Robert Leonard is the Chief Curator at City Gallery Wellington. He talks freedom, favourites and falling in love.
How did you first get into art curation?
I did an art-history degree at the University of Auckland in the early 1980s. I hung around Elam art school and Auckland City Art Gallery. I frequented dealer-gallery openings, enjoying the art while drinking cask wine in the company of artists, collectors, dealers, and other players. I made friends and developed a taste for the art life.
After finishing my degree, I was accepted for the inaugural curatorial internship at the National Art Gallery. It had me working with collections (rather than with artists). I became addicted to selecting and hanging shows as I pleased. I was lucky to get that internship. It set me up.
What advice would you give someone wanting to become a curator?
Write. To be an art curator, you have to be an art writer as well. Writing is the biggest hurdle for most wannabe curators.
What keeps you in the field?
The freedom to play. Art that’s new, or new to me.
I’m never bored. Art feeds my head. One day it has me researching gangs in New Zealand, the next day it’s anti-matter annihilation experiments at CERN. Art makes me want to live longer, so I can see more.
I also like the nuts-and-bolts, creative side of exhibition making. The craft.
How do you engage with your community?
That depends on how you define ‘my community’. I like being part of the art scene. But the scene is odd, being both bitterly competitive and joyously communal.
I do like making shows for audiences – being part of a wider public discourse.
What does success look like?
Maintaining momentum. Doing consequential projects. External validation is also nice.
How do you measure the success of an exhibition or show?
By the extent to which it changes the game and renders other things obsolete. Curating should aspire to be disruptive.
If you could change one thing about how your career has developed, what would it be?
I enjoy a lot of creative freedom, but I dream of bigger budgets and larger audiences – more leverage, visibility, and impact.
What makes a good curator?
Some people think of curators as enablers, assisting artists. I think of them as authors, alongside artists. I’m interested in curating that adds something by bringing works together in new, charged, thoughtful, perverse ways. Curatorially, I prefer crafted museum shows to hit-and-miss biennales, where the art tends to be thrown together.
One of my favourite shows was Blow-Up at C/O Berlin in 2015, based on the 1966 Antonioni film. The show considered the myriad ways photography and ideas about photography intersected with the film. It was both forensic and fanboy. It was like looking at an expansive landscape through a keyhole. I bought a shrink-wrapped catalogue. Pity it was in German.
What is your favourite show seen lately?
Who’s your favourite NZ artist?
I hate the ‘favourite artist’ question. But Yvonne Todd's work was love at first sight and I’ve never fallen out of love. I always enjoy stepping into her world – it's exotic to me. I adore her new photo, Egg-Self (2018) – a frowning, barefoot, doe-eyed, anorexic-hippie, corpse-bride type, in a canary-yellow natural-fibre maxi dress, brandishing eggs on strings like martial-arts weapons.
When I came back to New Zealand, the first thing I wanted to do was curate an epic Todd show, filling the entire City Gallery. The result was Creamy Psychology in 2014. It was good to present a New Zealand artist of her generation on a unprecedented scale.
Best advice to someone buying a piece of art is …
Buy something amazing but undervalued – obvious really. Also, red paintings sell better than brown paintings, or so the dealers tell me.
What work of art most affected you personally and why?
Francisco Goya’s tapestry cartoon, The Straw Manikin (1791–2), in the Prado, Madrid. Four girls take pleasure in tossing a foppish male rag doll into the air using a blanket. The doll has an idiotic look on its face, like it might be enjoying the attention. I don’t know whether the work is misogynist or feminist. Maybe it’s both.
First published ArtZone #80