The Invisible Curator

Paper Girl Leeds Image by Mindy Goose

Guest blog by Steve Manthorp

I have often contended that the best curating is invisible. The job of the curator is to allow that which is being exhibited to speak to its audience as clearly and as articulately as possible and not to get in the way. In that, it has a good deal in common with graphic design; good graphic design allows text and images to speak for themselves. You only notice bad design, whether that means ineptitude or over-design; and similarly, you only notice bad curating.

I love curating artists – I programmed exhibitions at Bradford’s Cartwright Hall for a decade – and I don’t do as much of it as I’d like to nowadays. Other things get in the way: my practice as a digital artist, working most of the time as half of ADEPT with Shanaz Gulzar; My strategic work as coordinator of the Yorkshire & Humber Contemporary Visual Arts Network (formerly the somewhat more euphonious, if less accurate, Turning Point Yorkshire & Humber); my project management & evaluation work. They’re all hugely enjoyable, don’t get me wrong; but there’s a special pleasure in curation.

The skill in curating an exhibition, particularly a group exhibition, bears some passing similarity to cookery, particularly to those transformative, alchemical cooking processes like baking. You start with a broad vision of your final product; select your ingredients, balance their relative quantities and then hope for the best. If it works, you end up with something greater than the sum of its parts, something new.

It was a huge pleasure and honour, therefore, to be offered the role of curating and project managing Light Night Leeds this year on behalf of Leeds City Council, working with a team in Arts & Regeneration which is hugely dedicated to the event, and hugely able at delivering it.

Light Night Leeds is unique among its peer autumnal events (and there’s plenty of them) in being completely created by local artists; artists from Leeds and from adjacent towns and cities. This passionately held localism is the legacy of its previous curator, James Hill, now moved on to pastures new. It’s also catholic in its remit; this year the event will include music, theatre, storytelling, performance, installation, projection and exhibition, along with tours and street food.

When I accepted the role of curating Light Night Leeds, I took on three challenges: to reduce the programme to a more manageable number of projects; to give it more coherence and to focus its family appeal.

Even having achieved the first goal we’re still offering a programme of around 60 projects for the public to choose from. We offered participant artists and organisations a theme – Dead of Night – to spin their creative ideas from; and many have responded, giving the programme a dark twist in keeping with the dying of the year and with its neighbour, Halloween. So Opera North’s Devil’s Jukebox offers us a night of musical pacts with the devil, Papergirl will be leading a crocodile of Day of the Dead inspired cyclists, West Yorkshire Playhouse will be offering The Midnight Playground and we’ll have zombie Aerobics outside the front of Town Hall.

We’ve made the programme easier for families to navigate with ‘family friendly’ navigation on the event map and we’re hoping that visitors of all ages will take the opportunity to be inspired by the Dead of Night theme and dress accordingly.

And me? If I’ve done my job right, I’ll be invisible.

Curator, Light Night Leeds 2012


  1. Dead of night ghouls and sinister theme combined with families does seen an odd combination. If the dead of night has even a sniff of the earlier underworlds thing in Leeds it’ll be a shame to see the nightmares that follow for families with younglings. That said I’m sure it will still be appealing to those less tied to children. So a dark light night. Interesting.

  2. My own experience is that kids love safe scares, especially when they get a chance to wear the bedsheet too. Those beautiful Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skulls are for rotting kids teeth, of course, not adults! I also believe that the experience of being a little scared, especially in the company of parents,carers or peers (who make it safe, of course), is not just a great pleasure for kids, but a vital part of their emotional development.

    My brood were always clamouring for ‘a really scary’ film at Hallowe’en to watch with their friends (Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow was a mutually satisfactory choice, with its full-on head loppings but no subsequent nightmares).

    We’ve indicated especially family friendly Light Night events in the map (out soon!) and on the website.

  3. A fair response which i’ll run with thank you! Now… if only i can make it Past those dark satanic mills with the scamps. I’m still a stalwart of making a dark place light & inviting as the name would imply but if the promise is of dia des Los muertos in leeds it’s got a pull. Best wishes to the super volunteers. Easy on the fake blood and giblets.

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