We were recently given a golden line that perfectly summed up the Tusk kaupapa: "More voices enable us to normalize a culture of constructive criticism." The line came from Te Tuhi's Senior Curator Bruce Phillips and though it wasn't in direct relation to our work, we thought it was too good to pass up. Bruce is one of our sector Tuakana who approached us through the Victoria University school of Museum and Heritage studies, a place we have all studied at. Receiving unexpected emails from such esteemed sector colleagues as himself is a very emboldening experience and we had the chance to meet Bruce in person during the Museums Australasia conference where we discovered he is a nice guy to boot! Talking with Bruce gave us a lot of ideas and energy, things that are invaluable in the GLAMs but can come through talking with people. So thank you Bruce and I'm sorry (not sorry) to say that you will never be rid of us!
In five words, describe your role in the sector.
Artist enabler and scruffy curator
What is it about the sector that you love?
The great thing about a small scene is that it is relatively easy to find a gap where there is need and opportunity to create a point of difference. New Zealand's cultural sector also has many diverse voices, people who have high standards and are super critical. I think that this gives us a collective strength that is simultaneously supportive, competitive and dysfunctional. The sector has the potential to comprise hot beds of experimentation and bustling hives of collaboration or conversely closed-minded enclaves of conservatism and anally pretentious towers of self-importance. And within this we have the potential to sharpen each other and also tear each other apart. I like this tension. It is creatively and politically stimulating – it gives practitioners something to fuel their practice with.
What have been some challenges in your career?
One of the main roles I have had in my career has been working closely with artists to produce new works. Since every artist is unique this often requires venturing into uncharted territory for everyone involved which is always challenging. An additional challenge of being a curator in this capacity is the ethical problem of agency. Curating is essentially an antidemocratic profession. This realisation has troubled me throughout my career and to counteract this authoritarian tendency I have tried to develop strategies such as: being aware of latent bias, including many voices, giving freedom to artists to disregard a curatorial premise or to take a lead in the formation of an exhibition, finding ways in which the institution can be a collaborative and challenging instrument for artists and the public. What I have learnt through all of this is that the most difficult challenge of curating is to honestly apply and maintain one's principles in practice.
What challenges can you see moving forward?
For our sector, if the political trend of labelling culture as a 'nice to have' continues hand-in-hand with a decrease in public funding for cultural organisations there will be an increased dependence on private support and to operate as businesses.
For our nation, the disparity between rich and poor that we see increasing at present will create irrevocable generational problems that will be many and complex. And if we consider these two issues together our cultural sector will have a great challenge appeasing private sources of wealth and generate income while also engaging in issues that affect the most vulnerable in our society.
What do you think people in the early stages of their careers can offer the sector?
I think that naivety and fresh perspectives are an important offering that everyone has entering in the cultural sector. Naivety is a positive and important thing because it allows innovative mistakes to happen and idealistic principles to be strived for. Fresh perspectives is a cliché and comes with ageist assumptions. However, everyone new to the sector has a unique way of seeing the world that has not yet been shaped by institutionalism and we need to value those perspectives because they will help the sector grow.
What is your spirit animal?
Octopus because they are experts of camouflage, wickedly tactical and amazingly adaptable. I once saw one squeeze through a hole a fraction of its size to escape a crayfish pot despite the fact it had consumed three crays! They are mind-boggling cosmic creatures; I have massive respect for them.