A Curator’s Role: My Review Of Chelsea College Of Arts’ Short Course In Dubai

Have you ever walked into a museum, found an installation of what looked like 12 ragged sticks of plywood lying seeming haphazardly on the concrete floor, and wondered:

A) Is this even art?
B) Did the curator actually get paid to stack firewood?

I bet you thought smugly to yourself: I could have curated this.

Once upon a time I was smug too. Then I started my blog and began to spend a lot of time in galleries and museums. I realized that there is a ton of behind the scenes expertise that goes into curating an exhibition—everything from the work’s conception to the logistics of shipping it internationally, to the written materials that accompany the art, and even the lighting and hanging choices are decisions that must be made by the curator.

I wanted to learn more about curating to add another dimension to my writing. Educational institutions in the UAE are still catching up to Dubai’s booming art market and there aren’t academic programs yet on the topic. That’s why I was delighted to enroll in a 3-day short course on curating with the prestigious Chelsea College of Arts, which is part of the University of the Arts London and has recently set up a series of pop up classes and workshops in Dubai.

Examining Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata's silkscreens on paper circa 1980's at Meem Gallery with a curatorial eye.

Examining Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata’s silkscreens on paper circa 1980’s at Meem Gallery with a curatorial eye.

The invaluable three-day course was held at Meem Gallery in Al Quoz, which with its warm staff and deliciously outfitted stockroom of modern Arab art was the ideal venue (other than the logistical challenge of being far from a metro station or taxi stand). The course was conducted like an academic seminar, with all the students sitting around a long white table drinking tea, eating dates, and learning up a storm. Our instructors, Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot are young but have already curated a project called Run and are fixtures in London’s art scene at Lisson Gallery.

While quite knowledgeable, they managed to create an environment that welcomed all questions from stupid to epic (mine tended towards stupid but I wasn’t there to impress anyone. I just wanted to absorb as much information as possible!). They delivered daily lectures and I furiously took notes until my hand was covered in blue ink, a sloppy side effect of being a leftie.

Lynton and Hana reading up on Khaled Hafez at Meem Gallery

Lynton and Hana reading up on Khaled Hafez at Meem Gallery

Most of the case studies presented were London-centric and it was clear that Hana and Lynton’s taste in art leaned far towards the conceptual and abstract. I found this refreshing because I’m so Middle East focused in my knowledge of the art world, but next time they might also include examples from other markets just for the sake of being well-rounded. We also made practical on-site visits to Alserkal Avenue, Barjeel Art Foundation, and Sharjah Art Foundation for Q&A sessions with gallerists and curators.

In summary, I learned that the role of the curator is to develop a thesis and make an argument. The best way for me to explain what this means on a practical level is to show you the visual evidence of an exercise we conducted on the last afternoon of class. Meem took modern and contemporary works from the stock room and let the students touch them and curate a mock exhibition (Yes! I got to touch a real Dia Azzawi. Swoon! #Artcrush).

We were divided into two groups and given a strict time limit. Here’s what happened next:

First we selected a blank wall on which to install the show. We decided that it would be a group exhibition and the theme would revolve around the human search for truth. We boldly decided to mix modern and contemporary art.

First we selected a blank wall on which to install the show. We decided that it would be a group exhibition and the theme would revolve around the human search for truth. We boldly decided to mix modern and contemporary art.

Next we added a Dia Azzawi obelisk into the exhibition. At this point the minimalist in me grew concerned that the space was getting too busy and we might be better off simply showcasing two artists.

Next we added a Dia Azzawi obelisk into the exhibition. At this point the minimalist in me grew concerned that the space was getting too busy and we might be better off simply showcasing two artists.

A constructive debate ensued with my fellow curators, which simulated what it would be like to work in a museum or gallery as part of a team. I swear there wasn't a memo about having to wear black to the short course!

A constructive debate ensued with my fellow curators, which simulated what it would be like to work in a museum or gallery as part of a team. I swear there wasn’t a memo about having to wear black to the short course!

The other group had an entirely different vision. They decided to curate a group exhibition that would celebrate the cultural relevance of the Lebanese singer Fairuz. Because people listen to Fairuz as they get ready in the morning, their exhibition would only be open from 7-9am.

The other group had an entirely different vision. They decided to curate a group exhibition that would celebrate the cultural relevance of the Lebanese singer Fairuz. Because people listen to Fairuz as they get ready in the morning, their exhibition would only be open from 7-9am.

My fellow curators decided to play Fairuz inside their exhibition. Here is a poetic translation of one of her songs. I love how each group of student curators took their show in such different directions.

My fellow curators decided to play Fairuz inside their exhibition. Here is a poetic translation of one of her songs. I love how each group of student curators took their show in such different directions.

Good Ideas: Chelsea College of Art and Design Short Courses will be bringing the next curating course to Dubai in September. I highly recommend that you sign up if the topic is of interest. Learn more here.

Image Credits: Danna Writes