Curatorial Journeys: From St Andrews to Southampton (via Slough)

Nadia Thondrayen, Programming Co-ordinator of John Hansard Gallery, reflects on her career in the arts which began with her ambitions as a 16 year old.

As young as 16 I knew I wanted to work in the arts, in fact, I knew that I needed to work in an environment that contributed to the production of contemporary art.

I followed the regular pathways and applied to Chelsea College of Arts for my foundation year, before reading Art and History of Art at the University of Reading. My artistic practice was embedded in modernist architecture and its discourses, mainly influenced by my history of art lectures and the work of Gordon Matta-Clark (my hero) and Dan Graham.

After graduating, I had a decision to make: a Masters in Fine Art practice or a Masters in Curating? In the end curating was my chosen path, mainly because my priorities of what I felt was important had shifted, and I became interested in a life outside of my own artistic practice. I started to become curious about how cultural institutions worked and how might I be able to contribute?

A few applications later, I successfully gained a place at University of St Andrews on their Museum and Gallery Studies MLitt. The post-graduate course at St Andrews prepared me well for my first job as the Curator of Slough Museum (and yes, Slough has a museum). The MLitt, took me through the various museum processes including acquisitions and entry forms, national standards of accreditation, object handling techniques and writing labels for artworks and objects on display. I put all of these areas into practice during my time at Slough, however one thing was missing- the lack of engagement with contemporary art.

In my search to work in a visual arts environment, I applied to the Royal College of Art to study a second Masters, this time reading Curating Contemporary Art. That came with a placement at Southbank Centre working as an Assistant Curator and it’s here that I really ‘cut my teeth’- the mystery around how a professional art gallery functioned disappeared, and I was put in charge of three major touring exhibitions for Hayward Touring.

Studio 144 with Rhona Byrne’s Huddlehood in the foreground. Image © Thierry Bal

A couple of years later, I found myself managing Plymouth University’s art gallery, looking after their exhibition programme and school engagement offer. Fast forward a couple of years and with a bit more experience under my belt, I opportunely got the role of Programming Co-ordinator here at John Hansard Gallery. My position at John Hansard gallery has been extremely varied, where ultimately I assist the Director and Head of Exhibitions with all exhibition and artist related activity.

This summer, John Hansard Gallery partnered with Southampton City Council and other city partners to realise Summer in the Square, and as part of this, John Hansard Gallery commissioned artist Rhona Byrne to produce new work to site in Guildhall Square. I took on the role of managing the project and worked with Rhona to commission and produce Huddlehood. Effectively Huddlehood is a built environment in which to house ‘social clothing’ known as Huddlewear with visitors invited to try on garments, for instance a cap made for 12 people, or a cape made for four. By participating, visitors are involved in a real-time presence and connection with one another, with all the nuances and constructs that might be involved in that moment. The project took just over six months, and encompassed everything from Rhona sketching her ideas down on paper, working out the build with the contractors, to inducting and training the invigilators.

Kitty Kraus, Untitled (mirror lamp). An Intervention, curated by Nadia Thondrayen. Image © John Hansard Gallery

My time at John Hansard Gallery has been rewarding, and in May 2015 I curated the exhibition An Intervention, which was accompanied by my first solo publication. I think the determined wee 16 year old, I once was, would be proud.

If you’re a University of Southampton student inspired by Nadia’s journey and interested in getting experience in the arts, check out our Arts Ambassadors scheme.

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