How does a curator effectively articulate an artist’s thoughts and feelings? Emphasizing the importance of accessible storytelling, the curator behind exhibitions by some of the most acclaimed contemporary photographers—from Harley Weir to Ai Weiwei—most of all probes the viewer with questions. Besides creating authentic viewer experiences without being leading, this young mediator constantly explores what this day and age spell out for the photographic landscape. Consequently, she translates her observations into engaging and urgent presentations. In time for this summer’s “Curators” theme, Glamcult sat down with Foam’s talented Mirjam Kooiman to get to the bottom of her daily work.
Other than guiding the visitor along a unique narrative, what is it that a curator does? How would you define your work?
I always consider it my task to get into the mind of an artist. To really understand what the artist wants to express, what the main motivations behind the creation of the work is and what an artist finds most important to communicate to the viewer. Only once I’ve considered these aspects am I able to translate this into a narrative that is accessible to a larger audience.
A curator simply mediates between an artist and an audience and defining the practical execution of a curatorial job very much depends on the context in which you’re working. Are you working for an institution or are you working independently? And who is your audience? It all starts with an agenda that defines your artistic programme. Other than that, for me, it’s about being able to truly sense what someone’s artistic practice is about and how you can allow it to come across, even if an artist is not able to put it into words for you.
What does working at Foam offer you in terms of curating that other institutions wouldn’t be able to?
I don’t know any other museum in the Netherlands that is making so many exhibitions, which offers me the opportunity to gain a diverse range of experiences and to constantly explore new opportunities. Even though I’m bound to one medium in the arts, there is a lot of freedom in exploring a range of genres within the photographic field, so I can work on historical and contemporary topics, with iconic, established and emerging artists. We also don’t plan that far ahead, which enables us to jump in on topics right when they’re happening. This kind of programming is very exciting and also very demanding, because we work with short deadlines and it requires you to always be sharp and aware of what is happening, what is relevant now—and why?
What has been your favourite or most memorable work experience to date?
Because my work experiences have been so diverse, it’s hard to pick just one. It was very exciting to make an exhibition with Ai Weiwei, just as it was challenging (in a good way) to make Harley Weir’s first exhibition with her. And I really enjoyed curating the Foam Talent exhibitions. I also had the opportunity to initiate an exhibition series of collaborations with photography platforms in Mexico City (Mexico), Lagos (Nigeria) and Yogyakarta (Indonesia) that each operate in a specific local art scene. The initiative offers Foam the opportunity to present young talent from different cultural contexts and to research new developments in local photography discourses worldwide. Even though these exhibitions happen on a very small scale, I’m very happy to have been able to initiate new relationships with platforms that work in lesser-known art scenes. In this globalizing (art) world I think it’s becoming increasingly important to not only expand your cultural horizon as a curator to value artistic practices outside of the western hemisphere in their own right, but also to create connections and build up a network of cultural exchange.
What is it you look for in a space? And in an artist?
What I look for in an artist is a strong, authentic artistic vision. What do you have to say and are you visually communicating your message effectively (aesthetically or conceptually)? Essentially it is that simple, even though this question can be answered in a myriad of ways. In terms of a space, it comes down to creating an effective narrative or somehow consistent experience: I hate it when I feel lost and excluded as a viewer; when an art space makes me feel like I’m not intellectual enough to grasp the message or if there’s no consistency in the narrative or line of thought.
In the age of Instagram, can anyone be a curator?
I consider Instagram such a different way of communicating with an audience that I don’t really see the connection with presenting work in a space. Of course, Instagram is also about selecting and presenting, but for museums I think Instagram is much more a marketing tool than a curatorial one, although I do enjoy artist takeovers. As a museum curator, Instagram is far from what I do: presenting art in a space to create an experience or narrative. How you experience an artwork face-to-face shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s incomparable to the online experience—apart from digital art of course, which is difficult to apply to a museum space.
Any advice for those that aspire a profession as a curator?
Go and see as many exhibitions as you can and try to keep formulating for yourself why you find an exhibition good or bad—this way you’ll find out what is really important to you and you will be able to define your own vision. Most importantly, you shouldn’t be afraid to fail. Stay critical and keep reflecting on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it that way.