A Day in the Life of a Curator

Pavel Pys

Leeds Student’s Zosia Gamgee catches up with Pavel Pyś, Exhibitions and Display Curator at the Henry Moore Institute, to discuss his work as a young curator in one of the UK’s most competitive artistic fields

LS: Thank you very much for talking with us, Pavel. Your work is hugely inspirational to many students. Is there any advice that you would give to any budding curators? How did you get such into such a highly sought-after career?

Prior to completing an MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths, I studied Sociology at the University of York at an undergraduate level and then Cultural Theory and Sociology at a postgraduate level at the London School of Economics. A non-art background helped in the sense that I approached curating from a different angle – mostly through my work experience preparing exhibitions with galleries, working directly with artists or contributing writing. University was a vital experience, I enjoyed rehearsing and discussing ideas within a circle of colleagues who have since become friends. I found it was important to show initiative and even when studying full-time, it was vital to maintain professional and practical experiences – curating exhibitions, writing, organising talks, working with galleries.

LS: What do you enjoy most about your job? What is a ‘normal day’ for you?

There are many definitions of what it is to be a curator – my understanding is that it’s a profession rooted within research and writing. I immensely enjoy being able to spend time reading as part of my work, thinking about art and developing conversations with artists. No single day is the same – I could be overseeing installation, writing interpretative texts, press releases or essays, corresponding with institutions and collections, trying to track down artworks. It’s very important to travel, not least when representing your workplace, but also to see as many exhibitions as possible, to meet new people.

LS: What is the one exhibition that you are most proud of being a part of to date?

I am proud of all the various projects I have been involved in. Since joining the Institute I have had the pleasure of working on many exhibitions across our programme – I am particularly proud of our recent exhibition of work by Robert Filliou, whose practice has been neglected in the UK and in English-speaking contexts. It has also been a pleasure to research the year 1913 and be able to bring together such a varied array of work for the ‘1913: The Shape of Time’ last year. I am particularly proud of our recent Gallery 4 programme, which has included presentations of works by artists seldom seen in the UK – John McCracken, Vlassis Caniaris and Sturtevant – I consider these presentations strong counterpoints to our exhibitions in Galleries 1, 2 and 3. I’m very excited for our archive and collections displays, where we have a chance to share important recent acquisitions with the public. At the moment, we’re putting finishing touches to our summer show – ‘Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture’ – which I can’t wait to open.

LS: What is the most difficult thing about your job? Is there a less ‘glamorous’ side to being a curator?

Being a curator is not a glamorous profession – this is a misconception. There are many exciting sides to the job, but in reality the work entails many different, often mundane, activities. There are checklists to be made, health and safety rules to abide to, budgets to balance and all kinds of restrictions. There are also relatively few positions available and gaining employment can be very difficult – I have been lucky.

LS: What is the most inspiring exhibition that you’ve ever been to?

There are a number of exhibitions that have been very inspiring to me – Goshka Macuga’s ‘Objects in Relation’ (Tate Britain, 2007), the Vervoordt Foundation exhibitions at Palazzo Fortuny, Steve Claydon’s ‘Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring’ (Camden Arts Centre, 2007), Lars Bang Larsen’s ‘A History of Irritated Material’ (Raven Row, 2010), Sturtevant’s ‘The Razzle Dazzle of Thinking’ (Mussee de la ville de Paris, 2010). I wish I had a chance to see exhibitions curated by Harald Szeemann, Carlo Scarpa and Rene D’Harnoncourt.

LS: The Henry Moore Institute aims to re-situate sculpture at the centre of art history. What is your favourite sculpture within the Collection in Leeds?

It’s impossible to choose. The Collection is incredibly rich and varied – it’s a privilege to work with such wonderful pieces. If I had to choose – I would say Marlow Moss’ ‘Spatial Construction’ (1956-7). A wonderful work, but a truly ignored artist, much in need of re-addressing today.

LS: Finally, who is your all-time favourite artist, and why?

There are many artists whose work I cherish and respect, however I can’t name a favourite. I do remember what made me choose to work with artists – when I was a teenager I came across, completely unexpected, a work by James Turrell in Sydney’s MCA. That was a formative moment and since then, I knew I wanted to work with art.


Image courtesy of the Henry Moore Institute

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