The curator’s curator

Four curators nominate their favourite living expert in the field.  Article in The Guardian, 7 December 2011, by Anna Tims

Lucy Worsley on Ros Savill

Ros Savill, the recently retired director of the Wallace Collection in London, is an old-school but totally admirable example of the scholarly director-curator. She was the Wallace’s first female curator, her arrival prompting discussion about whether she should use the “curatorial” lavatory – or share with the secretaries. Later, as director, she ruled for 19 years over a temple to high culture where her special subject, Sèvres porcelain, took pride of place. Personally, I hate Sèvres, but I like the fact Savill loves it: her values are perhaps more cerebral than those of the modern, family-friendly museum, but worth celebrating.

It’s hard to say exactly what a curator today should be. Many museums have fallen out of love with their curators, thinking them geeky and elitist. Meanwhile, the world at large still cherishes the discipline that curators can apply to amorphous material, while overusing the word in the context of retail or events.

For me, the essence of a good curator is generosity: possessing knowledge, but more importantly being able to share it. Savill is always direct, personal, friendly – it used to be her own voice that welcomed you on the museum’s telephone system – and I know I’m not the only aspiring young curator to whom she gave much-needed encouragement.

Finally, the art critic Brian Sewell doesn’t like her. Need I say more?

Lucy Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces.

Xa Sturgis on Lorne Campbell

There is no better person to look at a painting with. Lorne Campbell’s concentrated eye is combined with great knowledge, irreverent wit and undimmed wonder. Galleries should, and do, expend much of their energy looking for new ways to excite and inspire people. But without a depth of knowledge and an understanding of the works in their collections, they will fail. Campbell is one of an ever-rarer breed of curators who can provide this knowledge, in the ever-rarer role of research curator, at the National Gallery in London.

He has many virtues I know I will never be able to emulate, not least his forensic rigour and inexhaustible patience with documentary evidence. The son of a portrait painter, he takes as much pleasure in the practical constraints and ingenuity of the artist revealed in a work, as he does in the arcana of iconography. His scholarship, revealed in his exemplary catalogues of the National’s Netherlandish paintings, are almost the definition of painstaking – yet the opposite of dry. No other curator has helped me see and think more.

Xa Sturgis is director of the Holburne museum, Bath.

Hans Ulrich Obrist on Kasper König

König is a cultural impresario, an exemplary exhibition-maker. As an independent curator, he carries museums inside his head and yet, as director of Cologne’s Ludwig Museum, he’s able to work within the constraints of an institution. He uses the past as a toolbox to construct the future; he has artists-in-residence at the museum to create a dialogue between generations.

He pioneered the concept of public art, erecting a series of installations and artworks all over the city of Munster every 10 years: it’s one of the most influential public art projects ever. His ideas helped me realise that art can appear where you least expect it, and he taught me how to work with space, to see that art and architecture are intertwined.

New generations of great artists have emerged from his landmark exhibitions. When he was dean of the Städelschule in Frankfurt, he invented a space next door called Portikus. It was little more than a container, but he created magic in it, inviting different artists to reinterpret the surroundings. A vital lesson he taught me was that it’s not the job of curators to impose their own signature, but to be mediators between artist and public. Most of his exhibitions arise from conversations with artists; they’re not imposed from above. If we curators do our work well, we disappear behind it.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London.

David Fleming on Neil Cossons

Cossons has demonstrated that senior museum people need not be art historians. He has proved – through his work at Ironbridge Gorge Museum, the National Maritime Museum (NMM), the National Museum of Science and Industry and English Heritage – that history and museums are not all about educated elites indulging themselves at the expense of everyone else.

He has always been generous with his time with younger members of the profession, and is aware that, as a senior director, he ought to set an example. I first encountered him in the 1980s, when he was director at NMM. The museum had possession of the iron-age Hasholme Boat that had recently been discovered in east Yorkshire. At the time, it was commonly assumed that only national museums had the expertise necessary to care properly for nationally important exhibits; but a team of us at Hull Museums thought it ought to be in our custody. In a typical move, and with little fuss, Cossons arranged for the Hasholme Boat to be sent back north.

David Fleming is director of National Museums Liverpool.

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