Behind the prize – curating a prize

We had a chat to Sarah Brown, Curator of Exhibitions at Leeds Art Gallery, about what’s involved in curating the Northern Art Prize exhibition.

How does curating the Northern Art Prize differ from the other exhibitions that you curate?

There is, to some extent, an absence of curatorial presence; it is not a themed group show or a monographic solo show. The artists are selected by our panel of judges, who are experts in the field. I chair the discussion but do not get involved in the decision making process. Each artist is selected individually, on the strength of their artwork, but ultimately the winner will be decided based upon how their work looks in the context of the exhibition. So, it is about articulating the strength of each artist but also making the exhibition as a whole coherent. In many ways it is like doing four solo shows, I am not trying to explicitly build a relationship between the artists. But I try to articulate or pick up on connections or resonance in their work.

I am also very keen on encouraging artists to consider how their work fits in the context of Leeds Art Gallery. Whilst we don’t have the resources to commission new work, artists do have the opportunity to reconfigure, remake and where possible create new pieces that best represent them in the context of the exhibition.

What are the resonances you see so far this year between the different artists’ work?

Within all the artists’ work there’s a language of construction – architectural structures and built things. With Joanne and Tom’s piece you will become quite aware of yourself in relation to the institution as a built and ideological environment. Emily’s work explores the relationship between the body, architecture and furniture, playing with performance and with scale. Both Margaret and Rosalind are showing work to do with looking and the gaze. There is a common concern with how we locate ourselves within history, fictions and representations of architecture or of contested spaces.

How would you describe your approach to the prize? How do you work out what will be in the exhibition?

When I first meet an artist I like to have a really open ended conversation with them; I want to get a sense of what they want to do, and how they see this opportunity. I could turn up say: “we’ve got 6 months, this is the gallery space, this is the budget…”; these are the parameters and I am aware of them but they are not the starting point for the artists. The starting point is always a meeting and a conversation. We visit the artists in their studios and later, when they visit the gallery I start to introduce the practicalities of time, space and resources. It can mean that there’s a phase where I feel everything is rather amorphous and chaotic but it seems to work and seems to be a good way to support artists in realising work they are happy with.

For me the Northern Art Prize is, primarily, an exhibition. Over 140000 people visit it each year, they travel to get here and the opening especially is really well attended. So first and foremost it has to work as an exhibition and as an event. Of course it is always underpinned by the fact that one of the artists has to win but funnily enough I don’t think that’s first and foremost in their minds. For most of the artists it is about making the best work they can in the time and in the circumstances given.

What do you enjoy about working on the Northern Art Prize?

I have the chance to work with artists that I haven’t chosen but who have been selected by four very well respected and knowledgeable people.

In the north there is now an infrastructure of exhibiting spaces and studios that did not exist 15 years ago. Organisations like Baltic, MIMA, The Hepworth Wakefield and a burst of artist run spaces have meant that a career as an artist outside of the obvious centres is a viable option. I am really aware of the increased art production going on outside of traditional centres and doing the prize is really exciting for bringing audiences attention to what is going on in the north and artists – who range from well known to less so – both to my attention and to the attention of audiences, giving them a chance to see what they would not normally see at Leeds Art Gallery.

I also enjoy working in partnership with other organisations and the Northern Art Prize allows collaboration with a team of people from other organisations.  It brings together people who are working in the city and the northern regions – there’s strength in numbers and in different voices!

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