Synthia Griffin Visits Venice

Curator: Regeneration & Community Partnerships, Tate Modern, London

Synthia is responsible for co-coordinating the Regeneration and Community Partnership work on community involvement and regeneration issues and leads on the delivery of all projects. These have involved working with the communities and in the neighbourhood surrounding the gallery on a series of programmes involving contemporary artists. She joined Tate in 2005 and was initially responsible for programming and delivering innovative projects and events for families and communities in the learning team at Tate before becoming the Curator: Regeneration & Community Partnerships in 2007. She originally studied Fine Art with a particular interest in participatory practice and has previously worked for a wide range of organisations including a local authority on the delivery of a large public art project which involved contemporary artists exploring meanings and connections to the landscape. She has previously presented and contributed towards conferences and seminars  including Engage's Annual Conference, Engage Scotland, Audiences London, and Lasso in Brussels. 

The Venice Biennale & the Creative Time Summit

The Venice Biennale is the equivalent of the Eurovision Song contest for the art world in the sense that countries from all over Europe and the globe, present the work of some of their best artists for the world to see. My interest in the Biennale led me to explore how a relatively transient model has existed and remained resilient for over a century drawing together the work of countries from all over the world who are often in opposition to each other. How has it managed to stay current and reflect artworks and global themes? How has it remained resilient presenting such an ambitious and challenging programme? Let’s begin with the Biennale Curator Okwui Enwezor, he explains the Biennale “has existed at the confluence of many socio-political changes and radical historical ruptures across the fields of art, culture, politics, technology, and economics.” The 56th International Art Exhibition employed the historical trajectory of the Biennale itself as a theme, over the course of its one hundred and twenty years existence and used this as a filter through which to reflect on both the current “state of things” and the “appearance of things”. The theme for the 2015 Biennale is All the World’s Futures asks the principal question : How can artists, thinkers, writers, composers, choreographers, singers, and musicians, through images, objects, words, movement, actions, lyrics, sound bring together publics in acts of looking, listening, responding, engaging, speaking in order to make sense of the current upheaval in the world? Okwui describes being a Director as creating a place where curators can act. He went on to explain Directors of an institution are in public arenas in which to become enablers for their staff. He also describes his role in supporting curators and staff as being the person that is the back-up singer for their act… He is interested in notions about reclaiming space in public institutions within the ecology of the art world which is textured and includes private collectors and the changing art market.

I met colleagues from Creative Time – a public art agency based in New York who have for over 40 years profiled public and socially engaged art in America and all over the world including outer space. They had been especially invited by the Biennale’s curator to host their annual summit – which has operated as a convening, a discussion, and a platform for the intersection of art and politics. A medium sized organisation with a board of 40, a staff of 30 and a budget of $5 million that has been running for over 40 years they have experienced large plateaus as well as significant momentum in their growth. I was interested in their ability to garner strong financial support given their alliance with radical activist groups and artists whose practice seeks to ignite social change and question mainstream political views. I met Katie Hollander Creative Time’s current Acting Director, she described the diversity of approaches she takes and her transition from Deputy Director;

  • Wearing my big girl shoes’ having an authoritative style is important, you use the word ‘no’ a lot as deputy director, its a decision making & coaching role. It sits alongside the Directors role which tends to be more visionary.
  • It is important during a time of big transition to remain focussed on the mission, listening but also making sure everyone feels heard, responding where necessary to nurture the board, continuing to understand where you are going and why.
  • Once a vision is developed its important to consider how you translate the ideas and create structural solutions to bring them together and develop capacity about where and how to grow.
  • She also stressed the importance of a realistic and measurable vision that builds towards something, understanding the legal resources and implications in order to grow and think long term.

I also met Deb Fischer the Director of A Blade of Grass an organisation that nurtures socially engaged arts practice. She shared reflections on her own personal style of leadership and the importance of keeping morale up and maintaining the overall organisational story. I was interested in the kinds of things that influenced her, she talked about her undergraduate studies and the artist Alan Kaprow one of the pioneers of performance art and an artist who was interested in the way art making could be part of everyday life. She was particularly inspired as a director by his quote ‘play and teach others how’. She discussed the following;

  • The importance of maintaining a joyful attitude about work among lots of stakeholders, board, donors, staff all of whom are hard working, participants &  herself as director.
  • She also said she wasn’t very good at dazzling people or creating ‘show time’ but she was aware of her own strengths - being as a ‘play mate’ and at encouraging playtime and creating a playground for a lot of people.
  • She described being the Director of a small organisation as like being like a sculptor. The public art discourse is similar if people embrace the idea of what the artwork is then it’s the process of making it happen. The considerations like how much does it weigh, how is it going to be lifted etc are similar to the conversations about an organisational vision and how you are going to achieve it.
  • ‘Talking unlocks how to create a vision and make it achievable, the achievable parts ensure that the artwork doesn’t fall over etc.
  • She outlined that a crucial part of the organisation staying resilient was to have committed teams as the organisations grows.

I asked everyone I met to highlight one of the most positive and challenging times in their careers. Deborah Fisher shared one of the most insightful lessons about the importance of ‘anchoring your board’ during challenging times. She discussed two examples, one of which was politically sensitive artwork and how she worked with the board, drew in support from different political advisors, the artist and others to evolve a collective stance that moved away from freedom of expression and towards a commitment to the artist they had commissioned. They have also taken risks to support very young emerging artists including one who became a political campaign worker for a year – the ethnographic nature of the work meant it is embedded in daily life without a tangible outcome.