Community curating at the Brighton Museum

Saskia Wesnigk-Wood
Saskia Wesnigk-Wood

The Downs to the Sea exhibition ends on Saturday 15 June and is a stunning show – do get down there before it’s too late.

The show has been put together by residents of Portslade and West Hove to celebrate the area they live in. They chose the artwork and helped decide how it should be displayed. They also created their own artwork to be shown alongside established artists such as Lowry and Carel Weight.  I’ve spoken to Saskia, one of the community curators about what she’s gained from being involved with the project.

 Q. A Can you describe yourself?

I’m Saskia Wesnigk-Wood, 55, from Portslade. I am a mother, writer, teacher, translator (German) and volunteer; I love people, words, music, art and vegetables in any order.

Q. How did you get involved in the project? 

A. As a busy volunteer I am on many emailing lists, among them the Trust for Developing Communities’ list. Jo Hill there knows me personally and asked me to go to see if I would like to become involved in this project.

Q. Did you know the other people involved? If not, what was it like to meet them for the first time?

A. I didn’t know until I arrived that I would know some people there. I also took my friend Dot along who attends the Portslade Arts and Crafts Group with me every Friday. We were both happy to have each other there for moral support but the group was immediately very friendly.

No 9 1973 by David Redfern Picture of man on the top deck of an empty bus
No 9 1973 by David Redfern

Q. How did you organise yourselves to choose the work?

A. All the works of art we were allowed to choose from, belong to the Arts Council of England. We had two ways of seeing the art work – one was an enormous paper catalogue, the other was a website. As you can imagine, no reproduction ever does the actual work of art any favours, so we had to make decisions based on content and colour and imagine the rest.

Once we’d all had a good look, the organisers asked us to come up with a theme for the exhibition. The theme was to be something we all cared about, which turned out to be the place we live in: Portslade and West Hove, between the Downs and the sea. After this decision was made, we chose pictures we felt said something about our theme; either depicting nature or the sea or somehow told the story of the houses we live in and of our neighbour, the city of Brighton & Hove.

Then came the hard task of the group (we were 8 people at that point) agreeing on which pictures of the many individually chosen we could all agree on. Some abstract images were voted out. And after that the heartbreaking news that the Arts Council would not let us have quite a few of them, especially the large sculptures or the very precious ones by famous artists.

Q. What was your favourite picture or piece of work? 

A. I have two favourites; one is the Red Deer by Peter Doig and the other a Lowry seascape. Both are oil paintings, the red Deer is enormous and stunning in colour and execution. You can look at it for a very long time and see more things than you did before. The seascape by contrast is very grey and calm, not at all like Lowry’s famous stick men paintings. You can see every brushstroke. To me it is deeply meditative and alive. The sea is a calming place on a grey day and the horizon a place I like to rest my eyes on.

Q. Do you have any background in art or art appreciation?

A.I have been lucky my mother has taken me to museums from when I was little. She loved art and encouraged me always to look at it and to draw and paint which I enjoy greatly, though I am an amateur. I still enjoy going to museums.

Q. What did you learn about looking and choosing art?

A. Becoming a community curator has opened my eyes to a new aspect of putting art in a gallery. Until then I simply accepted someone had made the effort to hang the pictures or place the sculptures and written some words about it or made a recording for people to listen to on headphones. It was great to get to think the process through, to work out a theme for each room, to think about how to tell the stories behind our choices.

For example, what if someone can’t read? What if someone is in a wheelchair, can they see what we want them to see? What if a sculpture is too heavy for the floor to support it or too big to fit through the door? What colour should the wall behind it be? I learnt to ask more questions and to appreciate the work of the curators much more.

Q. Was there anything in the process which you did not enjoy?

A. Well, it was a shame the group was not open to more abstract works of art which I would have liked. And the fact that the Arts Council would not let us have some works that we had our hearts set on made us all a bit sad. But this is not important compared to the great job we all had in being part of this adventure.

Sennen 1950 by William Scott Image of the sea and a beach
Sennen 1950 by William Scott

Q. Has it changed your perception of where you live?

A. No, I always knew I lived in a nice place with lots of good people and great views. It has changed other people’s perception of Portslade especially, many who came to the exhibition told us they did not even know where it was or that they thought it was not worth visiting. Many citizens of Portslade were thrilled we talked about their suburb (if I may call it that, it is actually older than Brighton) and they especially liked the collages we made ourselves with images of our neighbourhoods.

Q. What do you think the project achieved?

A. The project shows how community curators can work together with support to create an exhibition worth looking at. We’ve had very positive feedback, especially about the ‘personal touch’, the fact that we curators talk about how art affects us and why the paintings mean something to us. I would hope for us it has opened our minds to new aspects of how a museum works. We have also profited from hearing each other talk about why we like a work of art – this has sometimes changed our minds from “I don’t like that much” into “How fascinating, now I see why you like it.” Hopefully the museum curators themselves also profited from our input into their world. They certainly heard a lot about how older people can’t read pale grey writing on poorly lit cream paper, for example, and that some of us would need to sit down in a gallery after a while.

 

Q. What do you feel about Brighton Museum now?

A.I have always enjoyed going to Brighton Museum, it holds a lot of fabulous artefacts and pictures and has many local and international items that are worth visiting. I also like the special exhibitions there and the Late nights, which are always great fun. I was particularly impressed with how well Susan Eskdale, the community engagement officer and curator Helen looked after us. They gave us so much time to think and work stuff out and took us to see exhibitions, let us take part in workshops, helped us make the film. I feel somehow a bit at home there now and very welcome.

 

Q. Do add anything in which you feel is really vital if I’ve not covered it?

A. It is very important to me to give a great thank you to Clare Hopkins and her colleagues at the Trust for Developing Communities. They helped find the art select committee of community curators in the first place and Clare especially was vital in keeping us together. She was always there to answer emails, have a friendly chat, make sure we knew what happened when and where and that nobody got left out. There were also unlimited biscuits, sandwiches, fruit and tea, I am not sure who to thank for that but it made a difference, and we felt so appreciated. I want to do it again, but I guess it is time to let someone else have a go. Maybe I can facilitate, now that I have an idea how it all works.

Thank you!!!

 

 

 

 

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