After studying Art History, English and History for her Bachelor of Arts at The Australian National University (ANU), Samantha Littley completed a Post-graduate Diploma in Cultural Heritage Management at the University of Canberra, while working as an Assistant Curator in the Art Section of the Australian War Memorial. Her diverse career has included roles as Public Programs Officer at the National Gallery of Australia; Research Assistant in the Australian Art Program at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, ANU; and Exhibitions Officer at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. Prior to her current position as Curator, UQ Art Museum, Samantha was, for seven years, Curator of Australian Art to 1970 at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). We talked to her about the varied aspects of curatorial work and her advice for students heading towards this career path.
Q: Many people would relate to the role of a curator in developing and implementing an exhibition, but can you expand a little on the breadth of work you undertake as a curator at an art museum?
A: Curatorial work incorporates a wide range of responsibilities. Beyond the scholarship and research that underpins exhibitions and the writing through which these ideas are communicated, there is the work of collection building. This involves an understanding of the art history, contemporary practice and the art market, an appreciation of aesthetic quality, and knowledge of the collection for which you are custodian. On a more practical level, the job involves a surprising amount of administration, and requires good attention to detail. A lot of work goes into sourcing artworks for exhibitions, for example, and to ensuring that the information included in printed material, like exhibition catalogues, is accurate. You have to be creative and meticulous.
Q: Has there been a particularly memorable exhibition you’ve worked on during your career?
A: When I was at QAGOMA, I was fortunate enough to curate a retrospective of the work of Queensland artist Kenneth Macqueen, who was a leading Australian Modernist and the most distinctive watercolourist of his generation. Making it Modern: The watercolours of Kenneth Macqueen (2007–2008) was the most extensive display of the artist’s work to date. It attracted audiences from interstate and across Queensland, particularly people from the Darling Downs where Macqueen lived and worked. It was wonderful to be able to establish the important role he played in promoting a new, Modern vision of the Australian landscape in the period following World War I. Since working at the UQ Art Museum, I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to work with a number of important contemporary artists including Danie Mellor and Peter Hennessey. As with the Macqueen exhibition, Peter Hennessey: Making it real (2015) involved original research, which is always fulfilling.
Q: At UQ Art Museum, you work alongside university students, teaching, guiding and providing practical experiences in the museum – are there particular skills critical to performing curatorial work that you help students to develop?
A: It’s very rewarding to work with the next generation of art museum professionals and to foster the students’ confidence and enthusiasm for this work. There is no mystique to being a good curator, despite what some might have you believe. It helps to have a good aesthetic sense, as I’ve mentioned, but this can be developed through sustained and focussed looking. It’s important to visit exhibitions and talk with artists, and to continue your self-education by reading journals and catalogues. A fervour for research and writing is essential. It’s the bread and butter of the job.
Q: The curatorial field in Australia is a competitive one. What advice do you have for students looking to forge a career in this area and are there multiple pathways and entry points into the field?
A: In the first lecture of my Post-graduate Diploma we were told how narrow the field was, and how few of us could expect to gain employment in the industry. My first thought was ‘I’m going to be one of them’. That was in the 1990s and the profession has become even more competitive since then. You have to be completely committed and be willing to move across into other areas as opportunities arise. My work in public programs has given me a healthy respect for audiences, while the time I spent concentrating on research and writing at the ANU built skills that have made me a more considered curator. Everything you do teaches you something, especially if you look for ways to apply it. Develop your skill base and keep your eye on the prize.
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