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I first met Helen Nisbet in 2014, when we both worked at Contemporary Art Society in London.

I loved working with Helen and was struck by her knowledge, kindness, and her ability to put artists and clients at ease with her sincere interest, enthusiasm, quick wit, and generosity.

Helen is committed to working collaboratively and transparently. We share a love of working with interdisciplinary artists who dig deep, who challenge us and themselves.

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There's usually someone or many people who know a lot more about things than I do. It is very important for me to make sure other voices are part of my work and that those voices are acknowledged appropriately.

Please note this interview was first published on the Artist Mentor website during 2020.

Helen Nisbet is a curator from Shetland, now based in London. She is Artistic Director for Art Night and curates projects across the UK, including projects and exhibitions with artists Helen Cammock; Mark Leckey; Heather Phillipson; Christine Sun Kim; Keith Piper; Barbara Kruger; Flo Brooks and Zadie Xa. Helen sits on the Acquisitions Committee for the Arts Council Collection and the Advisory Board for Art Quest and a-n.

What are you doing, reading, watching or listening to now that is helping you stay positive?

I found immersing myself in fiction helpful at the beginning of all this. I finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy with the excellent The Mirror and The Light. I haven’t been able to engage with anything so large since so I’ve also been looking at shorter essays and stories by some of my favourite writers – Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Lydia Davis, and Doris Lessing. My friend Catriona sent me The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 for my birthday – it’s such a good insight into Thatcher’s Britain, written and set when I was a baby. I can’t believe I haven’t read it before.

I’m only now, almost 3 months deep, feeling like I’m in the right headspace for engaging with artwork online. I find the idea of a digital programme tricky, but Alberta Whittle’s interim work for Glasgow International was full of rage and softness. I have no idea how she managed to make it, right now, in amongst all this shit, but that’s why she’s so great.

Helen Cammock, Shouting in Whispers, 2017poster by Cecilia Serafini
What are the core values and drivers that you bring to your curatorial work? What do you care about?

First, is the work good? There is no better place to start.

More personally, it is always about people. Supporting artists, presenting their work well, thinking about what sort of programme am I putting together, who it is for, how people might experience it.

Christine Sun Kim, If Sign Language Was Considered Equal We’d Already Be Friends, Art Night, 2019, Image courtesy Matt-Rowe
How do you develop your curatorial ideas? How do you test or scope your ideas?

Sometimes things happen quickly – ideas that have been developing for years fall into place. Mostly it is about ensuring space and time for research (something curators rarely get enough of, and this shows). I couldn’t do anything without friends and peers to test ideas with.

There’s usually someone or many people who know a lot more about things than I do. It is very important for me to make sure other voices are part of my work and that those voices are acknowledged appropriately.

Joe Namy, Automobile, Art Night 2019
How do you discover artists and what makes you finally decide you want to work with an artist?

Talking to others, reading and of course social media. It is never good enough, but unless you have limitless funds, time, and support there will always be gaps in your knowledge.

Who I work with depends entirely on context, I might have a relationship with someone for years before it is the best opportunity to work together arises. It should feel organic and natural. It’s also about thinking of the artist – making sure I’m bringing someone into something that is going to work for them too.

How do you gauge which artists and artworks will be interesting to audiences?

Again, it totally depends on the context. The most important thing is not to assume who an audience will be and to give a damn about not just attracting the same people. I also try to resist the pressure that something can only be deemed good or successful if it pulls in a large crowd, this is a really dangerous direction for presenting art, but one that, due to funding and other pressures, is becoming increasingly normal.

Julie Cunningham, Art Night 2019, Image courtesy Thierry Bal
What do you offer or provide artists in the curatorial relationship?

Again, that absolutely depends. If I invite an artist to be in a show or project it is my responsibility to make sure they have been communicated with clearly about what they’re getting involved in – the fee, the expectation, the parameters.

The role of a curator can so often feel like project management, so it’s important to make sure I’m also talking to the artist about the work, the ideas and the development of those ideas rather than just hitting them with logistics and institutional heaviness.

Helen Cammock, Cubitt, 2017, Image courtesy Mark Blower
Can you describe what you ideally want to achieve when curating an exhibition?

It depends entirely on context. If it’s a solo show I want the artist to make something they are happy with, that they want to realise. I will work with them to keep this on track with the environment of the space we are working with. If we’re talking about a group project, it could be more about re-presenting an idea or history. It is important to me that my shows have an openness that allows people to have their own feelings without my hand looming heavily overhead.

Mark Leckey, Affect Bridge Age Regression, Cubitt, 2017
Can you describe one of you most rewarding relationships with an artist – what factors made it enjoyable?

I have too many to list, and a handful of artists I feel very smooshy about. Some projects become long-term things. Like anything in life – sometimes you meet people and they become very important. There are a few artists who I know I will work with repeatedly.

Mutual respect, mutual politics (possibly relating to class and the way I see people and treat others) and a bit of magic.

What risks have you taken in curating that perhaps did not go so well but you learnt the most from?

There have been times when I have gone against my instincts, perhaps the opposite situation to my previous answer. Artists who should absolutely have had shows, but maybe not with me.

Also, it is hard to get into the art world. Not only to know what you want to be doing but to be able to be able to do what you want to do. So, I’ve worked on things I wouldn’t want to do again. But knowing what you don’t want to do is even more powerful than knowing what you do want to do.

Houses are Really Bodies, Cubitt, 2017
What  is one of your personal favourite exhibitions or events you have curated and why?

I look back on my whole Cubitt programme in a misty romantic haze. I absolutely loved being there. Because of that, my first exhibition Houses are Really Bodies, which looked at Leonora Carrington’s writing, marked the beginning of a very important time in my life.

Do you help fundraise for the show you curate & if so how?

Usually. This involves exploring all possible and ethical options for public funding, Trusts and Foundations, sponsorship, or support from private individuals.

I’m not sure I know any curator who has not had to learn how to do this and make their own networks and connections to support this. Unless they work for well-funded organisations or the things, they do are self-financed…

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, Art Night 2019, Image courtesy Rachel Cherry
What would you hope that people experience and learn from seeing one of your exhibitions or events?

That changes with each project and who the people are. If it is my family, that they would feel comfortable enough to stay in the room for longer than 5 minutes.

Extending this principle, I want people to feel comfortable in a space – physically comfortable, cared for, welcomed. Considering disability and access are crucial here. If I can get this right, it is easier for people to have their own experience, to feel at liberty to take from the show what they want to or can.

Emma Talbot, Art Night 2019, Image courtesy Thierry Bal
What emerging artists are you excited by right now and why?

The definition of who is emerging, who is mid, who is late…I find all this precarious. Loads of artists who could be deemed ’emerging’ are talking about quitting right now or finding another way to make money. But this is a whole other conversation.

I was on the jury for the Margaret Tait award recently, and it was won by Emilia Beatriz. They probably qualify as ’emerging’ and I am extremely excited both by their proposal for the award and to see what they do over the next few years.

What helpful resources would you recommend to artists?

There are lots of great curators, educators, producers, and writers doing important work right now, so I would steer artists in their direction – depending on what they’re interested in.

In terms of resources, I am on the board of Artquest and a-n and both do vital work in supporting artists throughout their career.

Artists who are wary of social media, I get it, but it really can be so useful and wide reaching. Just go light on the hashtags.

Do you have any advise for artists working with curators?

The curator is not the institution, even though some might feel hard to distinguish. Often our hands are tied, we can be badly paid, we do not have the power, or we are badly treated and so are unable to support you in the way you should be supported. This is not true of all curators, but something to note and be mindful of.

The other bit of advice is to be clear on what you want and any problems that arise. A good curator will navigate this with you.

Follow Helen Nisbet on socials @helennisbet @helen_nisbet @artquestlondon @artnightldn @anartistsinfo

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