How I #MadeIt: Catherine Wood

The art world is an intimidating place and the idea of a curator even more so. Someone who has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of their field, an ability to schmooze their way seamlessly through art parties and the creative vision and patience to pull off a show that can be years in the making. Tate curator Catherine Wood meets all of these criteria, and yet, when you talk to her about her work, she makes the industry sound accessible.

Having worked on curatorial teams at the British Museum and the Barbican before moving over to Tate in 2002, Catherine reassuringly says she picked up experience and direction gradually, without always having a sense of where she would end up. Today, however, she has a focussed interest in performance, having been responsible for Tate’s live programme for almost a decade, and having curated the major group show A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, at Tate Modern in 2012, which featured the works of Jackson Pollock, David Hockney and Cindy Sherman.

This makes Catherine the perfect person to speak to about how to rise through the ranks at some of Britain’s major galleries. So, to find out more about her various roles, and whether she prefers the more glamorous side of the job – jet-setting to international art fairs and private views – or the behind-the-scenes hard graft like research and catalogue writing, we popped by her latest curatorial achievement, a major Tate retrospective of the work of American master Robert Rauschenberg.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Hi Catherine. So, to start with, for anyone who is not sure what being a curator involves day-to-day, can you tell us what you do?

So my job title is very long-winded! It’s Senior Curator of International Art (and Performance). Day-to-day, that involves organising shows, meeting artists, reading and research, attending planning meetings at Tate and working out how we’re going to market exhibitions. I have to travel to international shows and festivals to see work, and I also sit on Tate’s acquisitions committee, so that’s seeing work Tate might acquire for the collection and writing strategies for what we’re trying to represent in the long run. Recently I’ve been preparing the Rauschenberg show – so hanging and installing the work! I work on a major exhibition for two to three years, and the rest of the time I work on the Tate’s live programme.

Was working in art something you always wanted to do? Did you grow up around art?

I wasn’t brought up with art, no. My dad was an astronomer and my mother a librarian. I grew up in Bexhill-on-Sea and I didn’t go to galleries or know any artists, but I did spend a lot of time drawing so I suppose the interest developed that way. I remember going to Tate Britain for the first time when I was 14 and coming back to Bexhill and showing off about seeing Turner paintings. Because I was academic, I was always discouraged from studying art but I did it for A level nonetheless and then studied art foundation for a year in Hastings. After that I went to Cambridge. You couldn’t do art history as a whole degree there then (I think it was 1992), but I did English for two years with one year of art history.

Was there an assumption then that if you studied art, you wouldn't get a job? Do you think that assumption persists?

Definitely at the time, at least according to my parents and teachers. I guess none of us knew people who made a living from being an artist. But now I think art has a different status; people are seen in the media to have careers as artists. Some of my friends who are artists teach art and think there’s a younger generation that almost expects a career, whereas they feel they did it against all hope, more romantically. So there’s that double-edged sword. I think two stereotypes persist; the poor Van Gogh figure or the more cynical Damien Hirst model.

The reality is that there are other ways of making money as an artist. Teaching has always been something artists do and can do – Suzanne Lacy or Mike Kelley did that – and it’s particularly popular in America because it allows you to get healthcare. Some artists do creative corporate workshops to make money and free themselves up the rest of the time, or commissions that might offset what they actually want to do. A lot of artists work as art handlers, installing work in museums and galleries, or making for other artists, which is almost an apprenticeship. People like Wolfgang Tillmans have had amazing young artists working in the studio for them, who then go on to do their own thing.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
What about you? Talk us through your own path into the art world.

After Cambridge, I took some time out travelling, then I came back and got an internship at the British Museum in the publishing department. After a while, I moved into the curatorial department with a job in Medieval and Later Antiquities, where I realised I loved the combination of practically handling objects and learning about them. I didn’t curate anything per se, but I was assisting someone who did. After nine months I decided I wanted to do an MA at UCL in Modernism. It was a weird turning point from my interest in Medieval; I went to a couple of seminars and realised how old-fashioned Cambridge had been, and that I was perhaps more interested in contemporary art, the performative and installation-based work.

I had to make money while I did my MA, so I got a job with Maureen Paley. A pioneer of London’s East End gallery scene, she had set up a gallery called Interim Art, which she had run out of her house since the late '80s, showing artists like Wolfgang Tillmans and Gillian Wearing. She hired me because she liked my coat and the fact I’d been to Cambridge! She’s a very eccentric woman. I had this job opening her door and going with her to art fairs where I met all her artists. She also had an extraordinary collection of books and magazines that I would read.

It was the MA and working with her that led me to apply to be an Exhibitions Organiser at the Barbican in 1998, organising loans, insurance and putting checklists together when the gallery was producing shows. Working at the Barbican, I was becoming more and more interested in trying to initiate work between departments, which happens now but didn’t at the time because everyone had their own budget and agenda. When I interviewed for a job in programming live performance at Tate in 2002, I focussed on why this was important.

How did you use your time at the Barbican to elevate your career from a junior role to a place where you were able to take on a more senior position?

Firstly, I was very lucky to work with a woman called Jane Allison who let me have more curatorial input than she could have done, specifically on an exhibition called Jam: Tokyo-London, which looked at artists working in the two cities at that moment. But really, I think I got my break when I made an exhibition proposal of my own, for a show of artists I was interested in whose work looked at nightlife. The show was called Electric Dreams and it was riffing off the idea of how to bring a club into a gallery space. It was on just before I left the Barbican in 2001. They gave me a very small budget, but let me take a chance on it because they liked the idea.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Was coming up with your own show expected of you? Or did you have to stick your neck out?

It wasn’t really expected of me. I did small artist commissions in the foyer, things like that, but I had this burning desire to do Electric Dreams, partly inspired by the work of the artist Mark Leckey, who made a video called Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. I set up an exploratory meeting with the Head of Exhibitions and came at it in an advice way: ‘Hypothetically, how would I do this?’ She said I should develop it to present to the curatorial team, and it wasn’t like I was coming in with 500 ideas a week so they were quite receptive.

In my experience – and this is how Frances Morris, the new Head of the Tate is, too – no one will complain if you come up with a good idea, no matter what your job title is. I’m always keen to hear ideas at Tate. It doesn’t mean they can always happen because there are so many criteria and things for management to consider, but if you wait to be asked, it can be a dangerous position to take because everyone is always so busy. If you’ve got something you want to do based on a strength you have, do try to present it somehow.

It sounds like you’ve had a lot of mentorship from other women in your career. Is that something you try to pass on?

Maureen was a really good mentor. I went back to her for advice later on and she always said ‘Keep running in your own lane’, which meant ‘Don’t look around and see what other people are doing because it’s about not comparing yourself’. I do try to help other people! I hope I’m not failing too badly. I really try to encourage assistant curators at Tate to do things outside of the institution. At least to write, or maybe curate a smaller show independently. Writing for magazines can really help to develop your profile, your name and your inner voice. It means you’re not just seeing shows and being informed but grappling with what they mean to you.

Do you write yourself?

Yes! I don’t do reviews now because I don’t have time but I write catalogue essays and other articles. I’ve written for magazines like Art Forum and Frieze, and then I’ve also been writing a book on performance and contemporary art for the Tate. It’s the first solo book I’ve done but I worked on another about the American choreographer Yvonne Rainer just after I started at Tate, around 2004. It helped me to articulate ideas and develop direction.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Would you say it’s important to have a field of specialism as a curator?

Yes, but mine developed naturally over time. My whole career trajectory has just been about following my nose. The fact I had to work during my MA to have money turned out to be a really good thing because it opened up a world of contemporary art for me. And I was nervous about taking the job at Tate but found confidence in seeing artists’ work that I felt needed to be seen; in my first year I showed the work of Mark Leckey and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. I was just trying to bring a younger generation of artists in.

How do you personally balance having a family with doing such a busy job?

Since I had my children I went down to working four or four-and-a-half days a week. I just try to be present when I’m with my kids and present when at work. I do sometimes feel very overwhelmed, to be honest. And email does not help – the handheld mobile phone is a curse because it peppers your day with gazing at emails as they come in. I try to do emails in a block but it’s hard. On Fridays I work at home so I can pick the kids up from school and I try to carve that day for reading and writing.

What’s the part of the job that makes it all worth it?

It’s really the moment before a show opens. The process of installing a show is a real pleasure. You spend two weeks in the gallery with the work unpacking it all quietly, and hanging it. It’s really a revelation seeing it all come together. The moment of exposure to the public, the private view situation, is always quite torturous for me. It’s fun that the art world is so social but you feel the real relationship with the work privately. I feel the same with performances – I love the rehearsal process and working with artists, but when it actually happens I’m very on edge. I do enjoy the criticism or praise you get after, though.

And finally, what would you say to anyone who thought the art world was a walled garden, or an intimidating place?

I agree that it can seem like that, but that’s just not the case. The art world is not one thing. There are many worlds within the art world. There are networks of like-minded people; dealers, curators, artists. It’s not closed if you have the interest and desire to be curious and participate. It’s just about finding your own path, which might be putting on a small show yourself in an artist-run space, doing an internship somewhere, or writing about art. Remember that might not be your final path either – I worked in a commercial gallery when I started and it’s not where I ended up.

I’d also point out that you don’t have to be totally social either. I used to work with someone who would go up to everyone and introduce herself but you don’t have to do that, you can connect with people in your own way. For me it was writing that gave me a way to find my own voice and get my name out. Like I say, there are many ways in and many ways of doing things; the art world is definitely not a walled industry.

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