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In conversation with MATTHEW HARGRAVES

Editor-in-chief Varia Serova had a conversation with Matthew Hargraves, Chief Curator of the Collections at The Yale Center for British Art, art educator and connoisseur. They talked about his daily duties, museum life, his perceptions on the current art world, and some of Yale Center for British Art interesting new projects.


Q: Thank you for finding time to have a conversation despite the busy schedule, Matthew. Traditionally, in a museum setting in Britain the curator is also a keeper, is it true for your institution? What are your main duties as a curator at the Yale Center for British Art?

A: We have two registrars who are responsible for tracking the objects and knowing where everything is, e.g. the objects going in and out on loan. The exact definition of what a curator is in an endless kind of flux. My understanding of it is that it is someone primarily responsible for objects in the collection, where the first responsibility is knowing what’s in the collection, what condition those objects are in, to know the history of those objects - these are prime responsibilities, and everything else is secondary.

Nowadays, a term «curator» is used very broadly, everyone is a curator of everything; and there is also a tendency to reduce curatorial work to purely exhibition activity, which is not necessarily correct. My sense and understanding of it is that it is predominantly the keeping of a group of objects, deployed in various ways, managing installations of collections in the galleries (sometimes called permanent «hangs»), but also exhibitions, temporary displays and so on. Here at the Center it is still true that the curators are responsible for managing collections in that sense, as well as being responsible for doing exhibitions, but that type of management doesn’t mean that they have to pack everything up to ship it out, or treat objects, as there are other departments taking care of that, so there is some shared responsibility. But there is still a collection which they oversee and administer, as well as deal with other functions.

Q: During our pre-recording, you’ve also mentioned being involved in Public Programming quite a bit, doing lectures, and your involvement in the acquisition process. Coming back to that, could you give a little insight into these?

A: Sure. The Center has an acquisition fund which was established by the founder Paul Mellon, and that fund allows us to continue building the collection. That fund is restricted to the works of art made before 1850; we are allowed to buy books that were published or printed up to 1900. That was because Mr Mellon’s own taste was for the British art up to that moment (1720 up to 1850 - that is where his heart laid in terms of British art). That provision was left by him to keep us in that realm. It does not necessarily preclude us from buying things that were made after if we want to and if we have the funds, we do make acquisitions of post-1850 objects, but the core fund is there for objects up to 1850. The process for acquiring is we see objects, we have a sense of things that we would like for the collection, we also attend big art fairs, like the Salon du Dessin in Paris, Master Drawings Week in New York, and when we do, we constantly keep an eye out for things (people bring them to us, obviously), and then we assess and decide whether that is something we really want for the collection. We have a committee to facilitate that, me being one of decision-makers, and, conventionally, the Director has had a final word on the acquisition.

Q: What is your exhibition planning process like, how far ahead does it begin?

A: This is an interesting subject, as it’s been changing through time, we used to begin about five years ahead, sometimes more. As of the last few months, we have initiated a new process, which is a new form where anyone proposing an exhibition, whether they are in house or external, now has to fill out a form which asks some basic quintessential questions (e.g. what is the project you are proposing, how big is the project, how would it fit in this building - quite tangible questions that need to be considered), then we ask people to submit their answers, and quarterly we have a big meeting which is open to everyone from staff. All the proposals are put forward and things are either voted down, or we decide that we like this project and put it into a shortlist. That shortlist then goes to a smaller committee of key players - including the exhibition department, installation department, registrars, the members of the curatorial team, and then they take those proposals and evaluate them further: is this a viable project, do any changes need to be put in place, are revisions needed, where does it fit in our schedule.

Q: Do you notify the person whose project has been selected?

A: Yes we do, the person whose idea has been selected or moves to the next round gets notified. It is still a brand new system, it’s just what has been going on now. But that made life much easier in terms of planning projects and working with new ideas, for people who want to propose exhibitions as well as for working within the constraints of this building, as the process itself guides people to think seriously about what they are bringing to us.

One of the key things I also wanted to mention as we have already talked a little about the environmental factors during exhibitions before the interview, after the first form we did an add-in about environmental impact that urges people to consider why are they requesting a loan from elsewhere etc. It makes the process much more comprehensive.

Q: That sounds amazing. When it comes to the exhibition planning and organisation and being a curator, are you involved in fundraising in any way?

A: Fundraising has never been a key responsibility at the Center, but there is indeed a department taking care of that, and that is the Department of External Affairs, and, of course, we do work with donors.

Q: How far does your involvement go as far as public programming is concerned? Is it something you enjoy taking part in?

A: Yes, I do participate in Public Programs on the regular basis. I do indeed enjoy teaching and sharing my knowledge of the history of the collection.

Q: Excellent! Last but not least, Matthew, what career advice would you give to aspiring curators out there?

A: My first advice has always been - be open to the unexpected. Many young curators ask me how to get to the museum. Truth is, there is no certain path or track that exists - flexibility, knowledge and determination are key. My other advice is - go and see things. There is no substitute to that. And one last thing - don’t be afraid to make contact with people, to reach out and show that you are motivated. You may get rebuffed, you may never hear back, or you may, and who knows where that may lead you.