Show talent

Who are the next generation of expert curators at the UK’s premiere arts and exhibition centres? Who do they admire in the design world, and how do they work with external consultancies? Pamela Buxton finds out

‹Leonie Bell

The Lighthouse, Glasgow

When you’re programme director at The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture and Design, your own use of designers needs to be exemplary. That’s no problem for Leonie Bell, who at just 29 is responsible for an annual programme of 20 shows, plus an active touring schedule. For her, design is ‘fundamental’ to staging and promoting the shows.

‘The roles of curator and architect/designer aren’t that distinct. The designers we use co-curate every show,’ she says. She is also keen to involve them in the evolution of the concept.

Bell did a postgraduate course in decorative arts and design history before working on Glasgow’s Year of Architecture & Design in 1999. She subsequently joined The Lighthouse, becoming programme director earlier this year.

The key to curating, says Bell, is diplomacy, flexibility and involving as many people as possible. She always uses external exhibition designers to ensure harmony between content and presentation and to break away from a dull panels-on-walls approach. She’s worked with Nord and Zoo Architects on installations, and collaborated with Chris Stewart Associates to devise the ingenious display units for the current Art Nouveau show, which incorporate integral travelling cases for easy touring.

On graphics, Bell has worked with Graven Images, Skratch and Graphical House. The latter devised the design for The Scottish Show exhibition, which opened in September as part of 100% Design’s Designersblock exhibition, and comes to the Lighthouse next February. Here, Graphical House was one of 13 Scottish designers exhibiting, with its contribution being the distinctive show design itself.

Bell is keen to bring in new names, such as offbeat Swedish group Defyra, which is designing the Christmas display in the Lighthouse’s Review Gallery, unveiled this week. It promises to create a winter wonderland using its own products on the theme of ‘how to dress a cold platter’. ‘We’re continually looking for new ways of doing things with new people,’ adds Bell. ‹Jens Hoffmann

ICA, London

Expect the unexpected at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where Jens Hoffmann, who joined as director of exhibitions in February, is shaking up the exhibitions programme. ‘I believe that the world is there to be changed and I want to change it,’ he says. He’s keen to find new formats away from tried and tested vehicles such as group or solo shows.

Hoffmann has a background in theatre, but has been producing art exhibitions since 1998. Since moving from Berlin for the ICA job, the Costa Rican has thrown himself into the London art scene, well armed with the curiosity that he regards as a crucial attribute for any curator.

He likes to control the exhibition concept himself, working closely with the artist and installers rather than introducing another layer by using an exhibition designer – ‘It’s for me, as curator, to be the author of the exhibition design,’ he explains.

But Hoffman is keen to use print design and, where appropriate, external designers to help create a distinctive identity for each exhibition. Catalogues for the recent Artists’ Favourites shows took the style of a traditional theatre programme, with ironic use of a florid typeface designed by Christoph Steinegger. For the recent John Bock show, the artist himself designed the A5 catalogue as a notebook of images, doodles and notes.

Hoffmann is working with young London graphics duo Apfel on the identity for the Beck’s Futures show – opening next March – after being impressed by its ‘conceptual and fresh ideas’. Apfel’s concept is a play on beer festivals and includes stripy beer tent imagery as a backdrop to the installation.

Hoffmann, whose contract runs until 2007, is only just getting started in his mission to reinvent art show formats. It’s too early to say if he’ll succeed, but he’s certainly enjoying himself trying. Alessandro Vincentelli

Baltic, Gateshead

Alessandro Vincentelli is one of the newest members of the expanding curatorial team at Baltic, which is joining the Gateshead arts centre this autumn. British with an Italian background, he studied anthropology and history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he developed an interest in how museums curate African art. He went on to study curating at the Royal College of Art, which first opened his eyes to the rewarding role of the curator in realising the ideas of the artist in a way that people will appreciate.

Now established as a curator after stints at the PhotoNorth photographic agency, Arts Council North East and Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, he thrives on direct collaboration with artists, rarely using exhibition designers.

‘You need to allow the artist to curate the space rather than the curator. We’re enablers. The artist needs to shape the feel of the exhibition – the design element is how the designer might work with the artist on the [accompanying] book, for example,’ says Vincentelli.

Here, the important thing is that designers share ‘a sensibility’ with the artist, he says. Vincentelli is currently collaborating with Why Not Associates on a book on photographer Julian Germain ahead of an exhibition in March, and is looking for a suitable designer to collaborate on the forthcoming exhibition with American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Imprint has designed material for the Bob & Roberta Smith ‘anarchic art’ exhibition, which opens this saturday. Baltic has also collaborated with designers on promotional material where, Vincentelli says, you really need a designer’s spark. These include local groups Blue River and Ripe. As well as the Germain and Kienhotz shows, Vincentelli has plenty to keep him busy. Baltic generates two-thirds of its 16- to 18-strong annual exhibition programme, giving him plenty more scope to turn those artists’ ideas into public reality.

Charlotte Cotton

The Photographers’ Gallery, London

‘I adore Graphic Thought Facility. If we could ever afford them, they’d be the first people I’d call,’ says Charlotte Cotton, recently appointed curator of the Photographers’ Gallery in London.

At present, opportunities to work with designers are fairly limited, but this may well change if the ambitious Cotton has her way. Since joining the gallery in June, she’s embarked on a two-year programme to refocus the exhibition space, as well as pushing forward plans for a new location.

She is relishing the challenge after 12 years at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where she began as a volunteer in the print room and ended up curator of photography. Her first task is the new programme, which she hopes will invite more critical discourse and be more targeted in satisfying its dual audience of practitioners, plus a general, passing clientele.

More shows will be slanted to a higher education audience, such as the annual Deutsche Börse photography prize, or will be themed, such as the forthcoming New Colour show on new black and white photography.

‘We aim to be an independent voice and raise the critical issues, whether social or internally in practice,’ she says. Collaborations with exhibition designers are limited at the gallery, where the exhibitor works directly with the gallery manager, but there are more opportunities for print design.

Currently, the gallery works most often with Spin, which is creating graphics for the Deutsche Börse prize and designing a new website for the gallery next year. Any printed material must work with the distinctive graphic identity North created for the gallery, although when the gallery moves this will probably change. There’s also the prospect of commissioning a designer to work on a book next year – ‘We need a really good designer to give it the oomph it deserves,’ Cotton says.

As well as GTF, which she likes for the way the consultancy thinks around a subject, Cotton is keen to work with Paul Elliman, who formerly taught graphic design at Yale and again with ex-Face art director Phil Bicker.

Just months into the job, there’s plenty of time yet for Cotton to work with her favourites. And in the meantime, she’s enjoying a challenging new job that allows her to stay close to her passion for photography. ‘I love the subject, so to spend time working with it is a beautiful thing,’ she says.

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