What is a curator? What do they do? I interviewed The Biscuit Factory’s curators to find out!

Curators are defined by The Oxford Dictionary as “the keepers or custodians of a museum or other collection”…. But what does that actually mean? Who are they, what do they do, why are they important to important to museums, galleries, heritage centres and the creative and cultural sector…..? I honestly believe the majority of folks out there have no idea what curators do and as a profession, as it’s not front facing to the public and a lot of what they do is behind closed doors – even in the cultural sector, their role can be perceived quite mysterious, there is a lot of misunderstanding and (in my opinion) there is often a bit of a disconnect between artists and curators.

Over recent years, the words “curate”, “curation” and “curator” have all be absorbed into popular culture and are so overused to the point of diluting their meaning. Folks now “curate” displays, a sandwich, a playlist…. The overuse of the word is a weeee bit of a trigger for me to go on a rant (understatement of the century – but we all have our burdens to bear)……you did not “curate” a sandwich, you simply made.a.decision.

So as part of my mission to shine a light on curators in general and what they do, I thought I’d reach out to The Biscuit Factory curators and see if they would be up for a Culture Vulture interview. The Biscuit Factory is the UK’s largest independent commercial art, craft & design gallery set in the heart of Newcastle’s cultural quarter of Ouseburn and one of my favourite galleries – I love the variety of work displayed – it’s full of colour and very different types of art and interiors. If you haven’t visited yet or haven’t for a while, it’s a must visit – it’s obviously closed right now due to COVID-19 but will be open once more in the future. You can check out The Biscuit Factor online gallery here to see the artists and art works they have on their books.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

I was delighted that the curators accepted, it can be quite scary Mary to have a stranger come in and question your work and processes – so I was prepared for the “no”.  But I got a big fat yes and I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with them (they were so lovely and lush!) asking all my questions…..and believe me, I had a lot thanks to my question call out on my social channels from my fellow Culture Vultures. Consequently, it was less of an interview and more of a creatively curious interrogation (my Line Of Duty obsession, has made me an EXCELLENT interrogator….”Mother of God..!”). But we did have a lush chat and strayed away from curator talk into debating creative careers and opportunities…..

So here we go, an interview The Biscuit Factory curators; Sam Waters, the 3D curator, Sam Knowles – 2D curator and Mika Browning – jewellery curator; this is a long LUSH interview, so buckle up and it’s perfect for your lock down reading.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – Right, let’s start with some intros for my readers and followers…  

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: My name is Sam Waters; I’m the 3D curator at The Biscuit Factory and I have responsibility for sourcing, managing and displaying the items which fall within the 3D product group here. Things like sculpture, ceramic, glass and furniture; basically stuff which is not wall based, although occasionally wall based too. I also look after the cards for the gallery and a few other sort of ancillary things. I’ve been here since 2010 so coming up to ten years.

Before this I was very briefly at another local gallery which doesn’t exist anymore called the Artworks Galleries where I did a mixture of things and event space things predominantly. Before that I was a self-employed copywriter and photographer. And that’s about it.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: My name’s Sam Knowles, I’m the 2D curator which means I’m in charge of paintings, prints and photography; the bigger part of that by far is the paintings and prints. I spend my time sourcing and inviting people to the gallery, managing their artwork, suggesting what comes here and what might sell the best, cataloguing it when it arrives, displaying it, looking after work in the store rooms that’s not currently on show, making sure all the stock is as it needs to be, putting on displays, making sure the gallery is constantly sort of replenished, should anything sell or be moved or sent back to artists and being the person to get that work ready should anyone want to collect stuff either having been sold or being returned to them for other exhibitions elsewhere.

I’ve been here since 2007; I originally started as a gallery assistant, then took on photography which used to be a bigger part here with a lot of graduate exhibitions. Now I spend most of my time in charge of paintings and prints and beyond that I’ve got some responsibility for how the gallery physically looks in terms of wall colouring and floor layout.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I’m Mika Browning, the jewellery curator and I’m quite new; I’ve been here for a year now. I look after all the jewellery that comes in and the display; it’s quite interesting for me because before this I’d been self employed as a jeweller myself for quite a long time, so I’ve kind of stepped to the other side.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: With you looking after three different departments within one gallery space, how do you all work together and collaborate as curators?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: It can be ad hoc coming together and collaborating. Often we won’t be totally aware of what each other’s booked in but when we’re putting a show together, we’ll make sure that things complement each other.

When we have an open call out like the recent Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020; we will go through the submissions together to pick out submissions to be a part of the exhibition – we had about 1200 submissions from all over the world and we worked together to display the work and shared the load.

But a lot of the time, we’re just in our own departments, getting in our own work; but once the work is here, we realise there’s common ground and if it will work together. There can be any number of reasons why one piece of art can go with another; its subject or colour or style or just the sort of person we think it might appeal to, even if the work itself is nothing like each other. That process tends to be something that happens once we are all actually out on the gallery floor, putting work together, working with what we have and often feeling our way through things.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: You mentioned the Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 open call out, how do you decide which pieces of art are included in an exhibition shortlist or “make the cut”?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: Well, ultimately it comes down do our knowledge, experience and what we like, which I appreciate is very hard to unpick and very subjective. We display work because we think it is interesting and to attract people to visit the gallery.

But a key decider is if we think it’s got artistic merit in how it was made and as we are a commercial gallery, we have to think whether or not it might appeal to someone to purchase or be of interest to someone commercially.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We use the same principles in choosing successful submissions from this Contemporary Young Artist Award 2020 open call out, as we do for the main exhibitions. But we probably have a little bit more leeway with this, to take a few more chances and to add a few things which are on the margins of what the main, day-to-day gallery exhibitions are. That’s kind the idea of doing this type of exhibition; we try to stretch the Biscuit Factory’s comfort zone a little bit and bring in newer and more progressive work.

We get submissions to the gallery from people wanting to exhibit on a daily basis. The basic cornerstones of the criteria we use to select pieces for all exhibitions, includes 1. the quality of the craft, regardless of what the subject is or what the medium is, 2. the standard of professionalism AND 3. the quality of presentation and the artistic vision. The Biscuit Factory is a very diverse space in terms of artwork displayed but everything that we have here, regardless of its aesthetic or its taste or its style, is of a high quality. The pursuit of quality helps us make choices when selecting work that might not be our own personal taste but we able to appreciate the quality and recognise that someone else might love it.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: As a commercial gallery, how do you tread the fine line, between selecting exciting, new, experimental and groundbreaking pieces and knowing your audience and knowing what they actually want to buy?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We are aware of what sells and we have a sales system, allowing us to see various different product groups and how they are performing – e.g. How many pieces of sculpture have sold in any given period or how many paintings have sold by a particular artist.

So we’re aware of that and we have to be guided by that to some extent. But there’s always a balancing act between being sales driven and the ethos of trying to show a range of works, some of which you accept may not be so commercially viable and we can’t just keep selling and displaying the same things; our visitors wouldn’t want that.  In a way, progression and sales have to go hand in hand because we can’t just keep selling the same type of work or the same artist’s work because eventually the sales would dry up.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I think the scale of The Biscuit Factory is so big, that actually there’s room for a very wide range of work here and we can afford to take some chances and have some really different things. I think a lot of people who haven’t visited us before would be surprised how big the range of work is here – there’s some very contemporary things, some very quirky things and some very traditional things; they all sit side by side quite well, quite comfortably because they are of a certain standard.

We sometimes think we know what is going to appeal to a particular type of Biscuit Factory visitor, but we are often wrong; you know someone who you’d assume would buy a traditional landscape actually goes for the really quirky portrait, or really minimalist etching.  Or they might be interested in all three!

We take pride in the fact that there’s something here for potentially everyone; behind our doors is a whole range of work waiting to be discovered all tucked in here.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think in terms of the jewellery, it’s a different sort of position because most of the jewellers that I work with are more commercial and used to that side of galleries. The jewellery is made to wear and own, rather than being looked at in a gallery, so that makes it a little bit easier for me when choosing between more ‘out there’ stuff.

Jewellers can send in more of their work as it doesn’t take up as much space; they might send a piece that’s kind of really high price and out there in design but then it can be paired with quite a lot of other pieces from a range which are really wearable, so that’s quite a fortunate position to be in as a curator that I can kind of manage to get in both.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: How would you describe the role of a contemporary curator and how do you feel about the overuse of the word “curate?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: Personally, I’m not precious about the word curator and I’ve always been aware that it’s a word that has many different applications or nuances and, people think of it in different ways.

I think it depends where you are as well because there are different kinds of curator and curation so it’s hard to be precious over; if you’re in a municipal gallery or the BALTIC or whatever it might be, even within one city there’s varying different sorts of curators, that aren’t really very comparable.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I guess “curate” is a word that a few years ago was quite niche and not used in the mainstream with connotations as quite highbrow. Now it’s become quite an everyday word and quite trendy, which is perhaps a bit odd.

I’ve been here a long time and what I understand of the word “curate”… or how I understand my job is not necessarily through the prism of being a curator; my job is what it is and when I read about other curators, they’re not necessarily particularly relatable positions to this one.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: For me, I think it’s more… I speak to early stage career artists and creatives in the industry that would like to get into curation and I feel that misuse of the word is removing the respect of the profession and understanding of it as a legitimate career path….  

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It’s diluted it a little bit but you can see that happening anyway through the democratisation of things through the internet and DIY elements across all creative activities. You don’t have to go to a web developer anymore to set up a website for example, you can do it yourself. I guess, the old gatekeepers who defined what a curator is and controlled the role, are dispersed a little.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Everyone’s artistic taste is subjective…. How do you feel if someone doesn’t like an exhibition you’ve curated or a piece of work you’ve put pride of place in the exhibition? Do you take it to heart?

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: We’re slightly sheltered from people’s comments about an exhibition on a day to day basis because we’re tucked away in our office getting on with the next exhibition. We do feel it more when you’ve spent 18 months talking to an artist and they’ve then made the work and it doesn’t sell as well as hoped when it gets here.

You can look back and think “maybe I didn’t quite get it right” or “maybe it was a bit too far out for here” but the fact is that sometimes, you can get someone in who you think is perfect for the people who, largely come here and it still won’t sell; that can be very frustrating and disappointing for you and for the artist.

There may be a reason you can identify but sometimes there’s no reasoning for it, it can just be a matter of bad luck or bad timing; you’ve got to get a lot of things right to sell a piece of artwork –  the right person has got to walk through the door, it’s got to be at the right time for them in their lives and head and it might be that there were hundreds of people that loved the work  but they just didn’t or couldn’t buy it. Sometimes when you send work back that hasn’t sold, days later someone will come in saying “have you still got it because I’d like to buy it?”….. A lot’s got to come together all at the right time, and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think you can still take heart in that, even if you get something in that you love and then it doesn’t sell, it still kind of feels good that you put it out there; people might not be buying it but at least they’ve seen it. Maybe they love it but they can’t buy it for whatever reason, but it still feels nice to be able to be putting stuff like that out there.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: And you never know what it might do for an artist’s career longer term, the fact they’ve been seen. It’s another exhibition on the artist’s CV, another opportunity to display their work and that feels rewarding.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Sometimes there’s a bit of tension between artists/creatives and curators in regards to how work is displayed and some curatorial decisions of exhibitions…..

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I don’t feel I’ve had that very often; I guess you can’t please everyone 100% all the time. I think largely the artists, certainly in my department, are very happy to be here and we all work hard to make sure their work looks good, is well presented, nicely lit, hung straight and hung in an interesting way; I think more often than not the experience is pretty positive.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I’ve occasionally had artists sort of grumble about where their work is, that it’s not their first choice location in the gallery or how it’s displayed; but in most cases that is because they have not quite appreciated the scale of the place, how things are laid out and that it’s necessary to display work alongside other artists’ work – you can’t always get the degree of separation that some artists would like because we have so much work to display.  Our role is to make the best decisions overall and to bring together cohesive exhibitions on a bigger scale. Occasionally that might mean that a particular artist’s work is not 100% how they’d want it to be displayed or they might personally not like another artist’s work that is visible somewhere beyond their work in the sight line.

But, most people are appreciative that you’ve made such an effort to display their work in a sympathetic and considerate way, and are aware there’s a lot of work to juggle and that you’ve made decisions for the best presentation of the gallery as a whole.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: As a curator do you go to other exhibitions and reflect on the curation?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I recently went to the new gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it was really inspiring!  Also, their shop space was really inspiring to me because that was where their jewellery and some ceramics were; I thought that it was beautifully curated and displayed.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: I get out far, far less than I should; I go to the degree shows, just out of curiosity but I feel further and further away from that now with age. I’ve got young children which means my free time is at soft play and not galleries. But I do love going to art fairs, I quite like going to places where there’s a big mix of stuff rather than just going to see one person’s exhibition, but yes I’d like to go out more.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I don’t get out as much as I’d like for all sorts of reasons. I’m always very aware of retail art things and maybe that’s what I’m kind of more influenced by, more aware of and absorb. I’m interested in the psychology of retail and people’s subconscious decision making, so in art retail situations I am aware of trying to read how things are set up, colour temperature, sightlines, positioning of things and the way they arrange the spaces.

Sam Knowles – 2D curator: When you work here it is hard to kind of turn off working here and to just enjoy an exhibition or art fair; you’re always thinking, that person could be good in the Biscuit Factory, taking a card or photographing the work or name of artist – so it’s hard to full immerse.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What is the process of seeking out artists to exhibit at The Biscuit Factory and how far in advance do you go planning?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: We do get submissions, some aren’t appropriate or quite right for us. The process is mostly us finding things, going out into the world and seeing it in person or online. Using Instagram as a platform is becoming increasingly prominent as a way of finding things for us.

For the big shows, we often book over a year in advance. Sometimes, if we have space available, we might find things and come across things that if the artist has stuff available, we might get work from them in very quickly. As our space is so big and we have such a variety of different ways of displaying things with a flexible display space, we can often shuffle things round and create some space.

The exhibition timeline can be anything from working with someone that we’ve worked with for ten years and booking them in two years in advance for a big show or coming across someone new and having their work here two weeks after you first saw it and everything in between. We have a big quarterly changeover but within that we have an ongoing evolution of displays and bring in new work in quite often; it always keeps the job fresh for us and hopefully fresh for our regular visitors.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What would your advice be to artists and folks who want to get their work into The Biscuit Factory? How should they approach the gallery?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: A lot of people want to show you the complete range of what they’re doing, so you might get a charcoal drawing of an animal, followed by a portrait, followed by a landscape and unfortunately that’s not much help to us. What we really need to see is a coherent collection from somebody, whether or not that’s the animals or landscapes. We’d prefer them to limit themselves to presenting one collection at a time. Some artists try and show you everything they’ve ever done and can do which is too much, instead of honing with focus. And we only take submissions by email.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: It just has to be really good; what I’m looking for are pieces that are really impeccably made and that is something that takes a long time to learn and produce.  The submissions that come through, that are a goer, you know straight away; they come in with confidence, they know what they’re doing, even if they haven’t worked with galleries yet and they’re new graduates, they still have total confidence and a passion about their work. They send in good images because they know that it is worth taking a good image because it’s a good piece.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Often with paintings we’ll get terrible images of the piece – it will be pixelated or they’ll be photographed next to a heavily patterned carpet in someone’s living room….

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It seems an old-fashioned thing to say but when there are typos and spelling mistakes, it sets you on the back foot. When you’re approaching someone for the first time in a gallery, I think it’s very important to be very precise, deliberate and hit the mark in the quality of your photographs and presentation of the work. We don’t have the time when receiving hundreds of submissions to de-pixelate photos or read through paragraphs of art speak. For the best chance, it’s about focusing on editing your work down to the best stuff, investing into quality images, reflecting on the way you’re presenting yourself and your tone of voice.  Top tip: you’re much better sending 3 really strong images than those three being hidden in amongst 15 things – edit, edit, edit, be tight, be professional and get good photographs.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: If someone comes in or sends a good email and is really nice to work with straight away, we think, “yeah I can see us working with you for 6 months and that’ll be pleasurable, easy and we know that we can rely on you”.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: When you depend on people to fill a gallery, you’ve got to be able to communicate with artists and them communicate effectively with you, build a rapport, have confidence in them that they can deliver, be reliable and you can get along with them. That’s what we are trying to gauge from their submission.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Some pieces and collections seem to stay displayed for a while at The Biscuit Factory – how do you decide which pieces stay and form part of the next exhibition and which ones come down?

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It’s intuition. Curator’s intuition. As much as we have stats and are led by those things, a lot of it is also instinct. We also talk to artists and get a feel for how their work has been received elsewhere and how they feel it’s performing here. For some pieces and types of work like sculpture and furniture, it really responds to having longer in the gallery and it can take customers quite a while, to finally commit to buying.

This contrasts quite vividly with paintings which generally sell best at the start and then gradually the sales will reduce. For sculptures and bigger 3D things, it’s quite a long lead-in time and there can be a period where you don’t make any sales at all. So, you just commit to it and have faith that more exposure will ultimately lead to the sale.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: There’s different reasons why paintings or prints might stay up; sometimes it’s because they’ve done well and you think there’s no point taking it down because hopefully it will continue to do well. Other times, like Sam says, sales might not have happened but you think “I just know there’s sales to be had from these” and it’s just a matter of time or the right person coming through the door so they deserve to be up.

It can also depend on where the work has come from, especially if they’ve delivered them from a long way away or the deal with the particular artist. Also, I feel if a particular artists work is on display too long, people become a bit blind to it so we might take down so when it goes back up again it’s fresh and people are pleased to see it back up.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: What’s the weirdest or the most unusual submission to the gallery you’ve had?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: A sculpted portrait in a jam-jar full of their collected toenail clippings; certainly a curious way of doing self-portrait with their own DNA.

The Culture Vulture: With the state of play of the world, have you seen a move towards protesty or political artist submissions?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Not so much, our submissions tend to be very much about self and people.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Yeah, subjects like identity, gender, feminism; I see more work addressing those issues. There’s always been a lot of that with younger people, but I think there is a little more of that now.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – Thinking about another contemporary issue – the environment! Have you changed any of your practices in terms of wrapping up work and things to do with environmental concerns; has that changed how you work?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: We’ve all been a bit more aware of it recently, in fact we tried just recently getting some cardboard bubble wrap, like a sort of textured, cardboard wrapping.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: Not in terms of the way the gallery works but I’m really focusing hard on trying to get ethical jewellers in, because the jewellery industry is a total nightmare; precious metals aren’t always produced ethically. We’ve had an ethical showcase, shining a light on jewellers working with recycled or Fairtrade metal and it’s my big target to get as many jewellers as possible working with that. I’ve been contacting jewellers who don’t currently work with ethical metals and telling them about suppliers, trying to get that moving here as a wider movement.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: When you’re working on an exhibition install – what’s it like? What tasks are involved?

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Well a lot happens on email before the work is here, it can be quite involved, suggesting and selecting what work, covering a range of price points and sizes. Then the work arrives; we have to check it off and catalogue it.

Using experience and intuition, I decide which prints and paintings work well next to each other without competing too much with each other – I spread out colours. styles and sizes so that there’s some balance to what is displayed. You want to be able to see the work as opposed to some heavily laboured curating; an exhibition is about the work, so you don’t want an arrangement that looks very heavily arranged. But you do want people to see particular pieces first, especially if there’s a large piece which you think is going to be a show grabber….The exhibition install is the really fun part of our jobs, we come out of our offices and get hands on.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: The install is a surprisingly small portion of the job though; from the outside, people might imagine that it is predominantly the job. Probably about 20% of our time is spent on actual installation of work, doing displays, thinking about the layout of the gallery, the lighting and the juxtaposition of various things. That’s the fun stuff, that’s what people see and that’s what people might imagine constitutes the job of a curator –  but the job is a lot broader than that and it’s about building relationships, a lot of administration, paperwork, analysis, managing stock, working out VAT codes…..

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I think that’s why we work hard to get good gallery submissions because you do so much work in the background and then it’s such a pleasure when you get really beautiful work in and you can take loads of pleasure in putting it on display.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: It can sometimes feel exciting when something’s arrived, you can forget for a while that it’s not just for you personally. For a short while, it’s like Christmas, unwrapping the “presents” and that is a nice feeling.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: And when putting the work up, you start to get a sense of the possibilities and the gallery that you’re putting the work into is kind of ever changing. A lot of the displays aren’t really planned per se in advance so it’s about thinking on your feet; that’s quite energising sort of thrilling.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – I imagine it being like…..remember the 90s programme Itsa Bitsa, where they had loads of art materials and then they’d go as a collective, pick all the stuff out and then it would all be like chaotic and then they’d create something collectively mint out of the chaos…

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: We have two weeks of full-time install for each quarterly show and we’re just on the gallery floor. There can be trollies of paintings going up and down, things propped against walls, boxes of jewellery, boxes of ceramic, whatever it might be and we try to keep it all clean because we don’t close; we’re open to the public. There is a moment where everything is in some state of flux and change and then somehow, normally with five minutes to go before everyone turns up for the preview, it suddenly all looks rather nice and it’s weird.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: It is weird how often really interesting displays come out of thin air and I would love to say that it was all very planned; may be at some level it is!  But also, twenty new painting deliveries might arrive at once, I might get twenty to thirty ceramic and sculptures and that’s all got to be arranged into the gallery in a coherent way that does the best for all those artists, you don’t necessarily have the fine details of that worked out but you’ve got a few days to curate it and out of that “something” happens! It just comes together in a way which is beautifully surprising and quite satisfying,

We are always too exhausted to really appreciate the exhibition at the end of the install.  The hour before the quarterly preview, we’re always generally still running around, polishing things and doing labels but there is always suddenly a moment of calm when I go “oh that’s come together and it looks pretty… pretty good and I really like how that sits with that.”

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: Pre-lock down – were there any current art trends or futures trends that are impacting and influencing how you select work?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I guess, social media is changing how you select work because you don’t necessarily need to go… I can get a jeweller in from the other side of the country but I don’t need to go see it. Some people are getting really good at promoting their work online I think that’s something that’ll happen more.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: Trends can be very subtle; like the colours of frames people choose or the fact that people change from making rectangular work to square work and all those things are subtly moving around all the time.

The Culture Vulture: I’m all about championing that there are so many routes into creative industries. Can you tell me what you studied and any advice you have for future creatives who would like to embark on a creative career path?

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: I studied jewellery and silversmithing in Edinburgh, so I do have a relevant degree. Then I was self-employed as a jeweller for a long time and then I had a small gallery space on the west coast of Scotland, where I got into the curating side of things!

I did really love doing my degree but if you’re interested in jewellery making, I would totally recommend going and doing an apprenticeship. Art college is great for concept and community but going to work with a traditional jeweller and getting that basis of skills will just set you up.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I have a degree in contemporary photographic practice from Northumbria and then I have an MA in Fine Arts Practice from Northumbria.

Advice for breaking into professional creative industries…… go out and make as many connections as possible, be open to things, attend things and broaden your horizons in any way possible. Advice from an art practice side, I’d say the same really and I think, just get good, in terms of making art!  I think a lot of people aren’t resolute or rigorous enough in getting good and people want… I guess people want to be famous, they want to be in galleries, they want to make money and obviously there’s pressures to be all of those things socially and economically but that can get in the way of building your own voice, which ultimately could be the foundation to your success. Some people want to shortcut that.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: I did a degree at Kent Institute in Canterbury for a year and then I did by BA at Newcastle University. Then I was a bit clueless really, I kind of floundered around for a very long time, reading the Evening Chronicle once a week hoping to find a very high paid arts job with my name on it and not knowing where else to look!

I don’t think my degree particularly did anything much to train me up to know where to find opportunities or to successfully apply for them when I found them; I did apply for various sculpture commissions and things without really knowing how on earth to put together a professional application. I spent some time working various retail jobs and then worked for about 18 months as an art technician in a sixth form college. I moved back here and became a postman, then I got a job here as a gallery assistant. I worked hard and tried to prove myself and when other opportunities came up, I applied and progressed.

In terms of advice, I suppose advice for artists would be slightly different to advice for future curators.  As much as I like my job I didn’t really set out to be a curator so it’s very hard to give advice to set yourself up to be one; I’m sure there are more tailored qualifications that would give you more chance of becoming a curator now.

Advice in terms of being a fine artist; that it’s important to hone in on one aspect of your work, even if you do lots of other kind of work for your own enjoyment. You’ve got to have something which is identifiably you, your signature, something that can be repeated to some degree to apply to galleries and connect to a specific customer base.

I guess, as Mika says, go and get some actual, specific experience, especially if you’ve done a fine art degree as it’s just so broad ranging, wide and potentially a bit wooly. I advise you to go down one route where you can start learning the skills that make you really good at something, rather than just having some ideas and tinkering. It took me a long time to do it; I was doing various part time jobs to free up studio time to make – I’d paint a portrait one week, then get frustrated and think that the new future of me was going to be landscapes and then decide it was printing and then something else… I spent years floundering around like that with nothing much to show for it. It’s only in the last four or five years, especially through working here, that I’ve narrowed everything to one or two things and tried becoming more professional on those. My advice would be to get to that stage, quicker than I did!

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I’d tell them to expect to have to flounder around for a bit. Perhaps now in the age of the internet. 15 years ago, when we graduated, it was a different world or it looked like a different world; it looked less easy to penetrate. Whereas now, I think people have social media and they have their own websites much more quickly;  I think that can lead to people wanting to shortcut it; but the floundering bit is character making, humbling, exposing you to failure and doubt, working out how to fit yourself into the world rather than just steadfastly standing there saying “I’ve graduated, I’ve got a website, world come at me/world fit around me”.

You’ve got to find your way into the world a little and I think it’s that, that is the source of a lot of discontent as some graduates are unprepared for the reality and competitiveness of the world.  You’ve got to expect it and understand that the world is indifferent to you at first, even if you’ve got a website and a first-class degree in Fine Art. The reality is you’re still going to have to work at it really hard; if you’re not prepared and hungry for it, it’s going to be even harder. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced difficulties in trying to find a route into the arts, with our own personal practice or professionally; but I think more than ever people are unprepared for the difficulty and it’s more competitive than ever! So you’ve got to go into an artist career with your eyes open or it can be quite damaging – the world can be quite hostile.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture – I do a lot of work with young people and I’m starting to see less young people choosing to go into creative industries because they are viewed as a whole mass together and that there aren’t the opportunities….if you’re looking to go into a visual arts career, then yes it’s very competitive. But if you want to go into graphic design, app development, animation, outdoor event producing, tech  – well there are LOADS of opportunities….

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I feel like it’s irresponsible to send so many kids off to vague creative degrees and fine art degrees; many are left at the end high and dry when they finish. I had this experience in my final year of my BA, literally a couple of weeks before the end of it, we had a seminar about the outside world and how to write a letter to a gallery and it was like a one hour thing…..

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator: After a four year degree, I did not know how to apply for a commission or how to write an Arts Council grant. It’s unforgivable that you can get through that amount of degree and not know those things.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Some artists have no awareness of the landscape in which they’re meant to be a professional in or they are meant to be qualified and don’t know materials, don’t know the processes, don’t know what opportunities there might be or how you apply for them. It happens all the time.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

The Culture Vulture: It’s the same with outdoor light installation work – many aspiring outdoor sculptors/light installation makers out of University have brilliant conceptual ideas but no knowledge of the technical aspects of what it takes to make a sculpture durable outdoors and the technical aspects to deliver on a light installation….

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  It happens. Soon after graduating, I had this bronze commission for a school in Jarrow, a big bronze snail, I had no idea how to secure it to the ground and in about half an hour, having welded a couple of bowls, I just filled it with as much cement as I could and tried to wedge some holes into the ground. If that hadn’t worked and it actually needed to be on a stone base or welded, then I’d have been stuck. I had just had no idea at all!

The Culture Vulture: And just a final thing, I am really interesting in this “positivity” ethos at the moment on social, manifesting success and an extreme push towards “only do what makes you happy” across our whole lives – on one hand that’s brilliant but I think we’re gradually conditioning some people to forget that life is hard, that to get to where you want to be it is tough and sometimes you have to wade through a whole lot of difficult and challenging stuff…..and that’s normal and ok.

Mika Browning – jewellery curator: It’s really unrealistic.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: Yeah, and also you might not even get there, no matter how hard you work; there’s this idea, this myth, that if you work really hard, you’ll get what you deserve.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  Well we’ve all said this but our generation feels like we were told by our parents’ generation that you can naturally – unlike them, who just got a job and had to work hard at it for fifty years, that you can be anything you want to be as long as you set your mind to it but actually to become a very successful commercial artist is not attainable for most people and even if you’re trying, you’re not necessarily geared up for how much work there is involved. I’m sure there’s a lot of people of our generation, that are very frustrated that the false promise didn’t come off.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: I think people take it on as a personal failing; whereas it is really a structural failing in a broader societal sense and also there aren’t enough opportunities for all the graduates coming out of Art School. And you know, like Sam said about his experience, you don’t really know what path it is that you’re taking and then you look back and you’ve arrived somewhere.

Sam Knowles – 2D Curator:  You just find yourself in unusual places in your life, take what comes your way and carve out your own opportunity.

Sam Waters – 3D Curator: In retrospect, it looks like there was a plan because it led you somewhere that turns out to be decent but actually it’s just a series of coincidences, circumstances, situations and chances; you find your way through it and I think people are perhaps less aware that is the reality of how it is, now more than ever. More people have bigger expectations and are fed this idea of the clear route to something; it’s pretty dubious to set people up like that.

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The Culture Vulture at The Biscuit Factory – photo credit Marion Botella

Wow – what interesting curator chat! You can check out The Biscuit Factor online gallery here to see the artists and art works they have on their books. The Biscuit Factory underpins the livelihood of over 50 staff, supports the careers of thousands of artists and attracts over 100k visitors a year into the local economy. They do not receive public funding, arts council financial support or rely on any grants to carry out work, so for the first time in their 17 year history, they are asking for support and donations. You make a donation or purchase something like a card, or lunch from their café HERE.

That’s all for now Culture Vultures. xx

Artist Jim Edwards & Craig David Pub cat…..

Two weeks ago I attended Ouseburn Open Studios and was a true Culture Vulture– I took myself around all the galleries and called in to lots artist pals and of course chatted to lots of new creative folk and other attendees. I had a blissful conversation with an artist about the 90s and owning a type writer when I eventually own my own house (I want everyone to be able to type a message when they enter/visit).

Ouseburn Open Studios is such a fantastic vibed weekend – I also like to make sure I buy lots from artists and creatives whilst grabbing a drink in many of the lush bars and independents along the way. Hence my purchasing gets more and more along the way…….

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And I always finish (it’s traditional for me now!) in Jim Edwards studio on the Sunday afternoon and promise myself that when I’m grown up, I’m going to buy myself a Gateshead themed Jim Edwards painting. I love Jim Edwards work – it’s colourful, enthused talent and I always view it with a huge smile on my face – as every single piece to me, looks and feels like home. He depicts many lush scenes from the North East – some iconic, some comfortingly familiar and some perfectly stylised.

One of my favourite pieces of his – depicts Craig David. I imagine – 50% of you reading this, know exactly what I’m talking about and the others, probably think I’m talking about actual Craig David (even typing that makes me call out “can I get rewindddd!”). Craig David was a lovely pub cat – he was a regular lurker at the Free Trade Bar and his spot was on top of the Jukebox. He’d often swagger in and make himself at home or you’d go in for a bev and he’d be in his spot snoozing or watching the world go by……

(732) The Free Trade

Craig David died this year and of course, there was an outpouring on social media. And when he died, I suddenly thought of Jim’s painting – which depicts a quiet Free Trade afternoon with Craig David absolutely in pride of place checking out the view of the Tyne. He’s forever immortalised in that picture. It reminded me why I love Jim’s work so much – real scenes, with real goings on filled with real detail. I love that painting!

So I thought I’d take Ouseburn Weekender as the perfect opportunity to catch up with Jim Edwards – find out more about him, his work and his style.

Hi Jim – right tell me about your journey into the arts?

I’ve always been interested in creating artwork. As a child, it was always the enjoyment of getting lost in a creative practice, and also for the praise that came from making a strong image, and being regarded as good at art.  I had two older brothers who were also good at art, and so the competitive nature between siblings challenged me to become better.

I concentrated on art throughout school, art foundation and a degree in illustration. After I graduated, I wasn’t sure how to continue a career in the arts.  I attempted illustration for a while, but it wasn’t for me.  Whilst working as a picture framer, I started to sell small paintings and drawings at a market on Armstrong Bridge (Jesmond Dene, Newcastle) on Sundays.  I tried out all sorts of work, abstract, surreal, figurative, but the thing that really took off were paintings of Newcastle.  I gave up becoming a picture framer, to give more time painting cityscapes, and I’m still a professional artist 18 years later.

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Tell me about your practice and your strong recognisable style?

I mostly paint contemporary cityscapes and landscapes, centred on the North East.

The style has slowly evolved over time. When I started, it was quite naïve in style.  I worked a lot with biro, with washes of acrylic paint.  I then used hairspray to bleed the biro colour through the paint.  It was an interesting affect I stumbled across by accident, but I stopped this method because it wasn’t good for my health.

For a while my style even went a little bit abstract, but the cityscapes started to become too unrecognisable; I like to play with colour and over exaggerate the light in my nightscapes, I have to build up several  layers of paint to get the desired tonal effect, making the city glow.  A slow process, but rewarding.

My work is strongly rooted in memory, how we remember a place, rather than a straightforward representation. I like to reimagine the cityscape, even if certain elements are forgotten or altered.

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What’s it like being on the Ouseburn creative scene at the moment? Your studio is beautiful!

I’ve been working in the Ouseburn for most of my career, hopping from one studio to the next. One of the earliest was at the Biscuit factory, followed by the Mushroom Works.  Then after a brief 8 month stint in Northumberland, I came back to 36 Lime Street, before taking on my own place at 59 Lime Street.

I couldn’t imagine having a studio outside of the Ouseburn, it feels like my creative home. It’s quietly paced, and feels like an escape from the city, even though it’s quite industrial.  Renowned as the cultural hub of Newcastle, it’s crucial to be here for the numerous open studios events that take place throughout the year.  This is where all the creative venues join forces and open their studio doors to the public.  Whether it’s the Ouseburn Open Studios or The Late Shows, both are valuable to my work.

It’s quite a lonely profession being an artist, which I don’t mind, because I love my own space. But it is beneficial to mix with other like-minded people, to work together of bounce ideas off each other.  So I’m often over at 36 Lime Street having a cup of tea with friends.

(638) Starry Tyne III

How did you go about securing that studio space?

I spotted it was coming up for rent, so jumped at the opportunity to get it. It’s a huge jump in rent, to what I was used to at 36 Lime Street.  But the increase in visitors to my studio, with having on street access, has more than made up for it.  It’s a small, intimate space to work in.  And sometimes I don’t know if the space is a studio or a gallery, so sometimes it struggles to function as both; as long as visitors don’t mind the creative clutter when they pop in.

Any new work or projects you’re working on?

I’m currently working on a few paintings, trying to get them finished before Christmas; including a large canvas of the Ouseburn. I have a huge to do list of paintings, mainly because the ideas come far quicker than I can actually paint them.  And so I’m looking forward to making a start on some paintings of Cullercoats and the Lake District in the New Year, before getting round to everything else on the list.

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And what does it feel like – people coming into your studio and looking at your work?

It’s quite a strange one. It’s always amazing selling paintings, really spurs you on to paint more. Especially being able to meet the buyer and talk about your work, which you don’t normally get in a gallery situation.  The rhythm of creating a painting gets thrown, whenever someone comes in.  It’s surprisingly disruptive, and I probably produce a lot less work these days.  But I can’t complain, it’s important for my work, and I want people to pop in.  And if they buy something, even better!

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Next year – it’s the Angel’s 20th Birthday and also Great Exhibition of The North – obviously, your pieces champion the North East and landmarks – do you see an opportunity for yourself next year?

I’ve got an Angel of the North painting on my studio wall, right now. Hopefully the birthday celebration will encourage it to sell.  Who knows what will happen during the Great Exhibition of the North.  I’ll see if I can tie in my paintings somehow.  There may be an Ouseburn Open Studios event during the event.  I look forward to it, and hope it benefits the creative industries in the Ouseburn.

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One of my favourite pieces of yours is The Free Trade depiction with Craig David in it….. as a Free Trade lover and prolific cat cuddler – it always made me smile and I’m super happy his legacy lives on forever in that piece.

I do like The Free Trade painting too, reminds me of the lazy days spent in there, before children, enjoying a pint. And yes, Craig David pubcat lives on in the painting.  I also like the window view, almost giving a painting within a painting.

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You manage to have successfully develop what I’d class as a commercially sustainable practice – do you have any advice for other artists currently trying to?

I think it’s crucial to know how to position yourself, to know if there’s a gap in the market, and can you create something to fill it. When I was a picture framer, I gauged the sort of paintings people were buying, and I thought there was a lack of cityscapes and landscapes in my style of painting.

You’ve also got to be stubbornly determined in your pursuit; have a fire in your belly to see it through, and not be too distracted by what others think or do.

What’s next for Jim in 2018?

Lots more art and getting through that to do list of paintings. Exploring more, and painting places in the North East I haven’t got to yet.  I really want to get round to painting more of Durham and Hadrian’s Wall, when I have a free moment.  Ouseburn Open Studios returns in March, and the Late Shows in May, plus other events through the year.

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Well thank you Jim – lush to catch up with you! Jim’s Studio is located at: 59 Lime Street, Ouseburn, NE1 2PQ and open Tuesday – Friday, 10am – 4.30pm and Saturday, by appointment – it’s certainly a must see for Culture Vultures and check out his work online too via his website – I just love it so much. And if like me you can’t quite afford a big picture painting – there are lots of prints and greetings cards you will be able to afford!

And of course, big love to Craig David pub cat – the cultural scene misses you!

Till next time Culture Vultures!