Niamh Tuft is the Programme Manager for the Architecture, Design and Fashion department at the British Council, based in the London offices. An alumni of one of the first cohorts of MA Fashion Curation students, Niamh has gone on to forge a career in curation in fashion, design and the arts. Here she gives us some insights into her work and her experiences on the MA.
Tell us about your work at the British Council – what you are responsible for, the types of exhibitions you work on, including some examples.
A lot of the projects I work on I would describe as ‘live projects’ rather than exhibitions. At the British Council the crux of our work is creating opportunities for creative collaboration between the UK and other countries. This could be anything from creating a zine, fashion film or a series of shop windows. We’re usually working with emerging designers and creatives rather than established names or historical collections. I love the immediacy of working in this way and in a sense the curatorial side is setting the brief and bringing the right people together but then we let it run!
Saying that, I do look after one exhibition project called the International Fashion Showcase, a partnership with the British Fashion Council (BFC) which takes place during London Fashion Week. It’s an open invitation to countries from all over the world to present a group of emerging designers in a curated installation. In this instance I work as a commissioner with Anna Orsini from the BFC, offering a platform to curators from all over the world to set out their view of fashion in their own cultural context. It’s been fascinating to see how fashion curation as a global practice, especially in places where there may not even be a museum exhibiting - or collecting - fashion. This annual exhibition has drawn on art curators, artists, set designers, creative directors, stylists, academics, design curators and architects to take on the role of fashion curator, so it’s been really quite an expansive way of looking at the discipline.
Presenting fashion to different audiences, in different contexts/environments, in different countries, with different socio-cultural ‘tastes’ and demands – it’s a big remit! Tell me about how you collaborate with countries overseas to develop exhibitions that engage new audiences world-wide.
We always work in partnership overseas, this means we are working with people who know their fashion industry and cultural context inside out. It could be anyone from a museum or cultural venue to a fashion week, fashion magazine or industry body. For me there is no substitute for this expertise - when we start a project it’s really important to find the “sweet spot” between the UK and local industry.
When I joined the British Council I watched and learned a lot from colleagues. Alison Moloney (who is now at LCF as Curator of International Exhibitions) had been leading a project called ‘Dressing the Screen’ which captured a moment of real energy and experimentation in British fashion filmmaking but tied it really carefully to places like Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Indonesia, areas where there was a strong history and contemporary practice in filmmaking, even if their fashion sectors were more emergent. The result was not just bringing UK filmmakers into contact with international fashion designers but also strengthening links between the film and fashion sectors locally. I always return to this as example of how the UK and international context can be brought together in a meaningful way.
What I’m really proud of in the International Fashion Showcase is how we’ve opened up a UK audience to international fashion and its cultural underpinning. We’ve had installations and exhibitions on everything from the Serbian roots of surrealism, tropical modernism in Brazil, Dacian myths, Indian pastoral communities, Taiwanese industrial heritage, the history of Egyptian cotton, Chilean roadside shrines and Japanese car boot sales! For us, what’s been exciting is fashion as a medium for cultural dialogue and understanding, fashion as a way into cultural heritage or contemporary culture.
Curation is rapidly and increasingly taking on new meanings – the process of curating is morphing and changing before our eyes. Where do you see the practice of fashion curation in general going? How do you see your work evolving at the British Council?
I’m quite fascinated by the relationship between fashion curation and the fashion industry - perhaps because much of our work is on a continuum between fashion as culture and fashion as an “industry”. I think it’s always been there in the sense that curators have often had close relationships with the industry and that the language of things like retail design, fashion installation and fashion exhibition have often borrowed from each other. However, I feel like the very active role that curators have in commissioning new work or developing ideas with designers and creatives working now is quite an exciting development. This increasingly collaborative relationship with practitioners puts curators in the position of creating fashion as well as observing, collecting and presenting it.
With both fashion history and fashion curation’s expansion as global disciplines, I think we’ll see a real plurality of approaches and perspectives. In my work I see places like Ukraine and Poland start to document and exhibit their fashion history, which can offer a very different perspective to Western European and North American fashion history. Along with this I think we’ll see new methodologies of curating - people will find ways around the lack of museum or gallery interest in displaying dress and that could open up new routes for the discipline.
At the British Council my current fascination is with the convergence between industrial heritage and new modes of production. There is something perhaps “untrendy” and a bit neglected about industrial heritage - for example, mill museums across the UK - but there are some really urgent questions being asked about how clothes are made and some fascinating innovations in production methods, not just in the UK but worldwide. I think it’s quite an exciting moment to bring contemporary practice and innovations into contact with their industrial, agricultural or technological past. The spinning jenny or the jacquard loom changed the world really, so the question is: how can new innovations answer questions of sustainability, traceability, decent work practices. Its early days but this is what is currently swimming around in my brain!
Tell me about your time studying the MA Fashion Curation. What did you gain from the course?
The most valuable thing about MA Fashion Curation was the multiple viewpoints we got from practicing curators - there was never a sense of there being one method or approach that was privileged over another. Through the course I met curators who came from completely different backgrounds, worked in completely different contexts and in completely different ways. So the course works in a really holistic way. We were taught by Shaun Cole, Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark which in itself gave us very different and distinct perspectives. I continue to draw on that network now and have had the pleasure of working with some of the people I met through the MA - for example, Alistair O’Neill, Gemma Williams and Shonagh Marshall.
I came from very much an academic background, so was quite attuned to the cultural theory that underpinned some of the thinking about curation but the course encouraged me to think spatially, to put down pen and paper and think about how something can actually be produced and created. For others on the course who came from set design or architecture backgrounds it was perhaps the opposite. I think that blend of theoretical and practical is essential.