Depending on whether you are organising a concert/gig or exhibition the idea of ‘curating’ can differ immensely. The word often implies a position of authority in selecting artists and contextualising work in theory and in presentation. However, curating can also be collaborative in thinking about ways to bring different people and elements together to create a project. Consider research and getting advice from experts in your network to help develop your project; explore different venues and platforms for presenting work.

If you are thematically curating an exhibition or a series of performances you need to consider the best way to communicate your curatorial framework to your audience. Can you express this confidently in writing? Then you should write some form of introduction for your audience. If you are more happy commissioning someone else to write this introductory statement then this is fine. The main thing is that the audience have a chance to understand why you have selected the work and why it is important and interesting. It is easy to take for granted a knowledge of the background to your work on the part of the audience, particularly if you have been immersed in researching it for some time.

Here is a list of a few things you can consider when curating an event or exhibition: (This is by no means a definitive guide, but some suggestions to help you think about aspects of developing your project.)

When curating a project, think about:

  • The artists/composers – who, how many and why
  • The links and relationship between the artists' work
  • The placement of the work or artists within the space
  • The flow of time and duration of the performances or length of the exhibition (dates for the private views, talks/workshops and closing events, opening hours etc.)
  • How audiences will move within the space and expected behaviour of visitors, where they will be placed during a performance
  • Lighting, atmosphere, general decor
  • Placement of technical equipment (hidden and away from potential damage by audience)
  • The overall theme or concept of the event/exhibition, curatorial statement
  • Drinks and beverages for audiences (if any)

For more information on curating and artist–curator relationships, check the A-N Knowledge Bank: for articles on curatorial practice

Also see Tom Cullen's Technical Guide for Exhibiting New Media Art, available from CRUMB under the Practical Resources.

Words of Advice

In curating, you need to think about the programming repertoire, the length of concert, the length of interval (whether or not to have an interval), whether or not to design an hour-long concert or a longer one etc. You don’t want to overshadow the commissioned piece. I like to feature at least one other piece by another Scottish composer. Also, you could either use the concert hall or the chapel. There is a default setting in the concert hall, but you can play around with seating (eg. to create a semi-circle or a more traditional block).

– Jane Stanley, Composer

Don't feel you have to do all the curating yourself. It's a loaded word because it implies something from the art context of some modernist superhuman figure who just knows everything, and who is able to bring a whole programme together, but in reality, it rarely is that way. It’s always about research. So make sure you’re using your network and thinking about people who know stuff, and test out ideas beforehand. The larger the event the more important that is. Get other peoples’ input and seek expert opinion; it doesn’t diminish your role. It doesn’t have to be a closed shop.

– Richard Whitelaw, Sound and Music

Case Study

Janek Schaefer: Developing an installation and getting commissions

[Also see: Making a Living, ‘Commissions’ section]

‘Extended Play’ by Janek Schaefer

I used to send out cassettes to people to different festivals around the world. I saw that Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was a good solid, high-brow festival that may have a bit of money. So I sent them a cassette, nothing happened. One year, the director retired and Tom Service (who’s a friend) came in as a guest curator and picked up the cassette. He phoned me up and asked if I would like to do a site-specific concert? Of course I said yes. It became my favourite concert and the best-attended event of that two-week festival.

After that, I thought, 'Right, I’m going to follow that up.' Follow your successes up. I read that Graham Mackenzie was going to be the new festival director on the website. I guessed his email address by following the format of all the others. I said, “I did well this year, would you like something for next year or the year after and maybe a collaboration.” Three months later, I got a phonecall: 'Hello Janek, Graham here. We’re trying to do a more arty exhibition-based work, would you like to do an installation for next year?” Aw short time and a train journey later, we sat down together and he explained: “Yes, it’s a substantial commission… £10,000.” Great! For my commissions, I take half for fees, and half for production. It’s what I try and do at that level.

I presented to him a coombination of things that I heard just before the meeting: something I heard on Radio 4, something I spotted online and an opportunity. I work with vinyl and record players a lot and I found these amazing '60s reproduction record players. In America, they are remaking these old wooden repeat-play acoustically amplified record players. Very cheap, £100 each and I thought I could do something with these one day, and they could all be multiples. Now I had the kind of budget I can use to buy these.

A week ago on Radio 4, I had heard a piece about how during the war BBC World Service broadcast from London to Warsaw after the piece of music that was received by the Polish underground, and they knew what the piece of music meant. It was a Polish folk tune and they had a system where that song meant bad things and another meant good things. I’m half Polish and my daughter had just been born. She lived in an incredibly peaceful, affluent time; in a secure, safe, peaceful society in England, which is the opposite of my mother who was born in the 1942 in the centre of Warsaw and in the centre of World War II and I thought about how different the two are.

It became a theme and it became a technology I could use. It became a piece; instead of being a memorial for the dead it was a triptych for the children who have survived war and conflict. It had a deep meaning through my family, through the world, through the extended play of albums of the playfulness of children. I built it, installed it and it has been a piece that has made my career and CV tickety boo. It won the two biggest awards I know of in England for my kind of work.”

Janek Schaefer

Janek Schaefer is a London-based sound artist, musician, and composer born in England to Polish and Canadian parents in 1970. He studied architecture at the Royal College of Art and the Manchester Metropolitan University. He is known for his innovative work with sound and installation art. In 2008, he won The British Composer of the Year Award for Sonic Art & The Paul Hamlyn Award for Composers Prize.

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