London-based art writer and curator Francesca Gavin is one of the most trusted voices in the art world. With an impressive career that spans over 15 years, Francesca knows how to put on a good show and how to write about one too. Having curated shows at Soho House and Palais de Tokoyo, she has written five books and also co-curated the Manifesta 11 biennial in 2016. Starting out from modest beginnings as an intern at Dazed & Confused, Francesca is now Art Editor at Twin and Editor-at-Large at Kaleidoscope and contributing editor to Sleek magazine. Defining herself as an enthusiast rather than a critic, Francesca has her own radio show Rough Version on NTS where she talks to contemporary artists about their work and music. Spending the morning in total awe of her charm and wisdom, we grab a coffee with Francesca, head to Whitechapel Gallery in East London and talk with her about her musical background, the inherent addictiveness of screen media and why she is passionate about writing and curating in an accessible way.
Words by Kadish Morris & Photography by Dunja Opalko
Tell me a little bit about how you started out?
I studied History of Art. I had no idea what I was going to do with it at all. I ended up working at a book publishers doing picture research for book covers which I hated. So I phoned up Dazed & Confused’s editorial assistant and said to her “I want your job. How did you get it?” and she told me that she had done an internship. It was a small magazine at the time and I would come in and sweep floors, get coffee, do transcriptions and photocopying. I loved it. I did that for about 6-7 months and then I ended up working for some random online company and saw an editor job at Time Out and applied. When I was there, I realised I had this great email address and thought that I should start pitching to get freelance work and I’ve been freelance ever since.
What was your earliest experience with art?
My mum went to art school. She had a massive postcard collection as well as art books on weird esoteric subjects like aliens and sacred geometry [Laughs] When I was 9 and my sister was 7, she was so fed up with us collecting stickers that she took out the art postcard collection and gave it to me and my sister to share between us. It was pretty much life changing. Ever since then, I would collect art postcards wherever I went. I have about 3,000 now.
“It was a small magazine at the time and I would come in and sweep floors, get coffee, do transcriptions and photocopying. I loved it.”
Do you think that children are naturally drawn to art?
Definitely. I think it’s an innate human form of expression. In the same way that I think that music can be an innate form of expression. Actually, music was probably the medium I was most interested in until about 18. I learnt to read music before I learnt to read. I learnt structure and how to use music and rhythm before I learnt the alphabet. I sang for a very long time. My father’s a signer too.
So you come from a really creative family?
Yes. Really creative. Really bohemian. We we never going to be accountants sadly [Laughs]. For a very long time, I wanted to be a musician.
Why did you stop pursuing music?
My father was a performer and I knew how incredibly difficult it was financially. I didn’t want to struggle in the same way. There was always going to be someone better than me out there. When I was 21, my voice dropped. I literally got a bit of a sore throat and I sang on it for ages and my voice never really came back. I always knew it wasn’t what I was going to do with my life but I just loved doing it.
Sometimes it’s nice to do things without the pressure of it needing to materialise into something professional…
Exactly. We need more of that. I still have a lot of musical influences. I DJ’d for years. My NTS show is really about the relationship between art and music. I really like that crossover. I’ve been doing ridiculous Beyonce dance classes over the last 3 years. So on my Instagram, it’s art, art, art, slut drop, art, art, art, hair whip [Laughs]. But it’s nice just having something outside of art. It’s a way of stepping outside of what I do.
I’m interested to hear what you think about people who have more than one title. People who write poetry and make art. People who make music and direct films…
One of my favourite rooms at Manifesta 11 was about artists crossing between different mediums. People who were artist-musicians or used to work in a factory or were psychiatric nurses. I think it’s so wrong to think that if you don’t make your full income through your creative outlet, you’re less of an artist. That’s ridiculous. I respect people who need to pay their rent. It’s not easy to make a living. Also, it’s quite good to separate these two things. Everyone is influenced by things outside of their normal practice.
Does your writing inform the way you curate?
Completely. And visa versa. It’s a big blurry line.
How would you define your style of writing?
I don’t really think of myself as a critic. I used to do reviews, but I don’t like doing reviews to be honest. I think of myself as an enthusiast. I want to be enthusiastic about something. Why do I like that? Why does that excite me? If something doesn’t, I don’t really like writing about it. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being interested in new things, new voices and approaches. I love that people put exhibitions on in their living rooms or try to turn a garage into an art space. I want to bring attention to that. Especially since so much of mainstream media, when it looks at art, only looks at it terms of it’s financial value. I think that’s so pointless. Where’s the politics in that? Where’s the resistance in that? That’s the great thing about the internet. It provides a way of showing your work to a wider audience. However, I always say, nothing is better than seeing it in real life. Your actual relationship with it is different when you’re there in a space. And I think it’s really important to meet people. When I went to university, the friends I made there were not necessarily intellectually stimulating in the way that I’d hoped they would be. Years later, when I fell into the contemporary art world, I met people that pushed my brain and it was so exciting because I didn’t really get it in the book world and I didn’t get in the music world. In the art world, I was actually having really interesting conversations.
“I love that people put exhibitions on in their living rooms or try to turn a garage into an art space. I want to bring attention to that. Especially since so much of mainstream media, when it looks at art, only looks at it terms of its financial value.”
Do you ever find it difficult to switch off from the internet?
I’m really fascinated in deconstructing my own relationship to screen media because I’m aware of the positive and negative aspects of it. Reading Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 was a massive thing for me. This idea of checking your phone in the middle of the night to look at your emails. It’s a really messed up thing to be doing. I think there’s something between the speed of media, the glow of the screen, our relationship to coffee, productivity drugs and capitalism that is all intertwined and I want to work out what that is. If nothing else, to work out how to position myself within it. I don’t want to have my phone on the table. I switch my phone on silent. I turn off notifications. It’s making a lot of us unhappy and lonely.
“I really want to write about screens and media and interface because I’m interested in the intimate relationship we have with our devices. We are in love with our phones.”
It’s overwhelming too…
There’s no way you can keep up with it. It’s definitely addictive. There’s no question about it. A lot of the stuff written about our relationship to technology seems to be about networking and surveillance. I really want to write about screens and media and interface because I’m interested in the intimate relationship we have with our devices. We are in love with our phones. We have this constant relationship with this object. It’s very different from the cinema or looking at a television screen. But like the diet industry, and what is becoming the dating industry. We only talk about self control. It’s about us having to give up these things rather than understanding that there is something inherently addictive that makes us want to constantly engage with these things. I think there are elements of addiction built into our relationship to food, to social media, to dopamine that is outside of us as individuals.
I wanted to ask about your experience co-curating the Manifesta 11 biennial. I read in a previous interview that you didn’t receive credit for your involvement. I’m interested in hearing about what happened and also, hearing about your thoughts on whether you think the erasure of female contribution is a common occurrence in art?
Christian Jankowski was curating the 2016 biennial. 6 months before the opening, he asked me to co-curate a large section of it. Out of 130 artists, I pretty much chose around 100. I worked my ass off. It was co-curation – expanding on ideas he had worked but without me, there wouldn’t have been any women in the show etc. Unfortunately, when it happened and the press came out. No-one knew I did the job. My name wasn’t mentioned anywhere. I wasn’t invited to the press conference.
Most press didn’t mention my name at all. So no-one knew I did it. So essentially, I did all the work for next to no money. I did it for the credit, but didn’t get the credit. It was a real sad massive eye opener. It was really disappointing but I’m still really happy with the work I did and will definitely curate differently after it. I’m also trying to do exhibitions that are equally male and female. I think that’s really important and I will always give people credit.
Why do you think it happened?
Lazy journalism. Useless press people. It’s a lot easier to write about a single male artist curator but I’ve learnt from it. I’ve learnt how I want to work and collaborate. I got some really positive things out of it too. Right now, I have a clause in every contract that says I have to see press releases before they get sent out. I always thought of the art world as being liberal. But I realised that it’s a really bad industry for women. In terms of female artist representation and in terms of gallerists. Behind the scenes, women are doing the work but are not getting the credit. But you take a deep sigh and you think about how you can stop this from happening to others like you. Like all feminist action – it’s about how you can be supportive to other people to create better environments.
How often do you reward yourself for your hard work?
All the time. Constantly [Laughs]. I love buying magazines. I go to Berlin quite a lot to see my mates. I go out a lot. If I’m going to be really honest, I reward myself daily. I go out to get a coffee and do a crossword. That’s the point of working for me. Having a coffee, watching the world go by. If I’m lucky – sitting in the sun. Those things make me really happy. The whole point of working has to be for living. I could be better with money but I enjoy myself.
“It’s a lot easier to write about a single male artist curator but I’ve learnt from it. I’ve learnt how I want to work and collaborate.”
What do you think makes London an attractive place to live?
I’m a 3rd generation Londoner. Even with all of these problems of people getting pushed further and further out, there’s still an energy here that’s amazing. It’s quite a beautiful city. I love wondering around Soho and Mayfair. I love the parks. I like that I know it like a taxi driver. I was brought up in Hampstead, I went to school in Hammersmith and I’ve worked everywhere from Old Street to Tottenham Court Road. I know the city very intimately and I love it. I still get excited to go to museums. Even if you do nothing. Whatever you’re interested in, it will still be here. I love this city. I was living in Berlin for like a year and it’s the only other place apart from London that I would want to live. London is the most multi-cultural place I’ve ever been to apart from Toronto.
What’s the best exhibition you’ve ever seen?
I think I saw one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in my life in Barcelona. It was called 1,000 m2 of desire and was about the relationship between architecture and sex. It was basically connected to 18th century liberty property, the dangerous liaison period, architecture philosophy, counter culture, playboy magazines, the design of the Hacienda, club culture, the arts and technology. It was literally one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in my life. Curated by two female curators. You wouldn’t necessarily think of Barcelona being a place to see good art but it was great.
“Who wants to aim things at a small elitist group in their own conceptual cul-de-sac? I write and curate in a really accessible way and I want audiences who know fuck all about art to be interested.”
It’s no secret that art is historically white and male – but do you think things are changing?
I heard an interesting thing recently. That there was an increase of exhibitions by women because the work was cheaper and collectors are spending less so therefore, that work has become more collectable. Which is a terrifying thought. However, I’m so pro seeing more women, more artists from the african diaspora, more asian artists in exhibitions. I will aways write about them. I will always go and visit their shows. I love the idea of re-writing the canon of art history to incorporate this work. I remember at Camden Art Centre – there was this show by Kerry James Marshall and it blew me away. I love the fact that he’s having such international museum success now. He deserves it. I’m loving the fact that we are seeing this incorporation, but I don’t want it to be something that’s a fad because it’s fashionable. Because art like fashion, reflects trends.
What ways do you think better representation can be achieved?
I think when art education became something you had to pay for, it really changed the opportunities for normal people. I think we should have a rise in scholarships and in free schools. Getting education doesn’t have to be through traditional education but can be through creating your own forms of studying. I think that’s a really interesting model to be expanded on. I actively go searching for people making work outside of the norm and I think that’s important for anyone who is a writer or curator. I also don’t think they have to be making work about identity. I know a lot of female artists who get pissed off when they’re asked “How does this relate to you as a female artist?” You want the work to have human qualities rather than be about your gender or racial background. You want it to have a wider conversation. You don’t get white men being asked “How does what you make relate to you being white and male?” No-one is asking them these questions! It’s nonsense. It needs to change. It needs to be changed in terms of what the public are viewing. How writers write. What questions are being asked. How things are being presented. Who wants to aim things at a small elitist group in their own conceptual cul-de-sac? I write and curate in a really accessible way and I want audiences who know fuck all about art to be interested. That’s really important to me.