• S. Wardell

In Search of Curation and the Editorial Voice

I was really interested to read recently about Bottega Veneta coming off Instagram in favour of a less frequent but higher quality online magazine. While social media sites, like Instagram, have been lifeblood for small and indie ventures in the last decade, the Bottega story made me revisit my hopes for curated projects like the Refresh Art award over the years.

It remains to be seen whether this move will be commercially successful, and foster that couture feeling of exclusivity. What happens when a hugely successful brand actively ditches the concept of chasing likes? Will it affect sales, and will it actually be a permanent thing or just a publicity stunt? One of the justifications for this move has reported to be that it will make higher quality content possible, and surely that is something for all of us in the creative industries to be hopeful about?

This is what made me think about my intention for the Refresh Art Award back in 2017/8 when we set it up, as well as our general funding and publicity model. The Internet has made a project like this possible, and due to an extreme lack of funds, both when setting it up and always at the start of each callout, social media has been chief enabler of the project.

Social media gave us a wider international reach than two indie curators based in the UK could have dreamed of years before. It also gave us affordable advertising options. It also gave us the possibility to offer extra value to our entrants, as we promote every entry across our social media platforms. Over the years, all of these have grown, with Instagram being by far the biggest. Maybe that is because it is visual and brilliant for showcasing visual artists, with most of our entrants already having their own accounts. Maybe it is also because Instagram is the one that both the founders use, like and understand the best.

However, the show always had a life in the real world too, with a physical exhibition for shortlisted artists. This was hugely important setting up the second award. As a biannual we managed to leapfrog the lockdowns of 2020 but now running this by myself, I was adamant we were going to try and have a show. Nothing beats seeing artwork in the flesh, smelling the linseed and walking round a sculpture. As an artist I know that seeing your work curated in a gallery space shows how much it has been valued by someone else and that is also a good feeling.

This has also coincided with a review of various of my own projects, including publishing company Pudding Press, and their relationship with social media amongst other things. I don’t personally love the experience of spending too much time on social media. I like it. It is certainly great for promoting things affordably, and I’ve also had some wonderful connections with people. Only last weekend I made a ridiculous fan-girl shame of myself when it turned out that one of my Instagram followers who wanted to talk to me about Procreate also happens to be the author of one of my most favourite cookbooks over the last 20 years. After the gushing had stopped I was amazed at this happening, and sure this couldn’t have occurred before social media. On the other hand whenever I go to post something on Twitter for five minutes, I feel as if I need a week of therapy afterwards.

The one account that I like the best is my own professional Instagram account, which isn’t outwardly commercial but more an open sketchbook of ongoing projects. Using social media to promote a brand and get sales is a whole different world, that is often fraught with the need to produce constant content. Unless you are an influencer that spends whole days setting up mock photographs of beach holidays in your back garden, or a brand big enough to have a few social media employees, this can lead to a deterioration of considered content. The editorial voice is still there but it just joins the cacophony of everything else.

Then there have been concerns about the direction of Facebook over recent years. From spreading conspiracy theories to swinging elections, I’ve been living in a country where this has been a very real issue affecting our daily lives for the last 5 years, whether people care or not. So I don’t know how much I want to contribute to this by feeding more money in to the machine. So far I’ve held off Facebook advertising for Refresh, but it’s a small project and I’d be naïve to think that I can earn enough funds to put on the show without keeping our advertising strategy broadly the same as last time. Refresh might have grown a tiny bit since 2018 but not nearly enough to be able to make the types of decisions Bottega can.

However, one thing we do have is our own site, and in the world of likes, reposts, and the lure of the ‘viral’ I think it’s really easy to forget how to make full use of having your own website. This has all made me go back to the idea of having a catalogue. Exhibition catalogues are not just records of something but they’re artefacts too, and I really felt that this was missing from the last show. Plus, the everything-on-someone-else’s purpose-built-online-model is so seductive for the lazy curator who wants the glory of heading up a big project. See various pandemic art hashtag campaigns for evidence of this.

One thing I was particularly happy with in 2020 was that I finally got round to producing the print catalogue for the December 2019 Spaghetti Intaglio show. I still really like that catalogue, and it went through a number of funding crises before it was finally done. The response to having a physical exhibition catalogue was mixed. As part of the show, the artists all got a free copy, and I eventually raised the money for printing via a type of crowdfunding exercise. Judging by the number of unclaimed catalogues I still have sitting here, wrapped up in tissue, not everybody cared too much about this but those who did really did. Some even bought extra copies beyond their free one. That made it worth it for me. To me as the curator, the catalogue still creates much more of a resolved project. I can sit there and look through it, getting much more of an experience of the show than having to scroll back two years on social media. Who does that anyway? Things that are absorbed in to the bulk of social media effectively disappear.

Therefore, wanting this for Refresh, and inspired by Bottega, I’m going to try and find a way to put together a catalogue for the shortlisted artists with the 2021 Refresh Art Award. I expect this will come out some time after the show, and be a free downloadable PDF that we can host on the Refresh website. I’m keen to also make available a print version, though this will have to be one that people pay for if they really want a copy. Personally I feel that archiving work in this deliberate and curated manner will give participating artists even better value.

Up until this point I’ve been willing to accept that I might be just a dinosaur who was a fully fledged adult before we even had mobile phones, but I do still think there are conversations to be had about quality, time, space and engagement. Whether print or an electronic document, a magazine / catalogue / journal puts the editorial and curatorial voice back into what can otherwise just descend into a flood of constant content. It allows for development time, as well as a pause away from the rest of the cacophony when reading.

Maybe as creative practitioners, using social media for many years now, we are at a stage where we can take a step back and consider methods of delivery? It will take bigger brands and projects to start this and prove that it can be economically successful, but using the amazing collaborative and viral communication power of the internet in a way that it does not dictate content so much is surely a hope for us all in the creative industries?

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