12 Curators, 6 Months, 2 Collections. What Could Go Wrong?

21 July 2018

As part of an on-going partnership with London’s Courtauld Institute, the Arts Council Collection works with postgraduate curatorial students to facilitate lending of works from the Collection for their end of year exhibition. In our latest blog, MA students Saskia Flower and Naomi Polonsky reflect on their experience of working with the Collection to stage this year’s exhibition, There Not There.

Whilst studying the Curating the Art Museum MA programme at The Courtauld, students are asked to put on an exhibition in The Courtauld Gallery using works from The Courtauld and Arts Council Collections. In just six months we must choose a selection of art works from the tens of thousands at our disposal and develop a theme.

The Curating MA programme is designed to include students with very different interests and tastes in art. One member of our group has a particular interest in Dutch Golden Age painting, while another has a penchant for contemporary Korean art. Although our meetings sometimes resembled scenes from ‘The Apprentice’, the process was a crash-course in teamwork and collaboration.

In previous years, the MA Curating students have been asked to respond to The Courtauld’s main exhibition: in 2017 it was Bloomsbury Art & Design, in 2016 Georgina Houghton: Spirit Drawings. This year, however, because of The Courtauld’s major redevelopment project, Courtauld Connects, there was no main exhibition to respond to. We were given an almost completely open brief. It consisted of two words - ‘making space’ - which was linked to The Courtauld’s impending two-year closure. We set out to curate an exhibition that marked this transitional moment in The Courtauld’s history.

The process of coming up with a concept for the exhibition was somewhat ‘chicken-and-egg’. We wanted the art works to lead us to a theme, but we needed a theme in order to narrow down art works. Our exhibition theme went through dozens of iterations before we finally settled on our concept: There Not There.


There Not There is a group exhibition that brings together the works of twelve international contemporary artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Paul Seawright and Andy Goldsworthy. They are unified by their interrogation of the relationship between absence and presence. The exhibition features a wide range of media including film, photography, painting, prints and sculpture. In all of these works, the artists explore notions of transformation, loss and erasure.

Some artists engage with the theme on a formal level, for example Christine Hatt in her work, There Not There (1991), from which the exhibition’s title is borrowed. In this work on paper, which features a black rectangle on a larger white square, there is ambiguity as to which of the shapes is the spatial void. Other artists adopt a more conceptual approach in relation to the theme. Michael Craig-Martin’s early work, Kid’s Stuff 1-7 (1973), is a suite of seven small canvases each with a mirror fragment and handwritten musing on age and ageing. Moving from one work to the next, viewers are made by turn absent and present from the work, and are forced to consider their own experiences of transformation through time.


The Arts Council Collection : 12 Curators, 6 Months, 2 Collections. What Could Go Wrong?
The Arts Council Collection : 12 Curators, 6 Months, 2 Collections. What Could Go Wrong?

Though in the past, the MA group has often chosen to stage transhistorical shows, we were drawn to works by living artists. Instead of juxtaposing contemporary and historic works, our show has created interesting dialogues by bringing together works by emerging and established artists. This opportunity was afforded to us by the rich and varied collections at our fingertips.

The two pieces in our exhibition from The Courtauld’s collection are important works by major artists: Jasper Johns’ The Seasons (1984-1991) and Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967). They hang beside works by younger British artists, such as Karl Ohiri and Runa Islam. Ohiri’s How To Mend a Broken Heart (2013) will be on display for the first time since it was acquired by the Arts Council.

As student curators, we were thrilled to have access to the Arts Council Collection, which continues to actively collect works by young and emerging artists. The wide-ranging and dynamic collection gave us infinite possibilities in curating our exhibition and we hope that There Not There reflects its wonderful diversity.  

There Not There is now showing at The Courtauld Gallery until 15 July 2018.

See the exhibition website here.


The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.