curatorial lens vol. 5/ fatoş üstek

Fatoş Üstek photographed by Sylvain Deleu. Image courtesy of the curator.

Fatoş Üstek (born 1980) is a London- based independent curator, lecturer and writer. She was the director of the Liverpool Biennial, Roberts Institute of Art (formerly DRAF) in the UK and worked as associate curator for Gwangju Biennale. She currently works on writing a book that builds a new model for art institutions of the 21st century, and she recently co-founded FRANK, Fair Artist Pay, with artists Anne Hardy and Lindsay Seers.

Her practice extends to governance roles that she holds, such as the Chair of New Contemporaries, UK, board member of Urbane Kunste Ruhr,Germany and member of advisory panel for Jan van Eyck Academie, Netherlands. Furthermore Üstek is a member of the International Association of Art Critics AICA UK, IKT, founding member of the Association of Women in the Arts (AWITA) and ICI Alumni.

Üstek is a prolific author on the contemporary art, having co-founded a contemporary art magazine Nowiswere, currently acts as contributing editor at Extra Extra Magazine. She has authored numerous books as well as articles and essays for exhibition catalogues, monographs and art magazines.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: As you are currently writing a book on the 21st century art institutions, I would like to open the conversation with how do you see the current state of art museums around the world? Perhaps we could address their limitations? Obviously, every institution has its own identity, its own history and traditions. But what are maybe some of the most common overlaps?

FATOŞ ÜSTEK: Current state of art institutions and their respective concerns are informing the chapters in my book. I initially focused on the organisational structure and systems of decision making, with a further insight on how projects are managed, administered and realised. One of the main concerns, especially over the last years, let’s say constraints, are funding and staffing. Additionally autonomy and agency that is supposed to be held by everyone working in the institution, and the purpose of the institution of bringing art to the forefront – that could be forefront of societal change, forefront of artistic expression, new ideas, new movements – are not actively realised. So, it’s almost like the structure is becoming a tautological constellation, especially that is what we experienced during the COVID outbreak. Institutions have been immersed in instituting themselves, either trying to keep the body building intact or ensuring that their business plan can stay afloat and be protected from the current financial freeze but also the incoming financial crisis. So, that has been something many institutions have been grappling with, on different scales at different levels.

And the other area of my focus is the need for a new business model, because it informs many other things as well. For instance, funding based programming also informs the independency or dependency of the institution. And that funding can be sourced from either private or public bodies. For instance, you would remember the outrage that happened circa six years ago. I think it was art news, they mapped the artists that were showing in the five main museums in New York and how they were also heavily collected by the trustees who sat on the boards of these respective institutions1. So, in a way it’s about how can we expand, stay free and autonomous from structures that enwrap institutional programming.

Everything starts with good intentions, but if you don’t have a habit of reflection and renewal in yourself, in your practice and in your organisation, then every good intention might lead to some kind of oversight of a habit, because you start building an organisational habit. That informs my third chapter in the book, how organisational behaviours, hymns and global centres of art such as London, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul change. So those global centres are also changing or perhaps it’s going to be also Benin or Johannesburg. Let’s see what’s going to happen. But institutions are grappling with the kind of lack of ability to respond to issues of urgencies that have an accelerating significance such as diversity and inclusion, aligning with movements such as Black Lives Matter. Today, if some kind of unethical issue happens – it doesn’t matter if it’s in Prague or in Indonesia, we hear about it, because of the global connectedness provided by the Internet, thus the economic, social, structural, ethical shifts of the 21st century are becoming seismic shifts. These large scale changes require that the organisations and their behaviours are more agile and more dynamic. These words may sound like buzzwords, but actually at the same time, they’re so hard to internalise and so hard to embody. I believe this is due to the fact that we are still working with organisational behaviourisms as well as structures that are inherited from the 19th and 20th century and sometimes it’s even inherited through the Middle Ages: from the way we talk about art to how we display art with institutionalised art practices. Perhaps this is such an extended way of formulating an answer. But, I feel there are many concerns and issues at stake. And we can list all of these from let’s say, political alliances to environmental sensitivity and consciousness to diversity, inclusion… To me, the core of the issue lies at the need for realignment with the purpose of institutions. Why were they born in the first place?

LŠ: You mentioned private as well as public funding in institutions – is that something also covered in your book?

FÜ: Absolutely, I think we need to rethink the business plan at the moment. For instance, in the UK, what’s happening is that the public funding is going through major cuts. Alongside the urgency from the Government to decentralise the cultural sector and the country. Hence, there’s an emphasis on the bigger pot being secured for organisations and initiatives outside of London or who are willing to move outside of London. A quite interesting kind of shift. Thus many organisations are trying to find new arenas for generating income and the immediate one is approaching collectors and/or corporations. Let’s pause for a minute and imagine you have a bicycle tire and add on the turmoils you have experienced throughout the 20th century with the two World Wars, and the seismic shifts of the 21st century puncture your tire. So, essentially you have a tire that you’ve been patching up after each incident. I find a strong correlation between a tire that is tired of being patched, and an institution that is bloated by the short – term solutions and now seeking to align closely with private donors. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum received 125M Dollars from a private donor of Chinese origin towards building a new wing that will cost 500M in total. And these are, let’s say, one off solutions. How do we balance short – term thinking with long term impact? How can art institutions become more regenerative and reinstate its funding streams in alignment with its values and urgency?

We perhaps really are on the brink of a change and we need a new business model that is not a patchwork of public funding that can be easily replaced with a private person or corporation. Then, it’s about awareness and paying attention to whatever solution you’re finding, how it’s going to impact institutions in the shorter and longer terms.

LŠ: We already touched upon this idea but how do you see art institutions affected by the global pandemic? How and will they change in the post-pandemic world?

FÜ: There are all these new concepts emerging. For instance, there’s one that is about life-affirming museums, about integrating the everyday aspects of social life into a museum texture. But I need to do further research on that. But there are new concepts being formulated or formed, I think, to be honest with you, and this is also really encouraging for me, I’m not the only person who thinks we need to rethink institutional models. And we perhaps need to reinvent some and the one that I am building is not going to be “the” model but “a” model. And I think all these models need to proliferate according to the context, the scale and the urgency of the institution as well – it can never be a universal one which fits all. And what encourages me, since I’ve been doing this research for a while now and I am discovering different people doing different areas of research, all intending for this change.

But what is visible at the moment, -going back to your question- is we’re trying to get back to normal, whatever that was, but that normal is actually our comfort zone! It’s an urge to go back to habits… Like knowledge which can sometimes be cumbersome, if you’re not adding more knowledge and not asking more questions in a continuous basis. I think the future of institutions is not that of a certainty, but there’s a certainty of uncertainty and how they will engage with it. And at the moment, it looks as if we are holding on to our comfort zone because it’s super scary to step onto the shores of the new and that’s so understandable, even natural. What happens after every disaster, if you look into even the recent history of the 19/20th century is that there’s that urge of trying to control and hold still. This is a temporary phase that will unfold onto new approaches, new ways of being because the aftermath of events such as a global pandemic, a world war or a famine is an awakening from a sudden rupture and a discontinuity. And once you have a rupture, you can’t continue the way it was because it’s as a riverbed. Once you wrap your riverbed the river is never going to flow the same. It’s going to find its new beds, its new ways of flowing.

LŠ: You recently started FRANK, Fair Artist Pay, with artists Anne Hardy and Lindsay Seers. Perhaps we could talk more about this as it is a natural flow for current discussion?

FÜ: Absolutely – this is a perfect flow actually! Because FRANK started through my raised levels of sensitivity to all the projects I’ve done, where I always tried to make sure that artists were paid. I even pushed institutions to pay artists a bit more if we were commissioning them/acquiring the new commission for public collection, then I always made sure that there was an acquisition fee next to the artists fee next to the production budget. I was not always successful nor I can claim that fees were fair, due to constraints I also negotiated low fees with artists. I can say that I learned from this and I am committed to not repeat. You know that sometimes when artists produce work in their own studios, that there is a production budget but that is not the fee. And actually, at the Liverpool Biennial, we wanted to work on how we could honour the artists with two other trustees. Because our fees on various projects were set, doesn’t matter, you’re showing old or new work. If you’re working for a day, month or for a year, you would get the same fee. And I thought that was not fair.

FRANK is borne out of the rupture that the pandemic introduced to my life, where a shift happened, and I felt that from now on, I really want to honour things that I deeply care about. And I deeply care about making art happen and about artists being paid.

It is curious that in the early days of forming FRANK, I was approached by an international foundation and they wanted me to curate a group show. And the idea was it might happen in two different cities in the UK as well as outside the UK. And there was a nominal curator fee which was very little but then there were no artists fees. And for me it was unacceptable. So, FRANK is for me on a personal level, aligning with my values of what I feel urgent and necessary, but also professionally pronouncing the values I would like to see in the sector that I work in. A huge shift needs to happen. On a semantic level artistic labour is not recognised as a profession, in the UK most of the rates are teaching rates or organisations are recommended to pay a living wage. So, this is a different kind of ontological alignment, where the artist is positioned in a society. And the other one is also more about that labour needs to be remunerated fairly. And we talk about diversity and inclusion today – you can’t dissect economic equality, economic fairness, economic support; from diversity and inclusion. And if you want to be all encompassing, you have to pay fees to the artists so that a working-class or a single parent artist can also make sure that they can accommodate the needs of an exhibition without the concern of losing their day job. For that we are actually building a conceptual fair pay calculator and we are also building a set of principles. FRANK is going to produce a badge, such as Fairtrade or living wage employer. By working with different art institutions, their level of alignment with our principles will be reflected on their badge. And it’s not about blaming bad practices and praising good ones, because that attitude never works. It’s about how we can get better and fairer together? FRANK aims to encourage institutions for fair practice – by having fair contracts, fair working conditions and fair numeration of artistic labour; and artists to request fair treatment. FRANK instead of being an artist union or an institutional alliance, is interested in a holistic approach and bettering the conditions in the arts.

We already are working with many institutions such as Camden Art Centre and Contemporary Art Society and we are working with Canvas Art Law to build artists contracts and to make sure that our principles are sound and applicable. We want to convey the possibility of fair practice to everyone involved in the visual arts sector in the UK.

For that, we are talking to multiple organisations in the UK, that include not only public institutions but also private funding bodies, including Art Fund and some galleries also have an interest in supporting FRANK, not that they pay their artists as institutions do. But they can back their artists when they are invited to do solo or group shows. It’s going to be a membership organisation and we will receive a small fee for our initiation year. Afterwards, we will have set fees that are according to the scale of the organisation, so that institutions such as Turf Projects, for instance, who have a very little annual income can also be a member. And being a member doesn’t give you brownie points in your practice, being a member means alliance with FRANK and the badge will be reflecting how institutions align with FRANK’s principles in practice.

LŠ: How did you enter the curatorial field? And how did your background in Maths contribute in shaping your interests as a curator? Your educational background is quite unique. 

FÜ: Thank you! I didn’t think it was when I started. To be honest I felt like an anomaly in the beginning in Istanbul. People thought: “she’s just interested in art and culture and after graduating from her degree, she would just move on.”

I am a very curious and passionate person. When I was in high school, it was about being a mathematician. My father is a mathematician and he worked as a software engineer for many years. So, it was for me to follow in his footsteps. I come from a family with a keen interest in more conservative jobs. So, when I started being interested in curating during my University years, they were shocked. The term curator was so new that it was not really clear what it meant and what a curator did.

My transition to curating was through multiple indirect steps. I worked for various festivals in Istanbul, from film to electronic music, theatre to Biennial. At the time we only had two outlets for visual arts in Turkey. One was the Istanbul Biennial and the other one was Art-Ist Contemporary Art Magazine, that’s where we learned about what’s going on around the world. And nothing else, because the internet was just starting. While assisting cultural events, translating texts for Art-Ist I was also enwrapped with photography and fine arts, attending the University’s free social clubs. I could say that I was trying to find my voice. And this has been a motif throughout my life. After many years I would argue that one never truly finds one’s voice once and for all. It is the opposite, once to strike a chord, you need to tune it through experiences and what the world brings back, hence your energy and style changes that attunes your voice… It is not a journey from a to be, in another sense, it is a dance of life.

LŠ: You also mentioned working in an art magazine Genis Aci. Did you run it at any point?

FÜ: I didn’t run the magazine but I was one of the contributing writers. I started writing for them in late 1999. And the magazine ran until 2006, they had to close down because of financial constraints. However, Genis Aci gave me the love of publishing, even though I might have driven the editor mad multiple times with my belated submissions.

I started an online magazine with artist Veronika Hauer in London in 2008, that was titled Nowiswere. I co-edited the first 10 issues, almost four years. The magazine is still continued by Veronica, but it’s now based in Austria.

LŠ: You also led David Roberts Art Foundation – what curatorial perspectives did you contribute to your directorial position? 

FÜ: It was quite an interesting time to join David Roberts Art Foundation and I had a personal connection there before. Even though I moved to London in 2007, my first ever show in London was in 2012 and at DRAF. I was already working a lot in Europe and doing various projects with different organisations, but I think London also takes time.

I actually approached them (DRAF) because I was doing this project supported by a Swedish University, and then they told me that they were already following my work. So, it was a great synergy. When I joined them in 2018 they’ve just left their building in Camden. And my predecessor left a while back. I think institutions are like people and I think DRAF was in a tired state, questioning its function and aspirations. I came to them with a grand vision to restart it at a different location and a different building. And also built a three-year programme: introduced a thematic umbrella for each year where the content would build cumulatively. And my vision honoured some of the key deliverables of the foundation, such as the curator series, where we always had an external curator coming in and curating a show; and performance evenings, which used to happen during Frieze every year. I wanted to expand the programming to explore how we could collaborate nationwide. So, it was not only about being London centric, we were building cross-collaborations with museums in cities like Edinburgh, Llandudno…

I believe there needs to be a balance of visible production and invisible production within any institution. Visible production is everything that is made public, from exhibitions, talks, screenings to exhibition tours; when you meet the public. Invisible is where the organisation nurtures itself, where members of the institution, do research together, converse, discuss, reflect so that the institution grows and nurtures itself in order to grow and nurture its audiences. That was an important thing that I wanted to establish at DRAF. I was there only like a year, because then the Liverpool Biennial post resonated with my passion for biennials: stemming from my experience at Gwangju Biennial and my formation through Istanbul Biennial.

LŠ: You just mentioned leading the Liverpool Biennial in 2020, which was a very difficult and challenging time with the effects of global pandemic. What did you learn from the position and what were the changes you made to the initial concept as the result of the global pandemic? Many art festivals either postponed such as the Venice Biennale or if they went ahead such as the Busan Biennial, they had to make changes to the exhibition structure.

FÜ: Yes, absolutely. Any experience, if you can give yourself the time, space and reflection, there’s a lot to learn from. Especially with experiences that are challenging and hard, that leads to triumphs and disasters. These are important experiences but you need to keep your equanimity. With the Liverpool Biennial, it was not an easy times in the sense that, now we are looking at the last two years in retrospect. But when the pandemic broke when we were in the middle of it, we grappled with a lot of unknowns. Neither the scale of Covid-19 nor its longitude and impact was measurable at the time. It could have been a couple of months, a year at most – that is what we thought at the beginning of 2020.

I talked to many colleagues of mine who were running institutions at the time and we were trying to do this patchwork of calming down the fires, finding solutions to things that are bursting here and there. And while doing that, we had to move to biennial exhibitions twice and coordinate with partnering local institutions. So, we don’t only have a programme of our own but we also collaborate with FACT, Tate Liverpool, Bluecoat and many others.

Liverpool Biennial is rooted in Liverpool and engaged with what’s happening around the world. My vision for the Biennial was that I wanted to make sure that the organisation aspired to be the city’s international portal and with a rich texture of art institutions and eight museums in the city, we inspire neighbouring towns and cities. I believe the Biennial had to keep its role of operating on a national and international scale, drawing in influences and perspectives further a field, so that the city can expand and become more public. I also wanted to honour public commissions that Liverpool Biennial successfully achieved over the last years, such as Anthony Gormley’s sculptures on the Crosby Beach and continue making commissions in the public realm.

LŠ: We know how biennials are realised in normal situations but in the context of the global pandemic it is challenging to imagine how they can be achieved.

FÜ: That is true. I was reading an article with the curator of the Istanbul biennial this year. And she was advocating that biennials are important and they need to happen. Institutions also need to rethink what they do and what they have been doing. The 90s biennials were a different curatorial practice. Now the biennials have a totally different texture and totally different kind of formula. Perhaps we need to rethink what the biennials can do for local, national and international scenes?

LŠ: You talked about working for the Gwangju Biennale. So maybe this then could be quite a nice continuation of conversation – how do you see the future of biennials?

FÜ: Maybe we define what the current biennial model is as it really depends. Because the Yogyakarta biennial is, for example, different than Venice Biennial. And it will always be different from Venice. But maybe the current biennial model is that you bring an international group of artists together. And they might have practices that share urgencies or they diverge. There is always a theme and then the funding with foundations, private galleries and agents. I think that we need to contextualise the biennial and why it is happening as well as where it is happening. For me, the Liverpool Biennial was about creating a strong local connection and emphasising its presence there. And they are still continuing some of the collaborations, I started which makes me happy, because that was a disjointed situation back then.

With the Gwangju Biennale, our focus was addressing post-Cold War and more specifically the Asia- Pacific region, while bringing in artists and influences from elsewhere to either expand or strengthen the body of the exhibition. One thing that is going to be important for biennials is to nurture the locality. It can be one mile radius of where the biennial happens or 100-mile radius, but defining that locality – that kind of proximity. I think the other thing that’s going to be important is the environment. The awareness of the means of production and means of consumption. We really need to think very thoroughly about how we can create regenerative systems and the way we work. And if biennials can create that regenerative system for themselves, I think, they can really have a long life because one thing that is still in the core of biennials are these bold statements. You bring that vertical knowledge and you make sure that it spreads.

I mean we can talk about the Venice Biennial at length or not, but one thing I’ve really enjoyed seeing in Venice this year was that there is something else happening, a different synergy. There is a different kind of tension in the air, you have different bodies of artworks culminating in a meaningful relationship with each other in a space, there is something there and biennials actually do that uniquely.

LŠ: Maybe for the last question, we could talk about how you transformed your curatorial role to various positions such as a board member or advisor. It would be great to hear more of the shift from the traditional curatorial position to this new way of curatorial activity.

FÜ: For me, they’re not shifts but I think it’s a continuation. It is an expansion of my excitement about art and, and my passion to support art to happen. Either I get involved personally or I become a support structure for it to happen. Making art happen is the core of what I do. And sometimes I do that through curating exhibitions and commissioning artists for new works and sometimes sitting on a jury for national representations or different art awards. Sometimes it is writing books, essays for monographs or catalogues or for art magazines.

I don’t see it as very separate activities but it might look very separate and sometimes I even have to admit to myself that it is really hard for me to only say I am a curator and/or writer, because that positions you in a place that might be too tight for your skills and aspirations.