Helen Nisbet

As part of my ongoing series of interviews I spoke to curator Helen Nisbet. Most recently Nisbet curated Where I Am is Here at Hollybush Gardens and was the curatorial fellow at Cubitt from January 2017 – June 2018. She now sits on the Arts Councils Acquisition Committee and is Artistic Advisors for Syllabus IV, an artist development programme led by Wysing Arts Centre. Nisbet is a Visiting Lecturer at the RCA and curates projects across the UK and internationally. 

As with many of us in the arts, you’ve had a number of roles ranging from working in artist studios, to curator to consultant, all of which have a common focus of supporting artists. Could you talk to me about how you came to work in the arts?

I’ve taken a fairly winding route into what I’m doing now. I studied History of Art at Glasgow University, but initially intended to do English and Politics (this is the beauty of the Scottish system). I realised quite quickly you could access politics through art history. After graduating I was working in a care home, and didn’t know what you were supposed to do to get a job in art. This means I’ve worked in lots of contexts – with artists in their studios, on archive projects, I worked at the ICA on Beck’s Futures 2005, in hospitals, organising exhibitions on Scottish modernist architects, public art projects and curating shows in galleries… For a long time I felt frustrated at how difficult it was, but now I see how useful all this experience has been, and how (as you say) everything I’ve done is unified through supporting artists, or a sense of care – that goes right back to looking after older people in the care home.

iheartwomen is a platform celebrating female role models and influencers across the arts. I myself have benefitted from having a mentor in the past; have there been any possibilities for mentorship or collaboration throughout your career? Maybe we could talk about your newly appointed role as Artistic Advisors for Syllabus IV, Wysing?

There are lots of people who have been unofficial mentors in my career. Too many to mention, but couple of bosses I’ve had who showed me how things could be done –  Leonie Bell at The Lighthouse in Glasgow and Jill Constantine at the Arts Council Collection in London – both inspiring through their calm, the trust they give the people they work with and their humour and grace in dealing with others.

Friends – co-workers, artists – I rely on so many people for support, whether it’s: “shit, how do I respond to this email?” or “please proof this for me, I’ve been staring at it so long I can’t see it anymore”.  Solidarity and support are vital. I couldn’t function without them and I get very angry when I see or experience situations where people are not working or acting in this way (which can be common in the art world).

I try to work with everyone in this way, with support and solidarity.  I’m very pleased to be an Artist Advisor on Syllabus this year (with artist Sonya Dyer). Syllabus is an alternative learning programme, collaboratively run with a group of art organisations, offering space for artists at crucial points in their career to come together. There are so many people who would benefit from more support and opportunities to problem solve together. I’m keen to find more ways to do this.

It’s interesting to think about mentoring as it reminds me of the people I was surrounded by at University. A lot of my friends had entered university a little later than others (often due to economic factors), who were a bit older than me and who had strong links to activism movements in Glasgow. They helped me figure out my own personal rage and, well, feminism at the age of 17. That early teaching introduced me to writers who have continued to be important to me ever since such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, and the art historian Griselda Pollock.

Flo Brooks, Is now a good time?, closing event, courtesy of Cubitt Artists, 2017.

I would like to talk to you about your time at Cubitt and how this bursary has supported your curatorial practice. Has the process changed or redefined any part of your practice?

I’ve was the Curatorial Fellow at Cubitt between January 2017 and June 2018. It has changed by work absolutely. Mostly because I have had the physical space and freedom to develop and realise a complete programme from start to finish.

I am a usually a collaborator, but being pressed to do this as a one woman band has been really useful in terms of solidifying my curatorial voice, pushing me to make decisions and be confident in the way I think and work.

You’ve specifically worked with mid-career and established artists, was this a conscious decision?

Yes. I’m interested in artists at pivotal points in their career – their work or lives have changed, they haven’t had a solo show and really deserve one, they keep being asked to do the same thing but I want to see what they’re actually working on now … the reasons are endless. I’m interested in what a practice looks like throughout a lifetime.

People have babies, things happen in their lives, they have to work other jobs or they take time out to research for a couple of years. How do you come back from that if people are only interested in already-established artists, or showing a handful of RA graduates on rotation? II guess, for me, it’s about correcting the gaps. Lubaina Himid is very good example. She has been consistently working for years. When she won the Turner Prize, she thanked a long list of people that have supported her throughout her whole career. Not just at the point of becoming a Turner Prize winning artist.

Lubaina is also a good example because she has lived for a long time in Preston. Thinking about how to have a sustainable life, as an artist is particularly pertinent when you live outside of major cities. It’s got to be possible, so it’s crucial to re-think the narrative of London (or Glasgow?) centrism. It’s difficult when you haven’t got money to travel for studio visits though. I think there should be more funding for this.

Helen Cammock, Shouting In Whispers, installation views, Cubitt, 2017. Photography by Mark Blower.

I get the sense there was a curatorial thread running throughout your programme – using the gallery space to honour those that have been lost throughout art history, forgotten or silenced. For example: Leonora Carrington ‘the lost surrealist’ – giving a solo platform to someone who has suffered against a patriarchal system; Mark Leckey’s nostalgic bridge on the outskirts of the city; Flo Brooks, a person transitioning whilst moving back to the family home and spending much time as a caregiver; Helen Cammock whose practice explores the re-telling of histories that have been silenced. You can see these connections in Hardeep Pandhal’s and Danielle Dean and Jeanine Oleson’s exhibitions. Have you purposely used the gallery space to, in a sense, rewrite history and make space for these works to be seen? I like this idea that you are correcting an overarching bias in the art world, which is disproportionately written by and about white men.

Yes, I’m definitely paying attention to this. First and foremost I show artists who make really good work. It’s just that quite often these are not the artists who have traditionally enjoyed profitable success, or a comfortable seat on the art history bus. The structural factors that affect and hinder artists of colour, trans artists, working class artists, disabled artists, women artists… I feel acutely aware of them. But the work and artist’s approach is the most important thing.

I’ve read another interview where you state; ‘I have been interested in politics for a long time. For me this is more closely aligned to everyday life and action, rather than theory and academia.’ – I find this statement very interesting as your programme has explored political topics such as colonialism, discrimination, and sexism, amongst other topics. As a wider question, do you think there has been a shift in the awareness of cultural diversity and representation of women over the last decade? And, if this is something you have thought about, is there anything else that needs, or could be done especially in the arts?

There is a place for both, and both sit side by side. But action or actions are very important to me. I want to take a stand, I want to stand with others and I want to call things out when they are shitty.

There is an increased awareness of diversity and representation, but I do feel concerned that this is dealt with in an un-holistic way. We need to do more listening, more reading, we need to facilitate this desired diversity through our own actions, through structural change and speaking out when bad things are happening right in front of our eyes.

Representation is something I am increasingly thinking about. It feels like there is a shift towards seeking out moments of solidarity between artists and curators. Artists are exploring new collaborative ways of working. With Helen Cammock’s exhibition at Cubitt, for example, I had a strong interest in curating solo exhibitions but that doesn’t mean I was only working with one artist. It always ends up being a conversation between me and the artist about who else is going to be a part of this, whether that’s through discussion, events or performance. I tried to use the platform of Cubitt as a way to bring in a number of people or voices together. To mark the end of my time at there, I made a ‘mix tape’, with every artist or collaborator I worked with on the programme. Each person had the opportunity to pick a song as a way of acknowledging the many people who have been involved and demonstrating how fundamental they were to the programme.

To mark the end of the 2017/18 season, Curatorial Fellow Helen Nisbet compiled A Mixtape of music chosen by artists and collaborators involved in her programme. Graphic design by Cecilia Serafini. You can listen to it here.

What do you think the arts environment looks like over the next decade, especially in terms of diminishing funding?

I’m not sure. Maybe everything will be named after its corporate sponsor. Maybe every exhibition will be a Grayson Perry exhibition. Or maybe we’ll have had a revolution and people will get paid properly for the work they do, and Jasleen Kaur will be Prime Minister.

Can I ask you about your newly appointed role at the Arts Council on the Acquisitions Committee? What does this mean for you? What a privileged to actually be contributing to the history of art.

Yes, I am very pleased. I mean, really pleased. It’s an important responsibility. Morgan Quaintance, my predecessor at Cubitt, was on the committee recently and he, and others, have done a lot of good work for that collection over the last few years. Being part of a national collection, like the Arts Council Collection, can be career changing for an artist and creating a collection that actually represents the country we live in and art artists making work in it, is a serious business. It’s crucial to treat it with rigour and not to make lazy assumptions or decisions. To be sitting at that table is incredible. 10 years ago it’s somewhere I never thought I would be. For years women and artists of colour were not proportionately included in these collections and as a result, chopped out of history. Making some attempt to correct those wrongs, or fill in those gaps is really important to me. I guess the other side to this is, who gets to make those decisions because I believe that’s the thing that is not spoken about as much.

I would also like to ask you about this idea of networking, something I know you have set up in the past. This is not an easy job to do. How do you navigate this area of your work? I’m interested both on an emotional and physical level…if you don’t mind me asking?

I only find networking manageable in contexts that I find comfortable. It can be a toxic experience. You learn a lot about yourself as well. I try to be open and to find ways of supporting others to feel included, because I know that I have and still do need that myself. I feel particularly aware of how other people behave. It’s currently politic for institutions and individuals to talk about feminism, de-colonisation and LGBTQ+ issues, but I find the practice of how people actually deal with each other in everyday life…well, politics don’t always match people’s actions and behaviours.

The things I’ve spoken about already, solidarity, friendship, support, these things mean so much to me. I’m a pretty soppy person. So networking in this sense, is fine. When it’s political, when it’s about a shared approach, when it’s about care. But the anxiety that comes with networking outside of these supportive circles – I can be floored by it. I often come back to what Doris Lessing wrote in her autobiography about presenting various selves as a way of masking anxiety. I guess we all do this to some extent, whether through acting the comedian or standing sultry in the corner (if in fact we’re invited at all).

Landed, Danielle Dean and Jeanine Oleson, installation views, 2018. Photography by Mark Blower, courtesy of Cubitt Artists.

As a follow on, could I ask you about Shetland Night? How did this come about?

Ah! Shetland Night! Anyone who has spoken to me for longer than 5 minutes knows I’m from Shetland, and that I’m constantly torn by missing it and feeling at sea in London (even though I’ve lived here for 13 years – oops).

So Shetland Night came about as a way of replicating or imagining a night at my local village hall, with food, drams, dancing and film screenings. I know some very good chefs, so they cook, my brother and best friends from home play fiddles and my friend Paul is beautiful and a really good Shetland dancer, so it’s also a good excuse to do dance with him. Again, it’s about bringing people, inter-generationally and from all backgrounds, together to talk, eat and have a nice time.

– Laura Hensser, 2018


Image credits in slideshow: Leanora Carrington, All day reading of The Hearing Trumpet, Cubitt, 2017. Photography by Helen Nisbet; Mark Leckey, Affect Bridge Age Regression, installation views, Cubitt, 2017. Photography by Mark Blower; Helen Cammock, Shouting In Whispers, installation views, Cubitt, 2017. Photography by Mark Blower; Flo Brooks, Is now a good time?, closing event, courtesy of Cubitt Artists, 2017; Liar Hydrant, Hardeep Pandhal, installation views, 2018. Photography by Mark Blower, courtesy of Cubitt Artists; Landed, Danielle Dean and Jeanine Oleson, installation views, 2018. Photography by Mark Blower, courtesy of Cubitt Artists; Jasleen Kaur, I Keep Telling Them These Stories at Hollybush Gardens, 2018, image by Anne Tetzlaff.