Confessions of a Curator: ‘I Can’t Live Without Sculpture’

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Clare Lilley, the woman behind this year’s Frieze Sculpture, talks about the passions that fuel her work and her choices.

“Play Sculpture” by Isamu Noguchi in the outdoor exhibition, Frieze Sculpture, at The Regent’s Park in London.
Credit...Linda Nylind/Frieze

Oct. 9, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

LONDON — Behind every great exhibition, chances are there’s a great curator. But what does a curator actually do?

A lot more than just choosing art to put on display, according to Clare Lilley, who researched, selected and placed the 18 international works that form this year’s Frieze Sculpture, the free outdoor exhibition through Oct. 31 in The Regent’s Park as part of Frieze London.

Ms. Lilley is the longtime program director at the 500-acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield, England, which includes works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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Credit...Jonty Wilde

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms. Lilley, who is in her ninth year with Frieze, spoke about her role with the fair and about the art that feeds her soul. Her comments by telephone and email have been edited and condensed.

How do you define the work of a curator?

A curator provides a link between an artist’s ideas and audiences. My job is to help create a meaningful interaction that induces understanding, curiosity, pleasure, enlightenment and more. That’s one definition. In practice, the role is significantly more to do with project management and fund-raising.

How did you decide to become one?

It was a process. When I was about 15, I was urged into art history by a perceptive teacher who knew of my interest in scooting into the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, where we moved when I was 11. Then at the University of Manchester my tutor, Dr. Andrew Causey, recommended me as a research assistant on a major exhibition at the Royal Academy and also to intern at the Cornerhouse gallery in Manchester, where I worked for Sue Grayson Ford, who had been the first director of the Serpentine. After working with Sue, I didn’t want to do anything other than curate.

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Credit...Linda Nylind/Frieze

And why sculpture?

As a child, my family had no interest in art, but they were all engineers, and I think that preoccupation with objects, making, material, the plastic, had a big impact. I love how we as humans occupy the same space as sculpture. I’ve seen people press their entire bodies against sculptures and hug them. At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we have a flock of sheep and they press up against, particularly, the Henry Moores because they hold the heat of the day.

I can’t live without sculpture. We move to, and around, it and our feelings, our visceral sensations, are amplified by the light, the weather, seasons and the fact of being outdoors. Over the years I’ve seen whole exhibitions gain in stature and depth under shifting skies.

Is there much racial diversity in art curation?

Traditionally curating has been the preserve of middle-class white liberals, although we’ve seen a gradual and positive shift, particularly with the growth of African and Asian art markets that have been reflected in museum acquisitions and exhibitions, requiring insight and knowledge. Black Lives Matter has by far had the most powerful impact across the sector, while programs such as the U.K.’s Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries (which supports 50 jobs in the arts for people from low socioeconomic backgrounds) are working to broaden socioeconomic representation.

For Frieze Sculpture 2021, did you set out with specific themes?

No, but it’s interesting how they emerge, and I hone the selection with these in mind. A number of works this year relate to environmental and social concerns — especially the diasporic experience — with artists spanning three generations. I see shared conversations about identity and society across those generations, for example in the approach by Isamu Noguchi, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Vanessa da Silva and Sumayya Vally. They all speak to the importance of kindness, of community and of love.

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Credit...Linda Nylind/Frieze

Take Noguchi and da Silva. Noguchi died in 1988 and Ms. da Silva is a young woman. Noguchi was born of a Japanese father and an American mother and never had a clear sense of ever quite belonging in any culture. Da Silva comes from Brazil and loves London but never quite feels it’s her place, so she’s creating works that in a way take her back.

Your Frieze picks this year also include several female sculptors.

Every year we try to achieve at least 50 percent female representation in Frieze Sculpture and, so far, we’ve been thwarted. This year eight of the 18 artists are women. Sculpture, and particularly outdoor sculpture, is still a male domain.

Sculpture is by its nature materially and spatially assertive, so a sculptor needs logistical and material support, as well as the endorsement of others who believe in the undertaking and — in the case of dealers — believe they can realize a return on their investment in a market dominated by male artists and male collectors.

Search online for “women sculptors” and you’ll find a meager list in comparison to a “male” search. Search for “most important or successful artist” of any gender and the results are dominated by painters, highlighting the particular difficulties and market status of making sculpture.

Still, female representation for me has been one of the biggest changes in my career, in part driven by the market: If people want to buy work by women, there’s stuff to sell. Most collections are male oriented, but as collectors change their view of what they want to buy, that broadens the arena for women and for artists of color.

Is curating different for a private gallery than for a public museum?

Oh, so different! A commercial space helps build an artist’s career and their sales base in order to sell. In Yorkshire, our remit is to support artists and to create and hold new audiences for art. We’re intent on reflecting the global developments in art, expanding to include works from places like Africa, Indonesia, South America, and we work with incredible artists at all stages of their careers.

Are curators frustrated artists at heart? Or art lovers who prefer the art of the deal?

Artists often make brilliant curators, although they tend to have more narrow tastes than a curator working in an institution can afford to have. Art dealing is a whole different thing — it’s absolutely fascinating and we’re all part of an ecosystem, but it’s different. People working in the commercial sector and auction houses really know their stuff. I’m not suggesting that they are just there making bucks: Their knowledge is really exceptional, but the purpose of those industries is to sell.

As a curator, being aware of the art market is increasingly important. Every project we do we have to fund it in some way, and working with artists, their dealers and galleries, working with collectors is really important.

What’s the path to becoming a curator these days?

Fine art, art history and cultural studies are still the principal launch points, and there are many museum, gallery and curating master’s degrees available. Today, it’s probably pretty difficult to come into the industry without these qualifications. It’s extremely competitive and people should get as much work experience as possible, even working as a gallery assistant where you can meet artists.

Having a great idea and curating your own online or real-world exhibitions, or having a podcast or social media presence can also be terrific beginnings.

Advice for an aspiring curator?

Don’t do it unless you love it, unless it really feeds you, because there are many less demanding and more financially rewarding ways to make a living. My work is incredibly time-consuming, and you need a lot of stamina.

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