Curator of the month: Federica Chiocchetti, V&A

The photography curator, who is our curatorial fellow at the V&A and Nottingham Castle, explains why curation should never be your plan b.

Name and job title:

Federica Chiocchetti, 2015 Art Fund curatorial fellow at V&A and Nottingham Castle Museum, and founding director of Photocaptionist.

What inspired you to become a curator?

Since I was a child in Tuscany I have always loved museums and art galleries; I just felt at home at them. I remember being interested not only in the works displayed but also in how they were presented. I never had the urge to be an artist – I preferred the idea of working with them. Later on some really amazing and controversial contemporary art exhibitions – by provocative curators like Harald Szeemann or Massimiliano Gioni – deeply re-shaped my perception of art history. At the moment, the pleasure of working with original objects from a museum’s collection and the joy of collaborating with emerging artists is what keeps me inspired every day.

What was your first job in the art/museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

My university years were nomadic: I studied economics, literature and book publishing, and I lived between Milan, Santiago de Chile and New York the majority of the time. Art history is something that has always been part of my life, as a self-taught immersive experience: devouring books, going to as many exhibitions as I possibly could and talking to knowledgeable people.

After a couple of years working for the Milan publishing house Bruno Mondadori and after my MA in Comparative Literature at UCL, where I researched the relationships between photography and literature, I worked as assistant curator of the international photography festival FORMAT in Derby. It was a fantastic learning opportunity that allowed me to meet interesting practitioners and curators.

After FORMAT I set up my own platform dedicated to the relationship between images and words, the Photocaptionist, through which I started to write about photography for a number of international magazines, as well as curating exhibitions independently, including the Kunsthalle in Budapest and the forthcoming Photo50, within the London Art Fair 2016. I also spent a year at the wonderful Archive of Modern Conflict with Roger Hargreaves, mainly working on an Italian press photography project which then became an exhibition and a book, Amore e Piombo [Love and Lead], that we produced for the Brighton Photo Biennial. Last year, the Art Fund/V&A/Nottingham Castle curatorial fellowship in photographs came up and I applied.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

I felt very happy when Amore e Piombo won the 2015 Kraszna-Krausz Best Photography Book Award in May this year. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with a fantastic team and magnificent collections at the V&A. And I won’t forget the great feeling of finding an assumed lost print and a letter by P.H. Emerson in the archives of Nottingham Castle. In terms of challenges, any exhibition, regardless of its size, I think is a big challenge, especially if you think about the many things that can go wrong, production wise.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Make sure you don’t want to be an artist, and that curating isn’t a plan b, and also remember to control your ego: your exhibition narrative is of course important, but the artists come first – you are circulating their work!

What’s special about working at your museum?

At the moment I am based at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, where I have the exciting task of doing projects with their great photography collection, including exhibitions, partnerships and working with students. The PH Emerson exhibition and symposium are a first step in that direction. The idea is to bring together the V&A and the castle’s collections as the culmination of a productive and noble partnership supported by the Art Fund. The show will be in the castle’s new temporary exhibition gallery, which I hope will become the photography gallery in the future. My inspiring colleagues at the castle make this sort of ‘curatorial residency’ even more special and I am very grateful!

What is your favourite object in your collection/exhibition and why?

It is almost impossible to have a favourite object from the V&A collections, given their immensity, but I would say the reproduction of Jacopo della Quercia’s statue of Ilaria del Carretto, located in the Cast Courts. The original (1407-07) is one of the main tourist attractions in the cathedral of my hometown in Tuscany, Lucca, where my parents got married. When I bumped into it at the V&A, on my first day of work, I couldn’t believe it. It was a very good sign I was in the right place.

The other V&A object a tri-carbro colour print by Curtis Moffat (1887-1949) of a woman looking at herself in the mirror. I discovered the artist and his fascinating three-colour photography printing process thanks to the senior curator of photographs, Martin Barnes, who is working on a book about Moffat. At the Castle Museum I really like Richard Billingham’s 1995 photograph portraying the artist's brother Jason stoned and seated at a table with various smoking paraphernalia laid out in front of him, from his Ray's a Laugh series.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

Free time is a bit of a stranger to me, as it is for everybody who has chosen her passion as a job. At the moment I am also doing a part-time PhD on photography and fictions at the University of Westminster and I am working on the exhibition Feminine Masculine: On the Struggle and Fascination of Dealing with the Other Sex for the next Photo50 (London Art Fair). When I used to have free time I spent it travelling.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

My absolute favourite of 2015 is The Great Mother at Palazzo Reale in Milan, curated by Massimiliano Gioni.

Federica Chiocchetti is guest curator at the 2016 edition of Photo50 at London Art Fair, with her exhibition Feminine Masculine. The exhibition PH Emerson: Presented by the Author is at Nottingham Castle from 21 November to 7 February 2016. Free entry with National Art Pass.

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