Author: Emily Hunt
Neil McConnon. Image courtesy of Linda Nyland.
Webamp recently had the opportunity to speak with Neil McConnon, Director of International Partnerships at Tate Modern.
Neil McConnon shares with Webamp there are certain guiding principles, such as caring about art, creating a space where a broad range of voices and ideas can flourish, questions can be explored with rigour and breadth that make up a good curator. For McConnon, a good leader amongst many other things, provides the right environment for this to happen. For him, the other part of the equation is of course the balancing of creative, administrative, financial and commercial imperatives.
McConnon shared with Webamp that he started out studying art and design, fine art and textiles. Later, he got a masters degree in curating. He states,
“I have never had a career plan and in truth I have always gravitated towards areas and projects of interest, regardless of opportunities or prescribed routes. I suspect that if you’re fascinated by a subject, enough to want to understand and interrogate it, you may well end up doing it well, hopefully taking it in new and interesting directions.”
McConnon shares he did all the usual things to finance himself, such as working weekends in bookshops and museum retail to support his studies and ‘buy’ time to think. Which, he believes, provided him with a very valuable, creative mix of often like-minded artists, designers, academics. They were all trying to find their place in the world – working in jobs that paid the rent, the studio, and the courses.
Through his studies in art, he became interested in Chinese painting. McConnon recalls that interest drew him to China, where he lived on and off for some time. Later, he continued visiting whenever he could, immersing himself in as much Chinese culture as possible. Living and working in China afforded McConnon a unique insight into local arts communities, studios and galleries and it was this that led him to curating. He initially worked with Chinese artists to stage small exhibitions of artists whose work he felt warranted a wider audience. McConnon emphasizes,
“I have always believed that the best way to influence different societies is to engage, where possible – and that this should be reciprocal, again wherever possible.”
This led McConnon to a position working at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Here, he worked on a larger project in Asia as well as a series of digital projects and commissions in association with that organization. McConnon recalls it as being an exciting and exhilarating time because China was just beginning to open up to the outside world resulting in energy and passion for art that was palpable and infectious.
After a time at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, McConnon worked as a freelance curator. Then, he continued his journey in east London by working at Barbican Center. McConnon explains he was fortunate to start working at Barbican when it was not particularly hip or fashionable. That is, before the gentrification of the east of London. In some ways, McConnon believes he shared in the Barbican's journey, from a rather neglected outpost for culture, more known for its classical music program and distinctive Brutalist architecture, to a world class arts center. McConnon further unravels his story saying,
“My first role at Barbican was as exhibition manager, then as curator and head of department, developing exhibitions in London and internationally. Again, there was no plan, just a desire to explore the boundaries of what might be possible with all the support (and restrictions) that come with working as part of a large organization. I collaborated with major film studios (Pixar, EON productions and Lucasfilm), with animation and special effects companies, with video game developers and leading arts and science research centers internationally. ”
McConnon emphasizes that expanding and welcoming new audiences and reaching out to international audiences has always been central to his thinking. He believes this is something he was very fortunate to be able to put into practice at Barbican. McConnon explained to Webamp that international work and partnerships are a significant motivating factor, creating new shows for the UK and international audiences and staging those shows globally. He shares,
"I have always loved collaboration, deal-making, co-producing, finding new ways to consider and resolve issues, creating and sharing a vision from a nascent seed of an idea through to a conclusion and realization."
McConnon tells Webamp his notions of art and artists are rather complex and personal, but in essence he believes we are all artists. At least when we are thinking and working creatively, interrogating aspects of our world and our existence. He hopes his experience of making art has given him greater empathy with the process and the challenges involved, which is something McConnon is constantly aware of in his dealings with artists and exhibitions. McConnon reflects that although this is certainly not a prerequisite to working in the arts, but it has helped in his personal work.
Moreover, McConnon holds that oftentimes notions of art (ist) can be too prescribed. Instead, he would suggest that some of the most creative practitioners currently working, move between areas such as film, performance and moving image, science and technology, video-games, animation - not content to fit into often limiting and narrow art-world definitions . For McConnon, that's a healthy development and one he hopes will continue to find traction in the museum sector. He states,
“Tate Modern is inspiring. It's wonderful to work with people who are passionate leaders in their field and I find myself constantly astonished by the openness, generosity and expertise of my colleagues at Tate. ”
McConnon explains that all large cultural organizations have their particular politics and challenges. However, the important and reassuring thing is that the vision is a shared one, that everyone can align with and strive towards. McConnon recognizes that from the outside it sounds obvious and simple, but in his own experience it's actually the result of enormous hard work and commitment. He applauds Tate for having a shared vision and feels lucky to be part of the culture.
McConnon notes the challenges of COVID-19 are ongoing, not just to his role, but to the way the world, including the art world, operates. Although the negative often take the spotlight because they are so easy to see, McConnon acknowledges the opportunity for genuine self-reflection and a re-set as being exciting. He states,
“In parallel to Covid, events in the US and Europe have exposed racism and prejudice throughout many of our institutions. Re-thinking how we engage our audiences and involving our audiences in that conversation has to be a positive take-away… serious examination of the under-representation of women and BAME artists and professionals in our institutions, issues of transnationalism, de-colonization and reframing art histories - are all subjects of research and action within museums currently and that is very positive thing indeed. ”.
Additionally, ways of working more flexibly, harmoniously, sustainably are emerging in light of the pandemic. McConnon emphasizes the importance of conceiving the museum in reality as a space without walls, that is more pervious to public interaction, more democratic, and aware of the need to change to better reflect its audiences globally. He shares that digital possibilities are expanding exponentially within museum practice, and it now makes sense to stage major exhibitions with partners globally, without sending teams of experts to install and de-install. Platforms such as Zoom continue to show us fresh ways of working, which whilst not ideal do have wider positive repercussions, according to McConnon. He also acknowledged that international cultural tourism is no longer sustainable. For him, that is both quite the realization and a step forward towards an environmentally responsible mode of operating that we all need to urgently embrace. McConnon emphasizes,
"Most of all I think we all need to have hope - to be positive and seize opportunities for change, so that we can continue to find creative ways forward - to create bold and empowering working practices that build on what went before."