Creative Women | Ashleigh McLean on the Sensibilities of a Curatorial Eye



Ashleigh McLean has been curating and organising exhibitions at Whatiftheworld since the gallery’s beginning, when the space operated as an experimental bridge between recently graduated artists and young collectors. Today the gallery represents a stable of established contemporary artists whose work characteristically employs humour and tactile experimentation to engage with and critique current socio-political affairs. Over the course of 8 years, Ashleigh has worked closely with artist to curate shows that are carefully considered both aesthetically and conceptually. What drives Ashleigh is the hope and belief that the questions being asked through visual forms are contributing to the bigger narrative and offering insights and understandings.

Please tell us how you first started curating art shows and started working with Whatiftheworld?

I began working with Whatiftheworld, after graduating from the Michaelis School of fine art, through the introduction of a mutual acquaintance – an artist that had just done a small show there. Although I majored in print-making at Michaelis my background was in street art and more vernacular forms. This hooked in serendipitously to the grass roots and entrepreneurial space of the gallery at the time, which was essentially a small room that was a levelling ground and an experimental space that filled a bit of the void between the university and independent artist and the gallery structure of the time. I met Justin Rhodes and Cameron Munroe at the very beginning of their gallery endeavour and my training as an artist as well as my experience as a small-scale entrepreneur were important in our collaboration as well as the fact that we became friends with shared interests. My first experience as a curator came out of the DIY approach and also the desire to link my peers to a space that could show their work professionally as well as link them to an as yet untapped market for young collectors.

Two Works by Julia Rosa Clarke

What are the parallels for you between making art and curating exhibitions?

In both making artwork or curating a show you identify an interest or a framework of ideas you want to investigate, realise it materially and work through the conceptual problems that arise when you are refining an idea. In terms of identifying with the processes involved in creating art I think it is invaluable to have an idea of the technique and material required to produce certain pieces and a sense of the struggle and commitment that is involved in making art.

Also recognising that meaning is generated on multiple levels – in the studio in the act of making, and in the gallery where the work settles into a different form. It helps to have an understanding of both these spaces.

In what ways does curating challenge, and satisfy, you creatively?

I find managing my relationships with the artists the most challenging aspect of curating – it’s a very sensitive and intuitive process. You are a facilitator between the work and artist and the gallery and the public – it’s a very nuanced interaction – and that the work is positioned correctly and treated with respect is of utmost importance. That being said the role of the curator is also to critique and edit – which makes it all the more important that the relationship between the artist and curator is one of discussion and mutual respect.

Creatively I am most fulfilled by being able to offer solutions or alternatives that might not have originally been considered in the making or display of work. The curator should be able to telescope out from some of the confines of the studio and process and offer some advice in terms of refining the message of a show, use of particular media or even the best way to represent the work in literature or print format. Finding the best and most effective way to communicate what is at the heart of the exhibition is what gratifies me most. I also enjoy the role of producer. I am fortunate to have had previous experience in film, performing arts, fabrication and music. These creative skills inform my suggestions in how a project might be most successfully realised.


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From The Line of Beauty by Morne Visagie

In your view, what characterises a successful exhibition?

For me a successful exhibition is characterised by its ability to communicate the artist’s point of view both aesthetically and conceptually. Obviously there are formal aspects which are very important, professional presentation (sensitivity to lighting for example), the pace or rhythm of the show in its layout and design. Also central to a successful show is publishing – whether in print or online – press coverage and feedback in the form of reviews or interviews. Public attendance, efficiently managing the budget for a show and generating income through sales for the artist and the gallery are also key.

Can you tell us a little about your journey as a curator and how you’ve refined your eye? Is it correct to talk about a curators’ ‘eye’? What skills does it take to do what you do?

What I have learnt (and am still learning) is to ask the tough questions even if it can sometimes be challenging for myself or the artist. We have to look at the integrity of the artwork. What is it saying? How does the material that it is made of /not made of add to its message? Where is it positioned now in cultural /social terms? What feeling and thoughts does this object provoke? And what statement does it make? Is this relevant to the context of the exhibition? I think refining your eye is a series of questions but it is also a very personal sensibility.

What have been some of the standout shows for you personally and why?

Well, that’s tough because each show is so unique with a specific set of concerns – some may be critical successes but commercial failures and vice versa. I think the standout shows are the ones that introduce something new – so for example a show where we encouraged the artist to do something ambitious for them in terms of scale or using a multidisciplinary approach. The standout shows are the ones where the artist, hopefully with gallery input, produces an exhibition that is an advance or refinement of their practice.

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The Line of Beauty web 3
The Line of Beauty installation view by Morne Visagie

What do you look for in artists to sign with the gallery?

Well they need to have a uniqueness – either in technique and the material they use or the themes they engage with and how it comes together. Like with most things the inspiration is only the first part of the journey. The artist needs to be seriously committed to what they are doing as the gallery will also be investing a lot in terms of time, money etc. So professional commitment is really important.

Transparency is vital and clear communication is absolutely essential. To work as a proper team – the gallery and the artist need to be very clear as to what the expectations and goals are. Being professional in terms of keeping to deadlines and being self-motivated are also important.

As a curator, how do your own preferences and tastes influence what you do?

I think that my attraction to tactile work has influenced me in choosing the artists we work with. I’m interested in work that is not didactic – I’m interested in surprises.

How do you find a personal balance between the creative and the more business aspects of your role?

It’s invaluable to be able to work closely with my co-director Justin Rhodes. We balance each    other out when it comes to presenting shows that are sensitive to the artist’s vision and the positioning in the market place.


What have been your experiences negotiating and establishing your niche in the predominantly white male dominated local art industry?

Ironically one of the reasons I chose to work in the arts was that I thought it would be a more liberal environment where one would not have to fight too hard against sexist paradigms. I have encountered sexisim from other gallerists, clients and even artists (my pet hate is being called a gallerina!) I think with any industry you need to be vocal in correcting people when they make incorrect assumptions – but to be professional about it.

It is hard not to take these things personally – and I have in the past (and it’s something that needs constant vigilance). It’s not good enough to work hard and think that people will recognise your work. Women in the arts, as with any sector in business, need to be active in claiming space whether it’s corporate, cultural or whatever.

Who inspires you and why?

I am inspired by the idea that what we are doing is part of a bigger history – that the questions asked through visual forms offer another insight and way of problem solving. That the clues we leave are part of a bigger lexicon of language of understanding (that sometimes critiques) but often exists in parallel to the industrial, capitalist, military understanding if the world. And hopefully humanity can be enriched by this knowledge. The world would be a very boring place without art.

All photos of Ashleigh by Anke Loots.


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