Art Musing: Curatorial Intentions23 April 2021
Sophie Gerhard always thought that she would be an artist. But six months into a Fine Arts degree, she realised that it wasn’t for her. “I didn’t like the criticism,” she told me. “I probably just wasn’t very good.” So, she left her degree to study Art History at the University of Leeds. Here, she became aware that her dream was to curate. After her BA, she enrolled at the University of Melbourne and graduated with a Master of Art Curatorship in December 2018. In April the following year, she took the position of Assistant Curator of Australian Art to 1980 at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). I took the time to meet with Sophie and ask her about her job.
Lisa Jacomos: For people who don’t know, what is a curator?
Sophie Gerhard: For me, my role is divided into working on the permanent collection and on temporary exhibitions. We change the permanent collection every three months for light sensitivity and conservation purposes. That’s hanging, writing labels, and maintaining what the gallery looks like. The temporary exhibitions are the fun part.
LJ: How much do you do for a temporary exhibition?
SG: Choosing the artworks is the starting point. We get huge boards, stick pictures on them and look at what we like, but we don’t design the show. We’ve got a huge exhibition design department that does that. The curator’s responsible for the researching and the choosing of the artworks, the didactics, the labels, and the catalogue.
LJ: Do you ever have to write about an artwork that you really don’t like?
SG: There’s probably over a thousand works in the Australian Art Collection, I’m not going to like every single one. But you get put into that position where you have to quickly become an expert. The opportunity to learn and find things in artworks that you previously didn’t know much about. That’s exciting. It’s a good perk of the job.
LJ: When your writing is published, how do you feel?
SG: It’s really nice because you get the freedom to adapt it into what you want to write about. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to contributing. Having my name in a book is definitely exciting.
LJ: How do you feel representing the NGV?
SG: When I first started, I was a little bit starstruck. It took me a while to come to terms with it. It does have a sort of sense of importance. But, in a city like Melbourne, every facet of the art world is important, whether it’s the tiny ARIs (artist run initiatives) or the bigger institutions—whatever sort of art facet you’re representing, there is a responsibility there. But we show the taxpayer collection and with that does come a lot of responsibility.
LJ: What is your favourite part of your job?
SG: I love to research and write; that is where my heart lies. It’s amazing to be paid to do something that you love. I love how my job has so many different aspects. How did I get so lucky to look at, and be able to research and write about, art for my full-time job?
LJ: Do you have any advice that you would give to someone if they were aiming to get to where you are?
SG: Look, I feel like my advice comes from an incredibly privileged position. It’s very easy for me to say: “You should do this,” but let’s face it—I am a white, hetero, young woman. I’m the first person to hold my hand up and acknowledge my privilege.
That aside, the art world is pretty brutal. I volunteered for a really long time, which is another privileged thing for me to do. If I ever did a good job on something in particular, I would literally ask my boss to write that down. I think that perseverance is probably something that you have to have. I worked at a call centre, full-time, for a whole year to fund my master’s. I wanted it really badly and I didn’t really ever go off that course. I went to openings and I spoke to people and I worked hard.
This transcript has been condensed for clarity.