CloseUp: Lucy Askew

Lucy is Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland. She curated Alberta Whittle: create dangerously, which is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) until 7 Jan 2024.

When did you fall in love with art?
I was always intrigued by visual imagery. When I was a child, my grandparents had a reproduction of Constable’s The Haywain, and my mother had a print of a drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger. When I was a teenager I started going to galleries and museums. A really memorable moment for me was seeing Gwen John’s Portrait of a Girl in Grey. It’s an unassuming, quiet picture, but there is such intensity in the girl. I was intrigued by the enigmatic qualities.

At what point did you realise you wanted to be a curator?
When I was a student I saved all my pennies and went to stay with a friend in New York. It was so exciting going to the big museums for the first time, I thought I would love to work in a museum. But it felt like it was out of my grasp, it was something other people did. When I graduated, I got a job in banking.

What changed?
My mum died when I was in my early twenties, which a catalyst for rethinking my career. I felt I had to take chances and risks. I wrote to every visual art organisation I could think of and got a couple of invigilator jobs, then I worked in the shop at the Dean Gallery (now Modern Two). While I was there an opportunity came up to do some voluntary work in the curatorial department, which led to me getting a secretarial job in that department.

How did you get your present role?
I did a second degree in London at the Courtauld Institute and then worked at Tate Modern. I was the first curator of the Artists Room collection, which is jointly owned by NGS and Tate, and came back to Scotland to be a senior curator at NGS in 2011. I was made Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2019.

What’s a normal day like?
No two days are alike! Since the pandemic, I work from home two days a week, so when I’m in the gallery I use the time to see people and have meetings. At home, I do reading, writing, research, looking at budgets.

What are the best parts of the job – and the worst?
There are so many things I love about my job. Nothing is as special as seeing audiences coming in and engaging with a show you’ve worked on. I never get tired of that. People do sometimes forget how much admin a curator has to do. I don’t mind it, but I like there to be a balance between creative bits of the job and the necessary admin parts.

How do you decide which shows to put on?
You have a long list and you have to edit down! I’m always thinking about the context, the strategy of the organisation, the big picture. I work with contemporary art, so I’m asking: what are the ways in which contemporary art helps us to understand the times in which we live? There are always practical considerations: scheduling, budget, fundraising.

What is it like to work with an artist to create a show of their work?
I see my role very much as a mediator. I want to make sure the artist’s vision and voice are centre stage, but I’m also an advocate for the needs of the visitor. Sometimes artists will come with a really strong vision of what they want and we can realise that. Sometimes there are practical issues to talk through. There’s a gentle, collaborative negotiation and navigation. Working with Alberta Whittle on create dangerously was a wonderful process of collaboration, it felt very organic.

How did the pandemic change the art world?
It precipitated a lot of deep thinking. There was such a reckoning in the museum sector after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. That was a really significant moment for us as curators examining the work we do, the role of institutions. We were already working across the organisation thinking about equality, diversity, inclusion, and we undertook external consultation to strengthen that commitment. 

Alberta Whittle and Lucy Askew in Alberta’s exhibition, ‘create dangerously’

What are you most proud of?
Alberta Whittle’s Lagareh – The Last Born (made for the Venice Biennale in 2022) is such a profound film. It’s a reminder that art can talk about difficult subjects in ways that help us understand. It looks at a history that I was never taught, about Scotland’s role in colonial enslavement and the connections between our country and the Caribbean. I’m so glad we are able to show it to Scottish audiences.

Has a work of art ever changed your life?
I remember standing in front of a Barnett Newman painting and feeling completely physically overwhelmed by the scale, colour and presence. It made me realise that, while reproductions are useful, it’s important to see art in person.

If you could have a work of art from any art collection anywhere in the world…
Louise Bourgeois addresses the inner world, what it is to be a human being, in amazing ways. Working on her show at NGS in 2013 was a highlight of my career. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has her early personnages, standing totemic forms which I find really beautiful and moving. There’s one in particular called Quarantania I which I’d love to have.

Who, or what, inspires you?
I’m lucky to be in a job where I’m constantly encountering art that is inspiring and people who are inspiring. But, on a personal basis, my mum. Her presence in my life continues to be really important. She keeps me going, makes me want to do better every day.

What are you excited about?
The festivals in Edinburgh in August! NGS is collaborating with Edinburgh Art Festival to stage an off-site performance by Alberta Whittle. It’s an opportunity for us to see another aspect of Alberta’s practice – I can’t wait.

‘Entanglement is more than blood’ by Alberta Whittle in ‘create cangerously’ at Modern One

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