Curating a show isn’t something I have any experience with, so for this article, I reached out to Raleigh-based painter Alia El-Bermani. Nestled among Alia’s many titles, which include artist, teacher, and business owner, is that of a curator.
After completing her BFA, Alia’s professional path was not typical. Her first part-time job was as a gallery assistant at a premier Southern California gallery. Working at the gallery taught her the business side of the art world while she built her own practice as a studio artist.
Life always has a way of steering us toward opportunity. While still in California, Alia’s curiosity lead her to create a collaborative show between the gallery and her alma mater, Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD). The show was entitled “About Paint.” Her point of view as a painter influenced the title and theme of the show.
Haley Hasler’s work with the title wall in "Women Painting Women: In Earnest" show at Texas A&M University’s J. Wayne Stark Galleries.
Alia explained her concept and theme this way: “Following my own interests, while seeking to build the connections I saw within the artists’ various works, the theme and title of the show became 'About Paint.' Exploring the qualities and characteristics of how various artists use paint, was a way to pull together seemingly disparate subjects of still life and figurative works as well as the many modes of representation… It was a wonderful long-term project that utilized many of my own skills of organizing, writing, design (for the off-set printing of the catalog) and love of paint.”
In my mind, I equated curation with simply choosing the artwork. However, Alia discussed the many tasks and skills required for success. As she stated, “Sometimes it is as simple as choosing work from a list of artists provided by the gallery and then the gallery taking it from there. You may have very little say in the layout of the exhibition. Other situations require much more investment of time and effort throughout the whole process. After works have been narrowed down, there will be:
1. Much communication back and forth with artists and galleries;
2. Coordination with private collectors to loan the work;
3. Procurement of insurance for the entire exhibition;
4. Design of how the works will be displayed and hung throughout the space;
5. Discussions on additional programing and public education.
“There is always a heavy component of writing involved with curation. This starts with writing a statement on the exhibition, statements for wall verbiage, for promotion or for catalogs or perhaps even for grant funding. Really, you have to be a skilled writer to be a curator and having a thorough knowledge of art history to place the exhibition in a vivid context is desired.
“Lastly, you may also have to become an art shipping and handling expert. Works will have to get to the venue (and returned safely) and you will likely need to maximize every penny in the budget. Really, the job could be endless depending on the parameters you set forth at the beginning of the engagement.”
Michelle Doll, Zoey Frank and Alexandra Tyng in "Women Painting Women" show.
She has learned through experience that there is no formula for success. Each occasion has presented its own unique challenges. Alia noted that, although she was fortunate enough to curate several gallery exhibitions and one major traveling museum exhibition, she does not consider herself an expert, rather an artist who curates.
Her advice for those with a sole interest in curation was to look for a strong bachelor’s degree program in art history, then continue to a graduate program in Museum Studies. She lives near Duke University and knows of several accomplished curators who have come out of that program and gained success in that field.
As for advice to the artist interested in curation, she states, “In the professional world, it’s frowned upon for a curator of an exhibition to include their own work. If you plan to be a curator, this needs to be your singular role for the exhibition to have integrity. Otherwise, it could be seen as a self-serving endeavor of self-promotion. It has become a popular practice for artists to curate their own work into exhibitions. However, most museums and academic venues will not consider such proposals and will not grant the funding or calendar space. It could also have a negative impact on your reputation as both a curator and an artist.”
Sylvia Maier, Jennifer Balkan, Felice House, and Ellen Cooper in "Women Painting Women" show.
It’s important to understand that curation takes many hours away from your studio practice. The traveling museum exhibition Alia curated and coordinated, Women Painting Women: In Earnest commenced August 2017, and took her out of the studio for three years. She was proud of the exhibition and the work she put in to grow the visibility and cache of every one of the artists included. Currently, Alia is dedicating her attention to her easel.