The curator of the Tate Gallery in St. Ives is someone Portuguese who awoke one day and decided that he wanted to live for and from art. Here is proof that fortune favours the brave.
“We can’t wait for things to fall into our laps. You have to go after them. And that’s what I did, after I realised that my life would make more sense if art was part of it”, says Miguel, via Skype from Cornwall in England, where he’s been living for the last six months, since he became curator at the Tate St. Ives.
It all started in Coimbra, when, only three weeks into the term, Miguel realised that studying Economics was not for him. He changed direction with no thought for the expense and immersed himself in the cultural section of the Coimbra Academic Association (CAA). “I was 18 years old when I started working on the Encontros de Fotografia (a photography event organised by the CAA and directed by Albano da Silva Pereira). I started at the bottom: I painted walls, carried wood and helped the carpenters build things.” He switched from maths to humanities. He enrolled on a Sociology degree, did amateur and professional theatre and continued to work with Encontros de Fotografia. Until, “after two years, Albano invited me to work part-time. It was then that he told me that, to get on in the world of art, I had to do two things: learn to organise an event and spend as much time as possible reading. That’s how you start”.
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He says that he lacked experience in Coimbra. So, in 1999, he moved to Lisbon and signed up for a course in Arts Management, organised by the Centro Cultural de Belém. “At the time, I was spending a lot of time in the Gulbenkian Foundation library, devouring books. To make a living, I did guided tours of the Foundation’s Modern Art Centre. And to get more hands-on experience, I volunteered to help ‘veteran’ curators, like Delfim Sardo.”
Soon after, while surfing the net in 2001, he came across a Master’s in Curating Contemporary Arts, which was taught at one of the best arts universities in the world – the Royal College of Art. There were no second measures for Miguel. He enrolled at the last minute, went in search of a scholarship, did his sums and packed all his dreams and ambitions into his suitcase and left for London. He was 28 and it was the first time he’d ever been to England.
The first thing he learnt was that a curator has to build a relationship with the artist and then work together on a common project. “The curator creates an intellectual and institutional context, so that artists can develop their work. Then, they ensure that the works are correctly displayed to the public, and, finally, they give the public the right tools to see the work.” And, from that day forward, that is exactly what he did. Between 2003 and 2005, Miguel curated and co-curated exhibitions, such as 7 Artistas ao 10º Mês (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon); Project Room (Centro de Artes Visuais, Coimbra); Em Jogo (Centro de Artes Visuais, Coimbra, 2004) and Zoom/20m3 (Carlos Carvalho Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon).
Knowing his own mind
In 2005, the curator and his wife, Rossana (his loyal companion throughout all of this) decided that New York was the next step. “She went to focus on her career as a biologist and I tagged along. At the time, he was working with a number of institutions in Portugal, like the CAV and PLMJ Foundation (whose cultural area he is still responsible for), but he was a free agent. It was the ideal situation for becoming involved in new projects”. In the city that never sleeps, Miguel didn’t rest on his laurels: he attended night school at the New Museum; he was curator-in-residence at the Abrons Arts Center and at the International Studio & Curatorial Program; he was also the curatorial fellow of Rhizome, also at New Museum. And, in the middle of all this, he managed to find time to work as guest curator at the Museu Colecção Berardo, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Modern Art Centre, MNAC – Museu do Chiado and Museu da Cidade de Lisboa, amongst others.
It was the height of summer, 2010, when Miguel decided to look for a permanent job. “I had interviews with MoMA, Art in General and a Canadian centre called Power Plant, but they all said that I lacked “museum” experience.” The result? He tried his luck again in the United Kingdom. He saw a job advert for the Tate, applied, was accepted and made his way back across the Atlantic.
“It’s proving a remarkable professional experience. I’m very lucky, I work in one of the three most important contemporary art museums in the world (the other two being MoMA and the Centre Pompidou). At the moment I’m involved with various projects, among them, my first exhibition, which will take place next January. It’s by a very talented artist called Simon Fujiwara.”
Another more personal project is presenting more Portuguese artists to the world, using those that already have works acquired by the Tate (like Julião Sarmento, João Pedro Vale and the duo João Maria Gusmão/Pedro Paiva) as a springboard. But there’s more. “Cornwall has a strong Celtic tradition that interests me greatly. I spend a lot of time in ethnographic and archaeological museums studying these people. One day, who knows, I might organise an exhibition about it.” The future is in his hands and, from what we’ve seen, Miguel has the necessary grit to achieve his aims and ambitions.
by Maria Ana Ventura
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