Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
Hello! I’m Helen, I work at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts as the Assistant Curator. I’ve been here about four years now – the time has flown!
What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?
My job involves researching and caring for the collection of paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects and works on paper at the Barber. I partly work behind the scenes at the gallery, documenting the collection and adding entries about each work to the website, arranging new photography, and moving works of art with the Collections Technician for new displays or to update storage spaces. I also curate new displays and write labels to accompany the works of art, as well as giving talks and tours to the public.
What’s great about your job?
The variety of projects and tasks that my job involves! It allows me to be around, and think about, art all day every day. I love working with the wonderful collection and lots of great colleagues, as well as being in the gallery’s grade 1 listed Art Deco building – it is so inspiring.
What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?
It’s been a challenge working from home during the pandemic. I’ve missed seeing the art in the flesh and having spontaneous conversations with colleagues in the corridors, which can be so helpful for thinking about a project in a different way, coming up with fresh ideas and moving ideas on.
What are the highlights of your career to date?
Before the Barber, a highlight was working at the Ashmolean Museum, curating a touring exhibition of JMW Turner’s early architectural drawings and prints – with the aim of giving context to his painting of Oxford’s High Street, which the Museum had recently acquired.
Other highlights have been writing for art journals and magazines, including Crafts magazine and The British Art Journal. These opportunities allowed me to travel to a variety of exhibitions, meet and interview interesting artists like Peter Randall-Page, and keep thinking critically about exhibitions and museum spaces.
Some of the many things I have loved at the Barber include curating an exhibition introducing the Scottish Colourists with Nicola Kalinsky, the Director, working on a show about artists in St Ives in mid-century Britain, and researching potential new acquisitions. The latter took me to New York City to meet dealers and curators, which was amazing. More recently, it has been addressing, and making more accessible, Black histories in the collection with Becca Randle, a former colleague who is such an inspiration.
What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
I have an MA in the History of Art, and a background in English and Comparative Literature. Before university, I completed an art foundation course, which was such a fantastic year. Alongside my studies, I volunteered at several galleries and museums and completed some paid internships. I also kept a blog, writing about exhibitions, curatorial practices and art-related books.
I have also worked as a Visitor Assistant at a gallery and managed a textile shop that ran practical courses. In 2015 I got my first job as a research curator, and, although it has taken hundreds of applications, I’ve managed to stay within the arts in curatorial roles ever since.
Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?
I’ve had many fixed term contracts in the past, and often the contract has ended just when the exhibition I’ve been working on has opened! However, it has been so exciting and inspiring to work at lots of different galleries and museums, building up a collage of experiences, seeing how different places operate, and meeting lovely people – it’s been good for networking too.
Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?
I think the industry is becoming more interdisciplinary, which is refreshing and allows for different perspectives and ways of doing things. There is also increasing focus on the social responsibilities and wellbeing functions of galleries and museums, and greater concentration on decolonising the collection, museum interpretation and sector practices more widely. It is a self-critical space that is rapidly changing, hopefully to create more inclusive futures.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
I’d say, stick at it! Keep curious and keep persevering as this does pay off. Also, keep reading and writing, as reading obviously helps to improve your own writing. Writing is still one of my greatest loves.
I’d also say, remember who has helped you on your way when you were starting out and how they did this. I’ve had a couple of unofficial mentors, who were so generous with their time. I hope in turn I can end up helping others to achieve their dream jobs too.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?
There is no set path into curating and working in a gallery, so although this can be very challenging it can also be an opportunity to make it your own. Try to get experience at different sorts of places, as this will help you decide what type of gallery/museum you would like to work at. This is also good for networking. Volunteering can be very helpful too, but always move on once you feel you are no longer learning in the role. Definitely try to create your own opportunities, for example by keeping a blog. This can help you get noticed, while also allowing you to keep a record of your experiences and develop your own voice.
For more information about Helen and her work, click here.
For more information about the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, click here.