Liesbeth den Besten
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Hereby we publish the first of a group of interviews to 20 relevant curators and museum directors with the intention to give light and make known the task developed by all of them.
Interview part of the Serie under the title Selecting: Communicating Knowledge
What is the main function of a curator?
In my view it is to tell a story through an exhibition. Of course this is not a linear story with a beginning and a happy end, and maybe I’m only trying to tell the same story over and again, that is: jewellery is more than an ornament, and connects with many aspects of humankind and culture. Making choices that are in line with the concept of the exhibition is a very important task of the curator. Doing this independently, without any social or commercial interests, is a prerequisite for me.
The idea, the story you want to tell, is the base. Being honest in your contacts with the artists you invite is very important, even though you sometimes have to disappoint them. The pieces you select should fit in the exhibition concept, they don’t need to be brand-new. Also older work can be interesting – I’m weary of this constant demand for young, fresh and new.
Curator first came into use as meaning overseer, however in 21st century, a curator is probably best known as a multitasker for an exhibition, what do you consider yourself in this position as a freelancer?
It depends on where you make an exhibition. I have mostly made exhibitions in museums and galleries. Most institutions provide administrative and organizational support, which is really indispensable. Last year we (the Francoise van den Bosch Foundation and me) made an exhibition at the Sieraad fair in Amsterdam. Here we had to make decisions about color of the walls and floor, light, text and display , and we had to do the condition check of every piece according to museum standards, without the help of professionals – it was a nice experience but I prefer to work with a professional and rely on her/his knowledge.
Embrace Exhibition, Sieraad Art Fair, 2015. Photo credits EMB&B Sieraad Art Fair
- The best moments are when you see how the project evolves, how things come together, to see that your ideas and the objects match, also to discover new aspects of objects – things you never noticed before.
What do you like most, what do you dislike about your work?
The initial creative part is the best – trying to envision how the final exhibition will look like (but it will always be different in the end). Inviting artists to ask for their participation and discuss possibilities is the other part of the job I like most. It’s great when an artist comes up with work especially made for your show but in my view I’m not in a position to ask for new work because I cannot pay for it. The best moments are when you see how the project evolves, how things come together, to see that your ideas and the objects match, also to discover new aspects of objects – things you never noticed before. Installing a show is quite a job, where you sometimes have to make compromises – I don’t like that but you have to be practical.
What I really dislike are administrative tasks, excel lists, checking this and checking that….
Regarding to curatorial process, how does an idea usually start for an exhibition? And how do you develop it?
There are many answers: either when cycling and having time to think about issues that keep me busy, when visiting a fine art museum or another art venue and getting inspired, or just – this might sound very boring – behind my desk (I have a folder on my computer full of ideas for articles, exhibitions, projects and another book).
Many times I am invited to make an exhibition, and than the place can be a source of inspiration: recently I made the exhibition Objects of Virtue at Galerie Phoebus in Rotterdam, where I took the spatial reality and the functional use of the drawer as a point of departure.
Sometimes there is a theme, such as the exhibition Below Sea Level, jewellery from the Netherlands at Gallery Format in Oslo (2013). The gallery invited me to make an exhibition about Dutch jewellery, coinciding with the exhibition From The Coolest Corner, Nordic Jewellery at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. Thinking about the question what might be Nordic or Dutch was quite inspirational without finding final answers.
I like to be engaged in bigger projects such as the fashion exhibition Gone with the Wind at the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen (2009) about new fashion inspired by traditional regional Dutch costumes, where I was invited to curate the jewellery room. Here I could commission 6 Dutch jewellery artists to make new work, inspired by regional Dutch jewellery. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about jewellery values, such as memory, social stratification, mourning, love, and rituals, which seem to be forgotten in contemporary jewellery. As a matter of fact I started with a list of catchwords based on my research of regional jewellery, words like: symbol, mourning, re-use, hair, color, land and water, faith, hope, love, and horn of plenty. Most of the invited artists really made astounding new work. At this occasion I could also invite an artist and filmmaker who produced a video that had the new made jewellery pieces as its subject. Models took the jewellery in their hands, or tried it on, and moved slowly, while the camera played with the jewellery focusing in and out. I chose the artists, based on what I knew about their work and interests. I aimed at diversity (in mentality, use of materials and themes, age and gender) – something I always try to keep in mind.
There are so many ingredients that make an exhibition but the first ingredient is urge, the feeling that you want to express, tell something to the audience. That’s where it starts: you want to tell something, and how to do that?
Developing the idea for an exhibition is a process. It starts with one person, the curator, but you are dependent on other people’s input, and the exchange of ideas at the same time. Trying to word your ideas each time again is necessary to make your exhibition concept sharper. Sometimes a proposal from an invited artist can change your idea or it makes you aware that your ideas are not clear enough yet.
- I think it is interesting and wonderful that contemporary jewellery has this capacity to put people off in an almost physical way.
An exhibition, event, meeting... that has impressed you specially?
Yes, certainly: Evelien Bracke’s exhibition The Wilde Things – The so contemporary jewellery collection of Mrs. Wilde, at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium in 2013-14. The way she curated this exhibition in collaboration with a novelist Oscar van den Boogaard and a film maker was exceptional. Van den Boogaard wrote a novel about a certain Mrs. Wilde, an elderly woman with a jewellery collection that holds memories to ex-lovers and other people, and Manon de Boer made a film showing the supposed Mrs. Wilde in front of a mirror taking jewellery from the drawer, playing with it and trying it on.
For me this exhibition presented what jewellery is about, that it is about people, memories, attachments, touch and wear – even contemporary jewellery. The concept of the exhibition was really creative and I appreciated Bracke’s multidisciplinary approach, and the effort to make jewellery part of a bigger story.
How do you feel curating contemporary jewellery?
I love to see contemporary jewellery in other contexts, fashion, fine art, the street, history and tradition. But this is not easy and it’s not always possible. Sometimes you should be satisfied that you can make an exhibition in an obvious place, there’s nothing against that as well.
What do you think is the most interesting thing that you helped to make happen?
That’s a very difficult question. Unfortunately jewellery is such a minor subject in our everyday culture – it has become limited to the world of female, luxury and vanity accessories. I can only hope that an exhibition or text of mine makes people aware of the fact that jewellery is much more than just a decorative accessory. It happens that you hear that you have inspired someone through your writing or an exhibition – that’s great, and I feel honored. In jewellery everything happens on a personal and individual level.
I’m proud that the Francoise van den Bosch Foundation is still blossoming, that we have a wonderful and active board, and interesting award winners, exhibitions, guests (artist in residency), and a still growing collection of contemporary jewellery. I have been part of the 36-year-old foundation for 24 years – first as a board member, later as its chair. I cannot take credit for what the foundation achieved alone, as the board we are a team, but I do think the Francoise van den Bosch Award is something important that we are making happen together.
What has been your most memorable response by a colleague to an artwork shown in an exhibition curated by you?
I was happy with the comment of the director of Gallery Phoebus to Ben Lignel’s work ‘Hello! My name is W.’, which consists of a box with a set of 6 brooches that mimic teeth, and a poster of a rather aggressive man, dressed in army-green and wearing the teeth where soldiers normally wear their decorations. She is totally confused by this work, and finds it really creepy. I think it is interesting and wonderful that contemporary jewellery has this capacity to put people off in an almost physical way. But of course I’m also happy when people fell in love with one piece. The Wunderkammer, which was part of my exhibition Jewellery Unleashed at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem (2011), was one of the most rewarding rooms I ever installed – people really sat down and stayed there for a long time to take in and talk with each other. That was like a present for me.
Jewellery Unleashed Exhibition, Wunderkammer, Arnhem 2011
The curatorial project you could never made up?
Well, if you really want something you have to work very hard. So far it worked out well. But as I told before there are ideas that are still waiting for realization – it’s more a question of time than opposition.
Liesbeth Den Besten is an Amsterdam-based freelance art historian, who works as a writer, teacher, lecturer and curator. She is the author of the book On Jewellery, A Compendium of international contemporary art jewellery (Arnoldsche, 2011).
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