My outrageously long interview with my lovely supervisor Ingrid Masondo the Curator of photography and new media.
C: Could you describe your position as a curator at the museum?
I: Describe the position? I’m the curator of photography and new media, which means I look after those collections of photography and new media. They’re an interesting media because in a way they kind of cross all of the boundaries, or most of the boundaries and departments that are in the gallery. So it’s a bit of a challenging position, for instance, in terms of how we think of new media, its still new, its in infancy, so kind of a new department. Its generally mainly thought of as audio visual material, but I think there’s quite of a range, you know? But it also crosses in terms of what I take care of that could also fall into the contemporary with the curator of contemporary art. All of the collections at some point need to be digitized, and often that would be through photography. So photography in lots of ways has come to impact on very many aspects of the museum and galleries functioning, and on one level its taken very seriously as a particular medium, with particular materials and ways of caring and conserving, and in another level its also not. Anybody can grab a camera and just photograph, digitize or become a photographer, and propose to us to collect their image. So it’s a very interesting, but very exciting medium but it also its frustrating in that way, and so as much as its also quite an older medium. Its more than 100 years now of photography, but in terms of the gallery and the museums collections photography and new media is the youngest department and collection. But I think its also the fastest growing one. And yeah I think we should be at a stage where we understand it a bit better now to take care of it, especially because we need it in so many other areas and aspects of the running of the gallery and the institution.
C: Why did you start working at the museum?
I: It was an accident of sorts, like in most of the jobs I’ve ended up in. I’m also really fascinated by how institutions function, and I think sometimes the best way to really get a sense of that is by being inside the institution. I believe that a national public institution should be at the forefront of transforming our society. For issue like access and many of the issues that face our society, those are the institutions that are better able to address those issues. I think for private institutions; their slate is clean. They can deal with whatever, there is no social, public imperative and they’re not answerable to the public. Where as national institutions are. I was very fascinated by it, also because in how the city functions, and if you think about the national institutions that are here and in terms of their age and in terms of how long they’ve been existing. So I thought how does an institution that was founded on a colonial mindset, colonial practices, function in 2015, 2016 for instance. Also I had known a few people that have come and gone and I think from the outside it still looks, for many people that don’t know anyone who works in this institution, it still looks like its that old institution. There’s formidable architecture, very classical building. I think people often don’t know. I wondered, if you come in and you think you have a progressive agenda does the institution enable you, is it an enabling environment? So its an experiment of sorts. I think its very easy to throw stones when you’re outside. My belief is that you actually have to get in and see. Are you able to do things, and if not why? Because often its also not as simple as people do not agree with your proposals or your way of thinking or way of doing things. Often things are much more complicated than they seem.
C: What do you enjoy about working here?
I: So far, it’s been working with the collections and doing stock take and just getting a sense of what has been collected over the years. And already that’s changed my view of the institution. There’s quite a very diverse group of people that actually work here, and a lot of them are very fascinating. A lot of them are artists. It makes sense, but I think its one of those on going debates “why do artists become administrators” you know and some people say some frustrated artist become administrative… there’s all these theories. And in a way that makes it much more creative. I suppose the next question you’re going to ask me is about, what’s the challenges and frustrations, because its related. Part of being in these public and national institutions, the administration can be so cumbersome. Its necessary, and I don’t think its something that’s peculiar to this institution, I think its across the board. A lot of institutions find there’s all these measures simply being put in, systems being put through, and this form and compliance to do this. You have to go through these loops, and a lot of it it guided by this paranoia about the kind of setting right now. There’s lots of talk about corruption, which is nothing new really its been going on for years. It didn’t start yesterday or last year or even with our current president. So a lot of it seems to be reactive, and its about giving this impression that there’s all these safe guards against corruption for people that work in institutions. Some of them are necessary, but I think so much energy is spent all of this, instead of the very smooth and efficient running of an institution. Some of it is really frustrating and cumbersome and unnecessary. Some part of me is very much an administrator you know. I fully understand how things need to be sorted and organized and allows better functioning, but there’s a limit to that. There’s not really a healthy balance I think.
C: What kind of role do museums, and this museum play in the community?
I: I think for the most part, since I’ve been here (the gallery and museum has a very long history) because of some institutional changes, we’ve been short staffed. Between the curators and collections teams our main focus has been on exhibitions. We’ll do walkabouts and that kind of thing. I think the access has mainly been focused around exhibitions and objects, and I think we’ve been much less productive in terms of engaging. I mean I think in the first quarter of this year, and in the last six months we’ve had many more public talks, but you have to remember I’ve only been here for a year so in the middle of that there’s all these changes happening. Part of its also has to do with administration that you have to do. Where do you find the time to actually come up with programs that can bring in other audiences, other publics and in a different way than just sitting down and talking. It’s a bit of a catch 22. In my view it should be that kind of space where the engagement is not just one way, that the public is able to speak to us and have a voice about what we’re putting up and what they would like to see. The curators also speaking and academics. It should be the kind of place that brings all these different elements and publics together, and it allows space for engagement not only revolving around objects. More discussion. Objects of course are important, they’re inspiration to what we do and the discussions we have, but often their also they reflect what is going on in the everyday. Even when they are put up and displayed in a gallery, they take on another status. With the lighting and being framed or put on a plinth. Often these are objects that are created by a particular people in a particular context, in a particular life. We tend to remove all of these other facets about it and I don’t think we are only here about aesthetics and beauty.
C: Do you think the role of art in general is for something more that aesthetics, and as something that can evoke emotion or social change?
I: Yes, absolutely I do. I don’t know if the objects do that by themselves. They’re created by humans. Often, how they get to a particular place, and to be displayed there, there’s stories behind all of that, and often they are not nice stories. We don’t talk about that when the object is up there and displayed. It can shift, so much can shift people’s way of being, ways of seeing, and it can change people’s imagination, but the way of reality is that after the object does whatever it does to you. When you step out you still go back to your reality. Some times slightly shifted, but how do we bridge that gap? Whilst also think that art has so much potential to transform, I think its more of a catalyst. It can’t do that by itself. There’s a whole lot of other institutions and social processes that also need to go along with it. The art can’t do that by itself.
C: Do you think the National Gallery is in a good place to bridge that gap?
I: I think it has the potential, yeah. I think its about does it have the will? I don’t know. Time will tell.
C: What would be your hope for museums in the future?
I: Its space where there can be so much more. Where people can imagine and even be something else. They’ve got so much potential. The challenge about access is a really interesting and a tough one. On one level museums need to be maintained, and they are very costly to keep up, and at the same time, for instance we are not a free museum. We charge what we consider to be a nominal fee, but for people that are poor, and a lot of people are struggling now and we wouldn’t even call them poor. That is quite something. Do I buy bread or go to the museum? It’s very real issues. I think there’s that ongoing debate and I think the museum could be especially transformational and inspirational to those classes of people that also do not have the space or time to have leisure. Their lives are very much under pressure. You get up you go to work, you’re looking for work constantly and you come back and you must watch the kids, you travel long to and from work especially for those people I think it’s the issue of access that remains a big challenge. We are free of course on public holidays but sometimes its like once a month, or we’ve got periods where public holidays follow each other, but often depending on what people do, those are days that you want to spend with your family, or its your only day to rest or your working.
C: Do you think, someone in a curator position would be able to make those changes happen?
I: I think It’s a group. I don’t think it’s an individual thing to do. I think it takes a significant, or critical amount of people within an institution to want to do that and to be relentless about it. To be constantly trying, and trying different ways and in the process bringing in more and more people so that you keep building a critical mass. You can have exciting programs for 3 months and when you fall off and you can’t because you’re busy, it looses steam and people go on with their lives. So it really is an issue of time and people need to be relentless and on going struggle. It’s not something you do and you have one event and its like wow we had a thousand people that was so amazing, and then you go back to the drawing board, and say you’re going to have an event next week also, because it not an event. I’m not talking access in terms of events, but in terms of that people also claim that space, because it’s a national institution, it’s a public institution. They need to claim it and be interested in what we are acquiring, and what’s in our collections, how are we keeping this work, what informs our policies, why are we acquiring particular work in a particular moment, and be able to question curators, you know. With that kind of access outside of just walking through the doors and looking at exhibitions and walking out. There’s very many layers of access.
C: For a student who is thinking about working in a museum, what advice would you give them?
I: I think that first they must go spend time at the museum. Like I was saying earlier, things look like something else from the outside, so its always good to get a better sense of a space or a person that you think you want to be involved with. So I would say they must go spend time and get a sense of how that institution functions. But I mean even getting, you’ve been here for 2 weeks or 2 and a half, so even this kind of engagement to a certain extent is superficial. You get a sense of what’s going on but its better than someone from the outside and thinking that its very glamorous. But often it takes a long time to actually really get a good sense of an institutions work. Sometimes they are really not transparent and it depends on the structure and how people communicate. And some people believe information shouldn’t be shared and there’s all these things that happen. But I would say they must go find out. Its also never a bad thing to ask one’s self why. Why do they want to be there in a museum, what informs that decision and why that particular museum instead of another? So just to think through what other museums or organizations are similar to that one and what makes them like one or lead towards one instead of another. But for the most part really the only way is to really get in there in the deep end and find out. That’s the best way to find out.
C: Where do you see yourself in the future?
I: Probably still experimenting with my life. Where and how I’m really not sure.
C: Do you have anything you’d like to do?
I: I do, I would like to have a set amount of discipline and time and energy to also go back to my work and focus on producing work, and probably that’s a disciplinary issue. I have to make them time I don’t see myself resolving or wanting to be a full time artist.