Art gallery and museum visitors may often see the word ‘curator’ used around the exhibitions to describe an expert on the art on show. But what does this really mean? And what does a curator actually do? We asked Curator Director of the Jerwood Collection, Lara Wardle, to give us an insight into her work and explain what curatorial practice means to her.

You have been working with the Jerwood Collection for over a decade. What is a typical day at work like?

With the year-long residency about to open at The Harley Gallery, my typical day involves liaising with Lisa Gee (Director, Harley Gallery) about everything and anything, and at this stage, all the practicalities that exhibitions involve: insurance, condition checking and installing for example.

Your job is Curator and Director of the Jerwood Collection – what are the differences and similarities of these two parts of your role?

As I undertake both roles, they don’t feel distinct in my mind, but if I had to sum up the difference: the Director makes the strategic decisions (what to buy, which loan to approve, where to exhibit): the Curator covers the ‘looking after’ part (making sure that each work is cared for to the highest standard) as well as being responsible for the research and display of the collection.

Curatorial practice covers a hugely varied, and evolving, range of activities. What’s the most extraordinary thing you’ve had to do at work?

One of the aspects of my role, that is somewhat unusual and unexpected, is that you make decisions about very small measurements: shuffling a work of art marginally in one direction or another can markedly change its relationship with the other pieces hanging nearby; or in relation to deciding on framing and presentation, small changes in the size of the mount, or profile of the frame, can make a discernable difference.

How did you discover your specialism in mid-20th century British art?

I have worked in the field of 20th-century British art for 25 years and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when my enthusiasm for 20th-century British art crystallised. I remember being lucky enough to visit Tate Britain (then the Tate Gallery) as a schoolchild and seeing Mark Gertler’s extraordinary 1916 painting, Merry-Go-Round. It is a bold and very sneaky painting: beckoning you closer with its bright primary colours and suggestion of fun-filled activities, and then, WHAM!, hitting you with the full force and realisation that all these figures in uniform are not laughing with pleasure but screaming in horror. I was quite a morbid child!

Mark Gertler Merry-Go-Round 1916

Merry-Go-Round, 1916, Mark Gertler. Purchased 1984. Photo © Tate. Image released under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported).

Do you have any advice for aspiring curators?

Go to as many exhibitions as you can. Think about your audience. If you have a good idea for an exhibition, pitch it to a venue. Collaborate if you can: working with someone else can develop your curatorial practice. Try to let go of fixed ideas (always best).


See Lara’s selection from The Jerwood Collection in her exhibition The Curator’s Choice.