Creative Accounting

An intriguing tale of art and money


Holly Williams, The Curators’ Department

Holly Williams is the curator behind Creative Accounting – a touring exhibition set to open at UQ Art Museum on 12 November. We caught up with Holly to find out more about this intriguing meeting of contemporary art, money, aesthetics and perceived value, as well as her thoughts on finding a way into the curatorial field.

Q: Your exhibition Creative Accounting uses contemporary art to look at ideas about money, currency, and exchange. What was the impetus for curating and touring this exhibition now?
A: In the past couple of thousand years there have been relatively minor changes in what we visually recognise as money – be it as fiat currency (created by law or a central bank for example) or commodity money (created from a commodity such as gold). We are now living through this moment when the material expression of money is diminishing to such a point that, in the space of a few years, it could be entirely within a digital network. Money has such a rich history as a visual device, when we look to banknotes for example, we are engaging in the history of design, of trust, of propaganda and of technological advancement. However, for me, part of the show was about finding artists who interrogated money through material expression. Along with virtual currencies, computing technology had driven a tremendous velocity in the global economic system which makes it seem even more elusive to tangible understanding, so in some ways the show is a kind of homage to something that has been a familiar part of our lives for thousands of years.

Q: In the catalogue essay you write that one of the intentions of the exhibition was to capitalise on the material nature of artworks in “helping to re-imagine or reawaken our relationship with it [money]”. Can you expand a little further on this idea?
A: The economic system is something so pervasive it’s almost overlooked; even though effectively it’s a construct we all tacitly agree to participate in. I was struck by how little reflection there is on this day-to-day, especially an underlying assumption that there must be some mathematical truth or rationality underpinning it, whereas it’s deeply subjective and highly susceptible to moods and preferences at both macro and micro levels. So I’m really interested in the idea of piercing the bubble of habitual understanding of what money is and the perceived inseparability of the economic system in our daily lives.

Several things point to this, such as Melanie Gilligan’s Self Capital where she has created an embodied figure of the global economy as a middle-aged woman having a nervous breakdown – this may in fact be a more accurate way to draw the economy over the mathematical models that many economists rely on.

Q: Currency and art are similar in that they rely on a shared sense of their perceived values to be effective – they need to be believed to exist. How have artists in the exhibition approached this similarity?
A: This exhibition has been touring through several regional areas and one of the most provocative works in the show has turned out to be Christine McMillan’s Firewood. One Tonne, which embodies that question. As the title suggests, the work comprises a tonne of firewood. I curated it into the Installation Contemporary Program at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair last year and got to hear the art-world audience response to the work (“It’s not art!”) and now I’ve been able to hear the regional-town audience response to the work (also “It’s not art!”) – because there is a gap in seeing and the leap of faith required for a shift in perceived value. To me this work is so interesting because upon closer inspection you can see that Christine has hand-polished one side of each of the logs of wood that comprise the tonne to reveal beautiful rich wood grain. The work embodies so many different kinds of values – aesthetic value over useful value, scarcity value, and the value of attention. It also represents the drivers of capitalism to add value to a raw material through labour.

Q: You work for and co-founded The Curators’ Department. What inspired you to establish an organisation like this?
A: Primarily, it was about being able to work in a more nimble and responsive way. Although I and the two other founding directors – Glenn Barkly and Ivan Muniz Reed – have different focus areas, we could see the positive potential that working together could bring, beyond being individual freelance curators. Our business model is deliberately diverse (as are our clients), but we could see the value our combined curatorial expertise and experience could bring to the work we do.

Q: What advice would you give to emerging curators?
A: My pathway to curating came from being a practising artist and working on artist-run spaces such as First Draft and Runway. Probably my main advice would be to see a lot of things and to meet a lot of people – artists, curators and specialists in other fields. I think the idea of clocking up 10,000 hours of seeing exhibitions is a good one in terms of training your eye, knowing what’s happening with contemporary practices and being in the right place to meet interesting people.

Creative Accounting runs from 12 November until 26 February 2017. Join Curator Holly Williams on Friday 11 November at 5.00 pm for a panel discussion with UQ Professor of Economics Flavio Menezes and artists Andrew Hurle and Joachim Froese, mediated by UQ Art Museum’s Holly Arden. The exhibition opening will be held immediately after the panel discussion from 6.15 pm.

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