down from Birmingham just to see the show, I mean, it’s hardly a top collector helicoptering in from Monte Carlo, but I just bust out crying in front of the poor lad, it meant so much to me.
Each show since Sampler has been equally well received and I’m enormously grateful for this. It’s been an honor to work with so many of the artists that a couple of years ago I could only admire from afar. Selfishly, I’m quite proud that I’ve managed to do things my own way, the response and support I’ve received during all the exhibitions has justified, and more than made up for, all the risks involved.
Do you plan/hope to open a gallery one day?
That’s the ultimate goal and something I think about constantly. I’d like a gallery that endeavors to encourage its audience to get closer to an artist’s practice and their place within a wider art history. There often seems to be a dislocation between the studio and the traditional gallery set up, with works presented as if they are untouchable, something to be worshipped rather than engaged with. So I’d like to have a gallery that encourages a connection with the process of making and a gallery that would further its audience’s understanding of the work and its relationship to art of the past. I hope that this will, in some way, help promote contemporary art to new audiences and markets, something I’m very interested in.
What do you look for in an artist?
This is a difficult question to answer and impossible to get into specifics. I guess I look for a sense of honesty or realness in the work and a dedication to their chosen path...even better if the path has a few twists and turns along the way. A willingness to experiment with the ability to stay true to their original vision. I'm not too concerned if an artist is doing something new, just that they are striving to do something good...often the originality will follow anyway. I work with recent graduates, midcareer and established artists who all have this drive to perfect, evolve and progress.
How do you differentiate yourself from other curators?
I’m not sure if I do differentiate myself, I’m constantly in and out of other curators exhibitions and see myself as a fan. That said it can be easy to get swept up in the concerns, aims and well-meaning advice of other people and it can be hard to not second guess what you’re doing. It’s a difficult job but sometimes you just have to put your blinkers on and strive forward with what you believe in. I try to just work with artists that I admire and enjoy, you’re never going to tick every box for every person coming to the show so it’s pointless to even try.
I do try to be open to new audiences and to be as accessible to people of different backgrounds as possible. I’m planning a number of shows and collaborations outside of London for example. I also started an ongoing project called Paper Cuts last year. So far it involves around 130 artists, each has submitted three or four works on paper that are priced between £50 and £500. I was struggling to find a way of showing less expensive work that would be fun and less intimidating for sometime, knowing that I couldn’t afford to pay for a ton of framing and, it sounds ridiculous but...I was in my local record shop looking through the vinyl racks and thought this is perfect. So Paper Cuts is basically a travelling record fair...but with works on paper in the racks instead of vinyl. It’s a daft idea that somehow really works, plus, all my shows have been named after something music related (Paper Cuts itself is a Nirvana song) so it fits quite nicely. It’s been a great success so far, I tend to hold events in the last weekend of my shows but all the work is online now too.
I’m not unique in this but I do try to put a lot of shoe leather into visiting artists and probably spend more time on the overground to Bromley-by-Bow than most reasonable people but that’s all part of the gig.
What advice can you give to young artists?
Other than ‘don’t take advice from some guy in his 40’s’? The best advice I was ever given was ‘the only way to do it, is to do it’, so keep making work. There’s always going to be someone you know who gets an award or is snapped up by a top gallery and it’s tough not to think you’re doing something wrong. Plus, you’re probably going to make some bad work and you’re probably going to get rejected from galleries and competitions but, so does everyone, just keep at it and hopefully the work will become stronger because of it. Try to strike the right balance between being informed by what’s happening in the art world but not being swayed by what’s fashionable for the sake of following trends. Also, remember that, for most people, recognition doesn’t come overnight, it can happen step by step, inch by inch.
I’ve been working in galleries for a long time and I’m always asked for advice on how best to promote yourself as an artist. It can often be a Catch 22 situation...if a gallery hasn’t heard already of you then they don’t want to know you. It’s tricky. Don’t be pushy with gallery owners, don’t turn up unannounced with a portfolio under your arm (or, in one case a load of rolled up canvasses) expecting to be seen, it’s just annoying and will put them off. An email will do, even better an invite to visit your studio or an exhibition you’re part of. These days though there are so many ways to promote yourself through social media that, given time and effort, you can reach your own audience and, hopefully, the attention of curators and galleries.
What's next in the pipeline? Any exciting new shows lined up?
As usual I have a lot of shows in the works but this year I’m trying to space things out a bit more, to give me time to do more studio visits. That said I have a number of exciting things coming up. In collaboration with the excellent brand Albam I’ll be putting on a series of solo exhibitions at their space on Upper Street. Then comes a huge show in Bermondsey called Love, Peace & Happiness that is already looking incredible. I’m going to be working with the lovely people at Mercer Chance in Hoxton in May and with a new space in the Docklands over the summer. I’ll be taking things out of London this year too, with shows being planned in Manchester, the Cotswolds, Canterbury and Nottingham.
On top of this I’m planning a number of Paper Cuts events and hoping to work again with the wonderful Stacie McCormick at Unit 1 Gallery|Workshop. Hopefully this year will see the long-awaited collaboration with George Marsh of the William Benington Gallery and Andy Wicks of Castor Projects. I’m also putting together plans for a series of interviews taking place during my studio visits that I’ll publish online and continuing my collaboration with Matt Price of Anomie Publishing. PLUS...there are a couple of show-stoppers in the works for later in the year that I have to keep under wraps for now. So yeah, taking it easy really. I’ll be announcing everything in more detail shortly so please sign up on the website and follow me in all the usual places to find out more.
Images courtesy of Kristian Day
Banner image: Rude Gesture, Unit 1 Gallery
Interview publishing date: 09/02/17