Heritage, TV, and Public Space—Fostering a Network of Close-Knit Art Communities
From doodles and daydreaming to photography. I was always creative when I was younger—doodling in notebooks and staring out of windows, rather than being academically focused. I was a bit of an outsider. I was really lucky, however, to have parents who saw and nurtured that interest, taking me on trips to Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and to London to visit the major galleries and theatres. I didn’t really realise at the time that this was such a privilege for the major art and museum institutions to feel accessible to me. Although I didn’t understand the different careers you could have in the creative industries, it was a tangible thing that existed in the world, I could see it. But if I’m being completely honest, my early art aspirations were totally different. It goes back to the doodling. I loved Disney animation and wanted to pursue something like that, could I be an animator? When I went to do my foundation course, that is what I wanted to do—something with graphics and animation. It was through the process of trying new things that I fell into photography. I was guided into focusing on it for my final term, and decided to carry on in that field for my BA.
Exhibition theory is not only for museums. It was through my BA Photography at Farnham, and specifically being tutored by the amazing David Campany, that I was introduced to exhibition theory. He suggested that I look into curating, as my work was all about how we encountered images. At the time I thought curating was specifically about working in and with museum collections. I couldn’t really see the link to what I was talking about, until I dived in head first into a million books. Everything clicked, and I understood that the ‘frame’ I was discussing in photography was the same as the frame the curator uses—that of space, architecture, location, themes, artists, social commentary, etc—and that was it. I moved back to Birmingham, got an invigilator role at Ikon, and met a bunch of artists who really helped me start organising exhibitions. After an MA in Curating at BCU (a course that no longer runs, sadly) I set up my own gallery called TROVE (2009-2013) in a heritage site in the Jewellery Quarter in Brum, and started programming shows. It was one show a month, seldom programming more than three months in advance so it could be really reactive to the conversations I was having with artists and curators. We were also responding to the site’s history and developed partnerships with organisations such as Fierce Festival and Hereford Photography Festival.
Curating site-specifically. TROVE was really where I learnt my trade and started to define my style. I loved working site-responsively with a location’s history in mind. How could artists help tell the story of a place and its community? Also, I loved working with emerging artists. In part because except for a one-time four-month worth of shows supported by Arts Council England Grant, we were unfunded and no one, not even myself or my interns, got paid. There’s something about offering artists a launch pad to be seen in a new way or to create new works specifically for a site or situation, that I really enjoyed. I’m not an interfering curator—I want artists to have great ideas, and I want to help realise them—but I do love being part of the conversation. Going on that journey with them is half the fun.
I have since worked with other heritage sites in Birmingham (Curzon Street Station and the Municipal Bank), as well as other locations sites that I use as the starting point for projects and commissions. Specifically, when I was working in the Arts Service for Camden Council, one of my first jobs was to create a programme that celebrated the London Borough of Camden’s 50th anniversary (Camden 50). I was able to highlight local stories, work directly with local communities and the great cultural organisations in the borough to help celebrate Camden and re-discuss its history. So I went from curating individual buildings to a whole borough which was amazing. I also commissioned several artists to create new works to support this programme and got to work with some of those major institutions I visited as a child, the British Museum, Roundhouse, Camden Arts Centre. It was a real career highlight being able to coordinate amazing artists, such as Dmitri Galitzine, Elly Clarke, Ladies of the Press* and Laurie Nouchka and Tullis Renee (Walls on Walls) in venues and spaces all over Camden.
My relationship with Mumbai started when Vishwa Shroff was an artist in residence at TROVE in 2011. We immediately got on, due to being inspired by similar things. A friendship and an artist-curator partnership was born, and we have worked with each other ever since. I went to visit Vishwa when she lived in Tokyo in 2013 and after that travelled with her home to Baroda, and then onto Mumbai. As it was one of Vishwa’s first times back to the city in her adult life we both began exploring it anew, and this has been a thread through our work there. We want to remember that magic of discovering Mumbai, a city of colour, noise, smell, and inspiration in every blink—this is at the core of Squareworks Laboratory (SqW:Lab).
SqW:Lab is a fellowship for creative practitioners from all over the world to come together in Mumbai (most for the first time) to co-create and explore the city and the idea of ‘home’ through drawing, play and process. The core of the fellows’ time is spent at Vishwa and her husband’s home, Japanese architect and co-director of SqW:Lab, Katsushi Goto, who designed the space himself. For the fellows, it’s a place for creativity, production, conversation and eating. It was on my first visit to their new home, in 2018, as part of a British Council research grant, that Vishwa, Goto and I spoke about the potential of creating a residency that could benefit our own practices as well as bringing in people who could help us explore our research themes (the domestic, play, drawing, and production). So SqW:Lab was born in 2019, with help from London artist Tash Kahn and Dutch art writer and curator, Rose van Mierlo. The first fellowship took place in 2018. The five founders invited a ‘plus one’ to come and join them in Mumbai. Together we created artworks, interventions, texts, and provocations. Most of the works now sit in the SqW:Lab archives. The second iteration was in 2020, pre global lockdown and with Tash stepping down as a director. The works were realised in a day and there was a real air of discovery and experimentation, echoing the energy in Mumbai. This year, SqW:Lab will be producing six brand-new artworks in shop windows in Colaba, in south Mumbai, to link in with The Show Windows, a project I am realising for Coventry City of Culture 2021.
I feel at home when I am drinking tea and being still. Ideally my partner would be near me or in the room next door. This question of what and where ‘home’ is, is something we think about a lot in SqW:Lab, so I have often meditated on this question and, as you say, home is a feeling rather than a place for many people.
My curatorial drive comes from excitement—from artists, an opportunity, a place, or a project partner. Those first bursts of collaborative and conversational energy in a project, really inspire me. I then want to make sure this passion is felt by audiences, participants, partners, or those who encounter the projects. I think that I try to share my love for the arts, and ask people to come on a journey with me, see if they feel the buzz too or gain something from the work.
Creating communities. I also really enjoy seeing my projects create communities and networks of support and collaboration. This has specifically happened with the ITV Creates project with the 2019 cohort of 52 artists. Social media is the tool that really helped make this happen. I am forever inspired and bowled over by the support the artists who have taken part give one another, and how many have now linked and are working on other projects together. Knowing I have made that creative impact on their professional lives is wonderful. I do enjoy seeing my creative family succeed. When I was starting out I had a couple of key people who helped me develop myself and my practice (David Campany and Andrew Hunt in particular) and what I gained from their kindness and generosity has made me want to do the same for others. I see the benefits of sharing knowledge and helping others succeed. Especially when it comes to skills I have had to learn and when someone is inspired by the same things I am, artists, place, communities and play.
Grassroots mindset. I too am aware of the fact that some of my projects are more commercial than others. I come from grassroots organisations that I set up myself (TROVE, SqW:Lab), and this start-up mentality never leaves you. I also like being my own boss, I thrive there. As my career drives forwards I am given that same autonomy to lead projects on a bigger and funded scale (The Show Windows is a prime example of this). And then there are more commercial projects, like ITV Creates, where I am working for a client. This type of curating is just as exciting. It’s fully funded, and paying artists properly is something I’m so proud of being able to do now. For me it is also about introducing ITV to the arts sector and teaching them how it works, how you find artists, how to develop an in-house taste and then helping them work with the artists and designers that reflect that. Going on that journey with the organisation has been really fulfilling, seeing them value and getting excited about the arts sector, beyond their commercial creative team. In the most recent idents we asked artists to collaborate with another discipline, such as science, dance or gardening, to create a new ITV logo. I think in some way this mirrors our relationship, our collaboration now embedded a new way of working for the organisation.
I’m currently curating the new public art installation at St. Pancras Station with Samina Zahir of Hybrid Consulting. Coming back to your question of what drives me as a curator, some of those things have come up in this commission. HS1 (the commissioners), Samina and I, wanted to use a new phase of public commissions as an opportunity to change their previous approach. Until now, they worked with The Royal Academy and shown big name UK-based artists. We knew that large public-realm commissions rarely went to non-established artists, so we wanted to focus on those practices. We started this process in 2019 and since then the world has massively changed, though I am really happy with the artists selected (yet to be announced) and all the artists shortlisted (Melanie Tomlinson, Shezad Dawood, Dan Rawlings, Janetka Platun, Yinka Ilori, and Rachel Champion). I can’t wait to see the work installed at the station in 2022. It’s a really hopeful and fun piece that I think will inspire many of the million people that pass through St. Pancras Station each month.
When I travel I always take fashion magazines, salt and vinegar hula hoops crisps, and water. Especially if I’m flying. It’s such an airport routine that my friend, artist Tash Kahn, started doing the same after we flew to Brazil and Mumbai together.
A book that still haunts me is Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin. It was a birthday gift from my colleague, Ella Lewis-Williams, and I loved it. The author love of Paris and how she discovers cities through walking are both things I also like. I have recommended it to loads of people and it’s inspired a new approach to some of my public realm projects.
For fun I see friends, ideally at a local gallery (like South London Gallery), followed by brunch.
I have what some may call a curious habit, which is asking my Nan (who passed away in 2011) for help—especially finding things I’ve misplaced. And she always, somehow, helps me find them.
I am pretty organised and most of my projects start with the budget and timeline. Then you consider your dream, and work your way backwards. Once the figures are in front of you, you can see where you can pull back or make changes that will actually positively impact the overall project. My close friends will laugh at the fact I use spreadsheets to organise anything, from surprise birthday parties, to a dream list of homeware items, to my projects. Spreadsheets are where it’s at. Having said this, I do like the romance of spontaneity and hope it comes to the fore every so often in my personality. If I think about spontaneity in my practice rather than my personal life though, a big part of curating is spontaneity—otherwise known as problem solving!
My preferred holiday is usually city-based, with art and museums to visit (Paris, Vienna), great restaurants to eat at (New York, Rio de Janeiro) and some open space to relax in, walk about or swim in (Athens, Oslo). And yes, I will always pre-plan what sites I want to see, restaurants I want to try, artist studios I’d like to visit and gallery shows I’d like to swing by … I do also love a good guide book, I’m really into the Monocle Guides in particular.
I’m struggling to answer the question of changing one thing in the art world magically, as ‘something’ implies a single change.There’s more than one thing I’d like to magically change. Better representation, more diverse leadership, better opportunities for inclusion rather than short term add-ons; more women in charge; better funding for smaller orgs, less ‘tick box’ funding opportunities; more time to change and re-look at priorities; better arts criticism in national press; more kindness, respect and less competition, celebration of regionality alongside soft power of the arts in major cities; less waste, more thoughtful approaches to climate change issues; more of a transparent commercial art scene, less art fairs; more collaboration, quality audience empowerment via engagement and co-production, and so on … .
I have been so thankful that in the past 18 months I’ve had regular part-time work, writing and consulting for Wandsworth Council; realising the 2021 ITV Creates idents; and writing the feasibility study and the funding application for The Show Windows programme, that launched officially in May this year for Coventry 2021, UK City of Culture. This has meant that I’ve been able to log on daily and have a sense of normality. Because being a freelancer who works internationally, I’ve been using Zoom or Google Hangouts regularly, with admin and emails being a major part of the job, and it all kind of felt normal. However, there was no rest or distraction, no meeting friends, travelling or seeing art, so the relentlessness and lack of a break really impacted my energy and memory, and if I’m being honest I’m still recovering (like many people) from that work period.
If today I were to record a message for my future self, it would be “Told ya!”
If I wasn’t curating I would I’d still be in the creative industry, I can’t imagine not being able to converse with people about the arts everyday.
London, the West Midlands, and Mumbai
Charlie Levine is an independent curator, artistic director, project manager and lecturer working in London, the West Midlands and Mumbai. Levine’s curatorial practice centralises on in/visible networks, working with feminist histories, creating and bringing together communities, promoting emerging creative talent, and working site responsively and alongside communities.
She is currently co-director of SqW:Lab, an international fellowship for creatives in Mumbai; curator of ITV Creates, now in its third year ITV Creates profiles UK-based artists and their responses to the ITV logo as the main channel idents; curator of St. Pancras Wires, a new public art project in St. Pancras Station; Artistic Director of The Show Windows, a public realm project for Coventry City of Culture and Coventry BID; and a consultant / project manager for various creative projects.
With an MA in Critical and Contextual Art Practices from Birmingham City University, Levine started her curatorial career as founder and curator of TROVE, an independent art gallery in Birmingham, which ran from 2009 to 2013. In 2014- 2017 she worked as an Arts Manager for Camden Council where she managed several large-scale programmes and projects specifically Camden is…, as well as the council’s London Borough of Culture bid in which they were awarded a Cultural Impact Award (2017). From 2013-2017 she was Fair and Expo Manager, and Curator for Sluice__, a London-based art initiative and international expo hosted in Brooklyn, NYC. Levine was also Associate Producer at Mac Birmingham from 2011-2012.
charlielevine.org | @charliellevine