agenda by Rachel Steven

Tate Modern's Senior Curator on brainstorming exhibitions and finding new talents.

reading time 6 minutes

Catherine Wood has what most art lovers would consider a dream job. As senior curator of International Art at Tate Modern, she is responsible for discovering brilliant new artists, planning blockbuster exhibitions and sourcing new artworks for the Tate’s collection. Wood joined Tate Modern in 2003 and has helped make performance art a key focus at the museum. Last year, she worked with a diverse group of creatives to put on “10 days, 6 nights” – a live art program that saw the Tate transformed with Kizomba dancing, musical performances, video projections and an eerie outdoor fog sculpture. She also curated a major retrospective on the American artist Robert Rauschenberg – one that received glowing praise from critics. Here, she explains what it’s like to work at one of the world’s most celebrated cultural institutions.

How did you come to work in contemporary art?
I studied art history at Cambridge and at UCL and my first job was at the British Museum. I realized that there was this thing called being a curator, which was not being an academic but learning and researching through objects, and I loved the practicality of that. While I was pursuing my MA in Modernism, I had a job working with Maureen Paley at Interim Art Gallery in the East End and there was this amazing energy there. She was showing Wolfgang Tillmans and Gillian Wearing [among other artists], and I came to realize that it was contemporary art that I was interested in. I worked at the Barbican art galleries before. I found my way also through writing. I used to write reviews for art magazines and things as a way of processing and thinking about it.  

What are you looking for when you’re selecting artists or artworks to feature at Tate Modern?
I guess as a curator, you’re looking to be surprised in some way, to go somewhere new through the eyes of an artist. If an artist opens your eyes and mind to something that you hadn’t thought about or engaged with. There are formal questions about how the work is designed and what it looks like but it’s often to do with originality and uniqueness, and the position that artist is coming from, how it would add to the language of art that we know already, and, in Tate’s case, how it might sit within our collection – how you might display a new work in relation to the works we already have and how that might tell a certain story.

How do you decide which exhibitions to put on and which artists to feature each year?
It’s really a process of discussion between the curators. All of us have our own perspective, our own specialisms. Looking at art exhibitions, degree shows, doing studio visits with artists, we’re always trying to think, ‘Who are the most interesting young artists? Who are the historical figures who’ve been missed? And what would be the work that could represent them at Tate?’
For the exhibition program, we really try to balance between the familiar and the blockbuster, so the David Hockney-level show, the Rauschenberg show. Then we bring in artists in who are not so familiar, hoping that audiences will trust Tate – knowing that we do show those familiar, fantastic, big figures of art – to bring in alternative stories as well, which, as an international museum, we really have a remit to do.

Exhibitions are the result of months, often years, of hard work. Could you tell us a little about the process that leads up to that? What do you have to think about, as a curator, when you’re planning an exhibition?
There are three main strands of things that we would consider and they’re working in tandem with each other. There’s the practical fitting of works into the floor plan, so the passage that the visitor will take, and we are of course limited by the architecture of the space. Then there’s how to tell a story, [and] what to bring to that story that’s going to give our visitors a sense of how an artist’s body of work unfolds over say, 60 years, and then, how to make the work feel contemporary and relevant. We’re always showing these historical figures because of their relevance to the next generation – because they still feel like they have something to say to young artists and young visitors.

How did you approach curating the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition?
Our creative process began with a floor plan – actually, with a kind of fantasy list in mind and with pictures of those works, the key works from the 1950s right up to the 2010 era. The work begins with trying to plot that room by room and that is really tough, because you’ve got 60 years of an artist’s body of work – an artist like Rauschenberg who is incredibly prolific, made loads of amazing work, often quite big – and we’ve got this little floor plan that we’re working on, trying to think, ‘how can we edit everything he did in the 1950s, everything he did in the 1960s, to just be say, four or five works per room?’

It’s very practical in the beginning and then it goes into investigating loans and seeing if we can get the ones we want, and then much more detailed planning, working with our installation team on measuring the spaces very very carefully, taking into account all these boring things at Tate like where the barrier will be, where the plinth would be and where the labels will go – really, this practical jigsaw – in tandem with an idea of how we tell the story in a fresh way, you know, ‘what’s the angle that we can bring to a really big figure like that?’ We chose to try and weave through this story of performance and dance that Rauschenberg engaged with, that ran through as a kind of new story and new angle on this big figure.

What are the challenges of curating live event like 10 days 6 nights – events that are based around visitor participation – compared to a traditional exhibition?
Organizing a live exhibition is completely and utterly different from organizing a normal exhibition upstairs in the galleries. It’s not just the method of planning and the fact that you don’t usually need loans and things, it’s primarily about experience and visitors and people and liveness, not about arranging objects in space, even though there’s a part of that…. It’s a different process, it’s more intense, and also when it opens it’s not over. When a live exhibition opens, that’s when the real intensity unfolds.

What was the process like for 10 days, 6 nights? Isabel Lewis, for example, put on a series of immersive events that included music, sculptures, Angolan kizomba dancing, food and film. How did she go about putting this together? And how did her art interact with the space?
Isabel Lewis was very interested in Tate’s openness and permeability, because it’s one of the few museums in the world where you can just wander in from the street…. She wanted to know about visitor figures and flow, and she thought about the kind of human architecture and the building architecture, and she devised a plant installation and a beautiful sculpture in the East tank, with these wires with air plants hanging from them, that served as a backdrop for the dance that she choreographed in there.

She had ten or so dancers in the space permanently, who did this very low key sort of ambient form of choreography that was continuous and unfolding in the space. We worked with her to figure out how that would work in relation to the sculptures and also in relation to other events. She did these great things of working with her dancers to help the visitor flow, so instead of the choreography being one thing that happened and Tate visitor services sort of chaperoning people around. Se tried to think, ‘how could the dancers wind down and direct people’s attention when it’s time to leave? Or how could they, when a film comes on in an adjacent space all sit and watch it to direct the viewers? She inserted this choreography that was not just something to watch but related to how people behaved in the space, and that was very fascinating and appealing for people.

What artist or artwork has had the most profound effect on you in your life? Is there anyone who has been a particular source of inspiration?
An American artist called Yvonne Rainer, who was a choreographer working in the 1960s at the Judson Dance Theatre in Washington Square [Rainer was a founding member of Judson Dance Theatre – a collective of experimental performance artists working in New York].

She used dance to make these incredible performances that were all about democratic participation… It was very much in dialogue with the aesthetic of minimalism, so artists like Robert Morris were also involved and Carl Andre, but I loved the fact that her idea of making art was to do with taking those kind of minimal objects, and using them as props to do with relations between people. There was a real community there and a community spirit. I never saw that stuff at the time, because it happened in the sixties – I’ve seen it since – but the photos of that work and the choreography really inspired me. I wrote a book on her, and I curated an exhibition on her at Raven Row, and she’s somebody who’s really informed my thinking.

Photo credit: Nick Ballon.
Video credit: Accept & Proceed. 

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