Ned McConnell (born, 1982) is a London-based curator and writer. He holds a MA degree in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Arts. McConnell is a curator at the Roberts Institute of Art where he commissions new performances, exhibitions and public programmes concerning the David and Indrė Roberts Collection. He is a contributor to Art Monthly and has previously curated at Pump House Gallery. Recently curated exhibitions and projects include: Untitled, 1956; Red, Green and Yellow; Gone Fishing, 2022, Flat Time House, London with Gareth Bell-Jones; To dismantle a house, Valerie Asiimwe Amani, 2022, South London Gallery with Sarah Allen; Live Art Commissions, Appau Jnr Boakye-Yiadom, Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome, Harriet Middleton Baker, Lloyd Corporation, SERAFINE1369 and Sriwhana Spong, 2022, Studio Space, London; Flesh Arranges Itself Differently, 2022 The Hunterian, Glasgow with Dominic Paterson; Earthbound, 2021, Sheffield Museum with Louisa Briggs; Nina Beier, Paul Maheke and Lina Lapelytė, 2021, Glasgow International.
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How do you see and understand the role of the curator in contemporary art setting?
NED McCONNELL: For me, it’s always been about trying to be a bridge between audiences and artists. To make the work of artists more accessible, while also giving opportunities to understand things in new ways. That’s partly by challenging audiences, as sometimes you can’t just give people what they want all the time – I don’t think that’s very productive. It’s important to have a good understanding of your audience so that you provide them with things that they don’t necessarily know they want to see. But when they do see it, it’s surprising, thought-provoking, enriching, and enjoyable as well.
There is a degree of facilitating involved in the process and the technicalities of making art available are important and should not be forgotten such as fundraising or being able to speak at a number of registers for different types of audiences. For someone who doesn’t engage with contemporary art on a regular basis, and perhaps doesn’t come from a background where they’ve been introduced to that kind of language, it can be quite an intimidating world. It is important that you can do things in a way that doesn’t dumb down core concepts, but make them understandable for people, because one of the big frustrations of mine in the art world is that things are done in an exclusionary way – not very welcoming. I remember moving to London, studying for an art degree for my MA even, and going to commercial art galleries was quite intimidating and wasn’t always a pleasant experience. Feeling self-conscious, and thinking – What am I looking at? What am I doing? Am I in the right place? Should I be here? In such cases, you’re not really engaging with the work and that’s not fair on the audience, or the artists. Trying to break down some of those barriers, is one of the spaces that I try to fill, or have done in my career so far.
I also love to learn through artistic practice and being able to talk to artists and learn help me to think about how I want to live and possibilities for the future.
LŠ: You currently work for the Roberts Institute of Art, which was previously operating as David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF) with various gallery spaces. The institution has a long history of actively supporting performance. How have the workings of your institution changed?
NM: My current role at the Roberts Institute of Art is at a private foundation. We have a private collection that we look after, which is the David and Indrė Roberts Collection. And we’re not so beholden to just one audience. The audience is more itinerant and we can do things that are a little bit riskier in terms of the type of work that we show. We can push on engaging with artists’ work that might be more challenging.
It is an important job of ours to make the work understandable but it can be challenging as we have this big collection. The David and Indrė Roberts Collection has about 2500 works by 850 artists – a very significant body of artworks. One of the ways we operate is that we collaborate with museums and galleries around the country to curate shows from the collection. For us, the challenge has always been that we do not know the audience that we are talking to as well as say our own audience for performance. We have worked in Glasgow at the Hunterian, Sheffield Museum and in 2023 we are doing an exhibition in Middlesbrough with MIMA. As these are one-off exhibitions we were not in a position to get to know those audiences. Thus, putting on a show that is relevant to local audiences can be tricky but that’s where the collaboration is really key – with the curators and the organisations that we’re working with. And coming up with themes, ideas, or ways of working that are relevant to those contexts.
Up to now we haven’t done any exhibitions that solely feature works from the David and Indrė Roberts Collection – but we may do in the future. The exhibitions are always responsive to the places, spaces, and people that we’re doing it for hopefully. It’s always fascinating to bring two collections together and see what they bring out of one another. In Glasgow we did a show at The Hunterian that engaged with the idea of the body and how representations of bodies have changed since the Enlightenment. The Hunterian Collection has an incredible body of artworks and medical artefacts, over 1.5 million objects in total and was established during the Enlightenment by William Hunter, an obstetrician. So it’s a wonderful, if at times problematic, record of how bodies have been seen over several centuries. The exhibition worked really well because the collections brought such different things together, X-Rays next to works by Yayoi Kusama or Hogarth etchings opposite Miriam Cahn paintings, it really was more than the sum of its parts.
Alongside presenting the collection exhibitions, we also commission performance work. We have a long history of working with the performance from 2007 when the foundation was founded. In the past, we had a more traditional approach by commissioning an artist to perform in the context of an exhibition or as a discrete event on its own. But we also worked on these large-scale events called Evening of Performances that coincided with Frieze week each year (in London). They started off at the gallery that we had in Fitzrovia and then subsequently were at a gallery that we had in Mornington Crescent in Camden. And on the 10th anniversary, one was programmed at KOKO in 2017, a famous club and a former cabaret venue. Since then, each edition was held in a different space around London, so after KOKO there was one at the Kentish Town Forum or the Ministry of Sound in Elephant and Castle (London Borough).
During the various lockdowns, we obviously thought long and hard about our positioning and the program and we decided that we would move away from those large one-night events of performance because of sustainability and the capacity of our team to work on them. They’re extremely capacity-heavy things to do! But also, I think the sustainability of working like this is difficult to justify given the costs involved. There’s a huge amount of resources that go into them for one night only, and then the event is gone.
So, we decided that we would stop doing such events and instead we set up a fund during lockdown called the Live Art Commission, to support artists who have live practices and who lost work during the lockdown period. We offered the artists (Appau Jnr Boakye-Yiadom, Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome, Harriet Middleton Baker, Lloyd Corporation, SERAFINE1369 and Sriwhana Spong) the opportunity to produce a new work that would be shown to a live audience once there was a chance to gather in numbers. This started us down a path of thinking about how we can support artists more to produce live work in their practice, rather than focus on individual commissions.
In 2022, we collaborated with South London Gallery to offer a five-week residency to Valerie Asiimwe Amani, that culminated in a performance weekend which was a very interesting experience. The way we structured it was that we invited people to nominate artists from around the country. The aim was to present artists that hadn’t had much exposure in London before and we wanted to tap into the network that we have. And that was a really good experience, I think for everyone.
Another way we’re supporting artists is a programme we’ve just launched in 2022 called Practising Performance, where we will work with an artist regardless of the level of establishment in the art world; the inaugural edition is with Rachel Jones. They could be extremely established or they could be just starting out. The important thing is that they haven’t worked in performance yet but they possess a real ambition to build that part of their practice. We work with them for six months, in which time we host a series of discussions and invite them to see performances, and through this interaction, they develop a performance. But it’s important that we don’t really have an endpoint in mind so that it is very process driven.
At the Roberts Institute of Art, we are slightly moving away from presenting large performances towards an active support system, the support will always lead to some sort of presentation. We are trying to be a bit more mindful of how we work with artists and how we can support them to develop their practice whilst working with us and beyond.
LŠ: How have you approached curating performances?
NM: We try to see a lot of performances, not solely in contemporary art but also in dance, theatre, opera, or music. It is important for us to learn because there are a lot of challenges with contemporary art performance, not least budgets, which are always very small and they usually don’t cover enough costs in comparison to theatre, dance, opera or music. And there’s often an assumption that because it’s not building objects, that it is cheap, because it’s just people’s time, but actually, that can be very expensive.
And the other thing is that we are trying to be very honest with artists about feedback with them, trying to work through their ideas in a critically constructive way. So, when we talk to artists about their ideas, we want to give them feedback about where it could be improved. We want to make sure they understand that if they’re thinking about doing something with dance, or they want to write a script, and they haven’t done it before that is a craft and a skill, and that we might need to bring someone in to look at what they’ve written or to give them some feedback.
I think it is important to create a space in an expanded way where the artist is not just left to their own devices to come up with something and an acknowledgment is vital that performance is seldom a singular endeavour. It is also about building conversations about what does collaboration mean?
LŠ: How do you see the role of residencies as a research and support system for creating performances?
NM: The residency we co-created with South London Gallery was the first time we have done a performance residency.
LŠ: A pilot residency?
NM: Yes, exactly. We’re constantly trying to figure out the best ways to support the performance field. And key in terms of supporting a performance residency is the length of the programme. How much time does it take to develop, rehearse and deliver a performance? Making sure that there are opportunities within that to test out the performance.
Too often, within contemporary art, the actual public performance is the first time the it is being performed live. And that’s not really fair on the artists, because whenever I speak to them after the event they would say that they learned a lot but then often, they won’t get a chance to implement that learning. Perhaps a way forward is to build smaller theatre or performance groups, where artists can have a smaller audience, with peers and people they trust to give some feedback on how they felt it went. Creating a tool so they are in a position to build up bigger public performances of it.
I also think things such as adequate rehearsal time are really important. That’s a real challenge because it’s very expensive – for the audience, the performers and producer to be there. Ideally, a dramaturge would be there to give feedback on what’s happening, I think it’s also good to have someone from outside of the process.
LŠ: How did the conversation with Glasgow International develop regarding the future of the performance field?
NM: We did a performance programme with GI (Glasgow International), originally, scheduled for their opening night for 2020 edition. When lockdown happened, it was all postponed. They obviously had a real hard time of it and rescheduling a lot of the programme, and we were part of conversations about how can we still be involved. We decided to do a partly live programme and partly digital programme, because two of the artists we were working with Nina Beier and Lina Lapeltyė were based abroad, so they couldn’t physically come to Scotland. But Paul Maheke, at the time was living in London – so we could do a live performance of his.
We were using the space called SWG3, a big warehouse space turned into a club in Glasgow, for Paul’s performance. And the day before the presentation, we worked with a cinematographer to shoot Paul’s performance with no audience in it. The following day, there was an in-person performance where we had a live audience and it fed into our digital programme, as part of the GI website. I was then invited to a panel including artists Paul Maheke, Zinzi Minott and Head of Programme of Metroland Cultures Lauren Wright, chaired by Richard Parry to discuss the future of performance. Most of the conversation revolved around how do we move forward in particular thinking about audiences and how audiences come back into performance.
One thing that has changed significantly is discussions around documentation and accessibility of performances outside of the live event itself. So, for example, we now dedicate much more conversation and much more budget to the documentation of performances. The aim is to try to capture more of the atmosphere of the work, rather than just a fixed camera in this space but discussing with the artists the best way of capturing the work rather than it being a simple documentation of an event.
LŠ: With the global pandemic many aspects of our lives shifted online, also in the curatorial field. What is your opinion of online curating?
NM: During the lockdown we wanted to still engage and still provide a platform for people to be able to get to grips with, learn and, speak to contemporary art. At RIA, before the lockdown we had been discussing having a platform on our website. Because we don’t have a space, we really want our website to feel like a place where people are spending time with us, because they can’t come to a gallery. Our website is a space that gathers material, and there’s a variety of texts, podcasts, videos and works from the collection, viewable. The intention is that we will continue to grow this over time.
I think online curating, in general, can be very hit and miss. It’s a challenging thing, because contemporary art is so beholden to the singular physical object, and that’s very difficult to replicate online. So, I think you have to find ways to engage with the context of how people view things online.
You’re never going to be in awe of a painting, looking at it online. You’re not going to have that same kind of ecstatic or sublime experience that you can get from encountering an object. You have to engage in a different way. And perhaps that’s more of an intellectual engagement by providing talks or information. But I also think it can be done in quite a playful way. I don’t think you always have to write in an academic way about an artwork. We have a series called the Collection Studies, which goes back quite a long time where we would invite someone to produce a text about a work in the collection. We are inviting people that are not curators and art historians, but maybe poets or fiction writers, or even architects – as they might have a slightly different perspective on artworks. The idea is to try to open out ways of thinking about artworks online and how people engage with them.