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Who says curating is a desk job?

There is a lot of crouching, squatting, heaving, hoisting, fetching, and pacing involved in the practice of curating. You need the right perspective to determine the best position for a particular artwork, and for the right combination of artworks. You pause and reflect. And then you switch everything around again.

Last month, I travelled to New York to curate The Global Landscapes Exhibition, which included over forty landscape paintings by Ella Spira. They were created mostly over the past two years as Ella took time to return to countries she had worked in during the previous decade staging Sisters Grimm shows in South Africa, Brazil, and the UAE, amongst others. The display also included charcoal drawings, photographs and a musical score.

The greatest challenge was selecting the most appropriate paintings from Ella's prolific body of work to tell the fascinating story of her nomadic lifestyle, her dedication to promoting cultural exchange and her commitment to the preservation of the natural world. The are always multiple permutations of paintings to choose from as the idea for the exhibition develops, which means that selecting works is not a simple 'yes' or 'no' decision.

Curating is a long process, which means it is rarely a 9 to 5 job. There are of course long moments spent thinking and writing at a computer, but when the exhibition is being assembled, it often becomes a 9 to midnight or later kind of job. Time starts to accelerate and I barely feel it flow. Pacing up and down amongst artworks, trying to tune in to how they speak to one another and engage in a meaningful dialogue, or sometimes jar with one another, can be intensely thrilling.

Inevitably, whether an exhibition has been two years in the making or two days, the pressure starts to rise as you get to the final countdown. It might even all look like it’s going to go to pot (technical term). So, as a curator or exhibition manager, it’s tempting to start gunning for Plan B: that is, postponement, cancellation, figuring out how to mitigate issues because it all looks so doomed. My advice is to override that instinct, gird your loins and keep going!

Part of the thrill of putting on an exhibition is working with a dedicated team and creating the shared experience of assembling the exhibition all together. For Ella Spira's Global Landscapes Retrospective, I had an A team lined up: Ella and Pietra of course, the Sisters Grimm Ltd. terrific duo who together created the artwork (Ella) and produced the show (Pietra); also Dajou Cottrell and Augusta Leopold who worked hard to hang the show, arrange the lighting, take visitors around, follow up sales lead and more. It was an all-female team of strong professionals, which made the event come together flawlessly and in the best spirit - #womenatwork.

The final element in the curating journey is witnessing the audience's response to the exhibition. Ella’s intuitive approach to painting, the simplicity and freshness of her work gave it an immediate presence and point of connection for visitors. The musical score created by Ella to accompany the display made it all the more immersive. I witnessed visitors go around the show once, twice, and more to take in the artworks and immerse themselves in the landscapes. Many who had come in pairs shared their own memories of places in front of some of the work, or exchanged their views on the work.

In the words of a visitor: “the music brought together the artworks and transported me to these far-flung places to explore such different natural environments, and offered a richness of perspectives.” Fresh insights, escapism, moments of connection - what more could you wish for in an exhibition?

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