• James Stewart

#askacurator 2020

Zimmer Stewart Gallery curator, James Stewart, answers some of the questions raised during the 2019 #askacurator event.


On 16 September Museums and Galleries are taking part in the 10th ‘Ask A Curator Day’.


Ask A Curator Day started in 2010 in an effort to harness Twitter’s networking power to drum up some direct engagement with curators across the globe. The idea was that a curious public would be able to question the keepers of cultural heritage about the objects in their care and what it is they do with them.


The event became an instant hit with museums around the world fielding questions from their audiences, and trended number one on Twitter worldwide.


Over the past decade the event has grown under the watchful eye of Mar Dixon and it’s grown from being something that just takes place on Twitter to also encompass Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.


Here Zimmer Stewart Gallery curator, James Stewart, answers some of the questions from last years event:


  • What does your typical day look like? There is no such thing as a typical day for me; running a small commercial gallery means that I have to do many things that in larger galleries would be spread amongst a number of people. Typical tasks for me include:

  • Check the website is up to date, if not add new artist works, dates for exhibitions, blog posts, videos etc

  • Update social media (Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) with latest gallery, artist or other news. I try to include some general art world news too from time to time.

  • Contact represented artists to arrange studio visits, collect works, return works, discuss latest paintings and other plans for the future.

  • Plan future exhibitions & promote current ones

  • Look out for possible venues for pop-ups and ad hoc exhibitions

  • See what other galleries are showing and plan exhibition visits both locally, in London and other places.

  • Lastly, & least favourite, is complete any admin/accounting tasks.

  • What’s the weirdest object in your collection? I guess the weirdest object in our collection is a fibre glass head sculpture created by David Bailey for a charity auction in 1999. The head is said to be modelled on his then wife’s head, and painted by hand, with a similarly painted dog collar attached (The charity benefitting was Battersea Dogs Home. You can see this object with more images on our pages on Artsy.net


  • What do you love about your job? I love the variety in my work. Previously, until 2002, I was an accountant and this job could not be more different. I enjoy working with artists, and being forever amazed by their creativity. I enjoy working with collectors and buyers, seeing them get excited about a piece (as I do too) and then deciding to buy because they cannot be without it.


  • What’s your favourite object? My favourite object is a small painting by Tom Hammick called Sussex Garden. It is oil on linen about 46 x 38 cm. I acquired it in about 2011, a few years after we started working with Tom. His work is timeless, yet contemporary.

  • Have you ever broken an object? Yes, a couple of times, both times were ceramics. On one occasion a painting slipped on its hanging and tipped over a plinth. On top of the plinth was a lovely vase by Kitty Shepherd. It smashed into many pieces and I put them in a box thinking that was the end of it. Then a local artist took the box and put the vase back together, painting gold lines where the breaks were. Now it is one of my treasured possessions!



  • What’s your most valuable object? The most valuable object at the moment is painting by Norbert Schwontkowski called ‘Fruchte’ (2002). Schwontkowski‘s work is deceptively simple, naive even. This piece can be viewed on our pages on Artsy.net and is priced at £10,000.



  • What’s your oldest object? The oldest object in our collection is a 1947 work by Sir Terry Frost, RA, completed whilst he was still at art school. ‘Cyclists, Battersea’ is crayon and pencil on paper, although figurative it demonstrates the artist’s use of colour and exploration of shape that would serve him for the next sixty years or so.


  • How have you done your job during the pandemic? The pandemic allowed me the time to complete a job I had been planning for some time.....a complete redesign of the gallery website. This was launched during April and included a more upfront online shop, video channel, blog and improved artist pages. During the lockdown we kept our social media going as well as the regular gallery newsletters, so that when we did open up again for visitors on 17 June, clients knew what to expect to see.


  • If you could add any object to your collection, what would it be? I love the period art between the two world wars. It was a period of immense change (cubism, Dada, art activism and more). So I would choose a piece from this period, possibly one of the ‘Bird in Space’ series (1923) by Brancusi. The boldness of the simplicity of form, which at the time would have been revolutionary. Interestingly, in 1926 when ‘Bird in Space‘ and another 19 Brancusi works arrived in New York for an exhibition, customs officials did not be believe that this was a work of art (attracting zero tariff) and a tariff of 40% as if for a manufactured item. Marcel Duchamp and Brancusi were indignant and after some publicity by the gallery to show the work the customs officials relented and reversed the charge.


  • Which artist alive or dead, who would you like to meet? This is easy, it would have to be Marcel Duchamp. He laid the groundwork for anything to be art, found objects and conceptual art. Duchamp has had an immense impact on twentieth-century and twenty first-century art but by World War I, he had rejected the work of many of his fellow artists (such as Henri Matisse) as "retinal" art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.


  • Who is your favourite artist? This is a difficult one, because like music, my favourite can change from day to day. In terms of established artist like Tracey Emin, Terry Frost, Tom Hammick, Maggi Hambling, Howard Hodgkin and John Kirkby...these are the artists whose work is in the room in our house that we use the most. In terms of artists we represent, it is impossible to choose, I like them all and have worked with most of them for over ten years. Each of my favourite artists (established or emerging) have the same things in common: authenticity, originality, integrity and their own signature style.



  • Is your museum haunted? No, not as far as we know.


  • How do you get a job in a gallery? By accident really, John Zimmer and I wanted to move from London to Arundel, and to cut a long story short, we found a great house & garden in the middle of town. The only problem was that it had a shop front which had to stay as some form of retail. From 1986 to about 1996 as an accountant I had worked for a number of creative businesses (interior & graphic design mainly) and also helped set up the Montgomery Sculpture Trust in Buckinghamshire in 1992 (I would remain Trustee & Treasurer until it closed in 2009). This experience as well as a love of art made me think that I could give up accountancy and open a contemporary art gallery, which is what I did in 2002/3 and have not looked back since!

  • What’s your favourite museum to visit other than your own? Locally I like to visit Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and in London my favourite places to visit are the Tate and Royal Academy. (I have member subscriptions to all three).


  • Do you collect anything yourself? Yes, I think this is why I can relate well to our buyers. I collect paintings, sculpture, ceramics and textiles. We have much more than we can put out at any one time so I try to rotate pieces.


  • What’s on a Curators playlist? My guilty pleasure in the gallery is listening to classic rock from the 1970’s, the period in which I was a teenager. This may not fit well with the image of a contemporary gallery, but it reflects me.


  • How can I get my art in a gallery? This is a very difficult question, we get approached by prospective artists at least once a week and it is heartbreaking to ‘reject’ them. Most of the time it is fairly straightforward for me, I show work that I would like to own myself. So even though an artist may be successful elsewhere, and could even be successful with Zimmer Stewart, if I do not like the work I cannot feel comfortable promoting it. So to get work in a gallery, do some research see how your work might fit with the work already on show there; get to know the curator; see if another artist can recommend you; send invites to other exhibitions where you work is shown.


  • What item would you most like to take home and why? I would like to take home one of the new Piers Ottey ‘West Coast - Cannery Row to Yosemite’ paintings. Several of these look at San Francisco a place that has many happy memories for me (I lived there for seven months in 2000).



  • Do you have any cats in your collection? No, but we do have dogs. See ‘54 Dogs’ by Holly Frean. This is a potato print, mono type, on individual sheets of handmade cotton rag paper. Holly Frean has a fantastic sense of colour, and a unique, often quirky way of representing the subjects she paints.


  • Why are galleries important? Galleries are important, even in today’s online, interactive, digital world, as a showcase for artistic talent. Museums and large public galleries put on large exhibitions of famous artists‘ works, whereas smaller commercial spaces are places where emerging artists can exhibit new work. I did not realise it when we started the gallery back in 2003, but part of our role is to educate visitors and open their minds to works that they would not otherwise see let alone consider owning in their own homes.


  • What’s the role of a commercial gallery in 2020? This is a good question, and not one I will be able to completely answer here, but I will have a go: In the last few years more and more artists have their own websites & Instagram feeds. These are great, but they compete for collectors ‘eyeballs’ directly with gallery websites and social media feeds. As more and more sales happen online, less and less work is actually being seen by the gallery going community. So the relevance of galleries as a ‘showcase for artists’ is slightly diminished. The role of galleries are the same, but the long term survival for all of the ones currently open is up for debate; only time will tell. The internet is seen as the great disrupter creating new ways of doing business and reaching clients directly; in the case of galleries the middleman may not be needed as much?


  • What’s the strangest thing to ever happen in your gallery? We have had many performances in the gallery from an artist playing the harp or reading poetry. But one of the most memorable, rather than strange was when Mahan Esfahani played his harpsichord during the Arundel Festival in 2014 alongside our Terry Frost exhibition. Earlier in the year he had played in Washington at the Library of Congress, as well as many other places both in the UK and internationally, then Zimmer Stewart Gallery in Arundel. Mahan Esfahani was so nice, genuine and keen to let the small audience know about his instrument as the pieces he played. You can see a part of his performance along with other music and poetry events at the gallery in our Video Channel.


  • What part of your job has surprised you? I guess the most surprising part of my job was how easy it has been to relate to both artists and clients. It was daunting at first, but over time I became more confident in my taste and curation.


  • Got any advice for someone who wants to become a curator? Just do it, and also be true to yourself: Take risks and show work that maybe a lot of people may not appreciate. Over they will come to understand your reasons for the choices you make, even though they may not fully like the art on show.