The HOME curator talks about Manchester’s new arts hub
Manchester’s much-loved arts hub Cornerhouse is no more, but a new cultural Mecca, HOME, has risen from the ashes. At its helm, with the title of Artistic Director: Visual Art, is northern powerhouse Sarah Perks, 37. DIVA found out more.
DIVA: What’s your earliest memory of art in a public setting, like a museum or gallery, Sarah?
SARAH PERKS: As youngster, I was obsessed with foreign language cinema, I loved the different ways of telling stories. I sort of grew up in Cornerhouse; I went to the theatre and art galleries, and then bars, gigs and clubs. Culture from low to high has always felt really important to me, particularly how it affects the way we understand the world and talk about it. Art for me is very political and international, yet it has to have an emotional impact and have space within it for people to react. Contemporary visual art has a free spirit and integrity I’ve yet to experience in any other art form, it mutates, evolves and affects everything around it.
When did you know that you wanted to work in the art world and how did you get your first toe on the ladder?
Despite all the obvious pointers towards being a producer or curator, I spent the ages of three to 21 convinced I would be an indie pop star. At some point I realised I didn’t have the time to waste, and set out to be an academic instead. Everything changed when I got a job at Cornerhouse aged 24.
What is the difference between people who want to make art and people who want to curate? Did you ever think you might be an artist yourself?
I didn’t even take art at school as I hated drawing tins and cereal boxes. Think what fun we might have had with conceptual art class! I’m not a traditional curator and never worked in a museum, so I hands- on produce artwork with my artists and feel my approach blurs conventional roles and art forms. I dislike the way people tend to see things as either creative or practical or academic, the genius is in the blurring of these things. I’m sat right now on a film shoot where I’m producer, caterer, writer, driver, wardrobe and art director, whilst preparing for a book launch tonight.
Obviously your role at HOME has a creative element to it. Tell us about your job and what it involves…
One way to describe it is juggling lots of small to large scale art projects – one primary focus for me is curating the exhibitions (four or five a year) for our major gallery space. Each one will involve research and defining the concept, then a combination of producing new work alongside existing work. Alongside this curating runs creative writing, artist publications, film productions, training programmes, events, performances, conferences and everything that is a part of HOME.
What do you have to think about when you are planning an exhibition?
There’s a lot to consider, I look at three year periods broken down into themes and research to begin with. I look at the diversity of the artists I’m presenting and crucially whether they are “our” type of artists – for example, HOME wouldn’t do a major solo exhibition by an already very established artist that you can see elsewhere. I’m very much led by thinking international and cross art form, explorations of the personal and political, often revealed via storytelling. For group shows I take an influential text as inspiration, a pop culture reference or a historical movement to revisit. Start with something narrow and explore from centre outwards. Also, I’m tracking artists careers over time and always on the lookout for new and exciting artwork from anywhere.
Tell us about your current exhibition, Safe...
Safe is an excellent example of an exhibition developing over time, as a collaboration. At the heart of it all is Todd Haynes’ seminal film Safe (1995) starring Julianne Moore as a LA suburban housewife who becomes gradually allergic to everything around her. It’s a very complex and unresolved film exploring environmental illness and pollution, self help, suburban malaise, and often viewed as an allegory for HIV/AIDS. Conceiving and producing with my co- curator Louise O’hare has been an epic journey and I think it is a deeply resonant, timely and accessible exhibition – half of which is new commissions, with a publication in the style of self help alongside.
Sounds fantastic! What else have you got in the pipeline?
Our next exhibition is by super cool artist and filmmaker duo AL & AL, who will present and narrate Incidents Of Travel In The Multiverse (6 Feb - 27 Mar 2016), a major new solo show conceived from their epic sci-fi odyssey, both real and imagined, alongside some of the world’s ground-breaking scientists, Professor Brian Greene, Alan Turing and Dr Bart Hoogenboom. And there will be a live concert performance with the BBC Philharmonic and music by Philip Glass. I have two weeks to write some very interesting semi-autobiographical science reports for a publication which will accompany the exhibition!
Following that, next year has major solo exhibitions by US artist Judith Barry, Scottish artist Rachel Maclean and every year we have a major VIVA! Festival of everything Spanish and Latin American. I’m looking forward to how HOME develops generally, in one way it’s still in its infancy and hopefully we can really push what it can become in the future.
Manchester is well-known for its well-established LGBT community as well as being a destination for LGBT visitors, and HOME is just a stone’s throw from the Gay Village. What will HOME offer LGBT visitors?
As with other more easy to define audience groups, HOME offers specific interest events, for example, an LGBT film season, but also does not make assumptions of where interests lie. An LGBT visitor could be interested in anything, however I appreciate the atmosphere has to be welcoming and the general programme is diverse and avoids lazy stereotypes. We’re much too counter- culture by nature – individually and as Mancunians – to promote homogenistic “normalised” views of the world.
Working in the art world, has being a gay woman ever felt like an advantage or a disadvantage?
I’ve noticed absolutely no difference being gay or straight, and I don’t believe being a woman is a disadvantage. I don’t give any time or credit to people who treat others differently, I have experienced class and age being more of a disadvantage, but always only by stupid people.
You obviously live a busy life – what do you do to kick back in your spare time?
A lot of my social life is connected to the arts, of course, and I’ve made a lot of close friends through work. The social side is addictive and I’ve met such a wide range of amazing and talented people over the years. After work, I’m equally happy to be in HOME’S bar or watch TV at my real home with my girlfriend.
We hear you have a parallel existence as DJ Britney $perks, too.
Infrequently, I DJ at art parties or friends’ occasions under this pseudonym! I play an eclectic range of popular music that people can dance to, only using my laptop or phone, hence this name. I feel it’s important to have a backup career.
CURATOR SARAH PERKS HATED ART AT SCHOOL. NOW SHE’S HEADING UP HOME, MANCHESTER’S NEW CULTURAL MECCA
LOUISE CAROLIN “I’m not a traditional curator. My approach blurs roles and art forms”