Simon Groom

12th August 2011 at 01:00
Artists may have a passion for painting or photography - but they need a fundamental curiosity about the world too, says the director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

What do you think makes a young person choose to become an artist?

There is no course that you can go to and say "OK, I've got a moderate interest in art", by the end of which you will come out an artist. It doesn't work like that in the way it would if you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. It's about giving a child the best opportunity to express themselves in the full range of who they are. Just having had a child myself, you realise they are pretty much predetermined from the outset and all you do in a way is create opportunities for them to explore whatever it is that they have in depth. I'm still learning on that one.

You have a degree in English. Has that initial interest in literature been an advantage in working with artists and anticipating what audiences might want?

I think so. There are a lot of people with a literary background who work in the visual arts. Literature demonstrates that you have a curiosity about the world, which I think is absolutely vital. It's a characteristic shared with artists who are naturally incredibly inquisitive. I'm useless with my hands, which rules me out completely as a traditional artist, but I'm fascinated by people and the way that they open up different sorts of thinking.

What particular work does the gallery do with schools and colleges?

For younger children we do something called Bags of Art, where you go round the gallery and make your own work, look at things and draw and play. We do guided tours with specialist education officers. And we have Spin, a members' group for young people.

Are schools providing the right opportunities for pupils to engage in and study art?

I ended up in the art world having never had the opportunity to study art. But the attitude then was that art was for the people who weren't good academically; it was something to keep them occupied while the rest went off and did the real job of studying, which I think is a very weird way of looking at art. I don't know enough about now but I think for anybody who is naturally curious about the world there is a spectrum of opportunities, one of which is the art world, another might be space navigation. It's just about ways you want to engage with the world. For some people it's on a much more practical level and for some it's on a much more imaginative level, and mine veers towards the imaginative.

Do you think that old academic prejudice against art has broken down?

You have art history, which is the much more theoretical academic study of art, and those who are practitioners who go off and do a foundation course and go to art college. But a lot of art crosses over into research anyway, so the definition of artists is by its nature fluid. As long as you have a place where people are able to think deeply in as much freedom as they can, and without being constrained in order to pass exams, that is the best one for education, because you make it up for yourself.

Is Scotland at a stage where it is producing artists of an international calibre?

Scotland has been phenomenally strong for its contemporary visual arts since the mid-90s. If you look at any other country around the world of a similar size to Scotland, to produce over 15 years artists who are at the forefront of their practice internationally is extraordinary. One measure to judge it by is the Turner Prize, and something like one in four nominees for it have either been Scottish or trained in Scotland and the number of winners has been six or seven in the past 15 years. That's an astonishing record.

Since you have been in post, is there a show which you feel has had a particular impact on audiences?

Yes, What you see is where you're at - a rolling programme for our 50th anniversary last year. We wanted to showcase the extraordinary diversity of the collection because often a lot of it is unseen. It lasted the whole year and we made displays from the collection, got work in on loan and had special commissions by Scottish and international artists. Over that year, we changed the gallery 63 times, which for a public gallery is possibly unprecedented.

Could you describe Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings, the new exhibition of work by Hiroshi Sugimoto that you curated?

Sugimoto is possibly the most important photographer working now. The images we'll be showing are like protean life forms or microscopic photographs of fantastically strange beasts. As well as being like the first lightning bolt that makes earth and life and everything on it move and crawl and happen. They're extraordinarily resonant.

During the Festival, are you able to go out and see shows beyond your own field?

Yes, I love the Festival because the whole world does come to Edinburgh. I love going to see dance or theatre or music and all those things that actually happen the rest of the year but I'm often too busy to go and see. There are some unmovable markers around which you plan your life and it finally feels the right way round: culture first and your job second.

`Lightning Fields' and `Photogenic Drawings' at the Scottish National Galley of Modern Art until 25 September


Born: Billinge, England, 1966

Education: Christ's Hospital, Horsham, Sussex; Edinburgh University (English literature); Courtauld Institute of Art (PhD in art history)

Career: Curator, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge; head of exhibitions, Tate Liverpool; director, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 2007-.

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