Sarah McCrory

By Francesca Gavin

Francesca Gavin charts the curator Sarah McCrory's rise to the head of the new flagship institution at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Curators are often drawn again and again to the same subjects, whether they like it or not. For Hans Ulrich Obrist you could say it is time and the unfinished. For Massimiliano Gioni, the forgotten and futuristic. For Susanne Pfeffer, how technology is embedded in existence. British curator Sarah McCrory’s USP is hard to define. The curator has knocked the ball out of the park with exceptional projects at Frieze, Glasgow International and Studio Voltaire. One could argue that her highlight is space and collaboration. It is something that has garnered her an institution of her own – one of the highly anticipated new institutions in the city – at Goldsmiths, the birthplace of the YBAs and one of the smartest art schools in Europe.

McCrory came from an art practice background. She completed a BA in painting at Kingston in 2000, before going to the Royal College of Art’s curating course in 2003. “I was always interested more in other peoples’ work than in my own.” She ran project spaces and later the Publish And Be Damned self-publishing fair, alongside Kit Hammonds and Emily Pethick. She took a stipend and went to New York to work at White Columns with Matthew Higgs. On her return she began working part time with Rachel Williams at the recently closed Vilma Gold gallery, from 2006-08. “I owe her loads – she gave me a lot of freedom. She allowed me to bring artists in. She allowed me to develop confidence with my opinion of artists.”

Sarah McCrory photographed for Artworks London in London, 2017.
Sarah McCrory photographed for Artworks London in London, 2017. Photo: Trisha Ward.

She stayed with the gallery for two years, before she met Joe Scotland, beginning a working relationship that took her to Studio Voltaire, where she worked from 2008-10. The Clapham gallery space prior to their involvement didn't really have a programme. “We were really fumbling our way through. Joe had a studio there and was making work, and had a vision whereas I bumbled in, worked on some shows for a year or so. We were sharing a salary. It was crazy.” Frieze founder Matthew Slotover came down, was impressed and gave McCrory the curator position for Frieze projects at the Frieze Art Fair, in 2010. 

McCrory’s work at Frieze is some of her most memorable – and creating exciting projects in a commercial context in a tent in a public park is not an easy task. One of the most memorable was Lucky PDF, then the epitome of an evolving Peckham art scene at the height of its innovation. They created a daily TV show in the space, broadcasting art projects online every day of the fair. A generation of artists came out of this project Yuri Pattison, Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson, and Hannah Perry among others. The project felt a little wild, a little skewiff, and refreshingly new. “What that project did was represented grassroots practices, young artists, the vibrancy of a particular artists’ community at that time, mostly Peckham,” she recalls. “I didn’t deliver the individual content. I curated the curators. It gave those young artists a place in the fair.” 

Her work at Glasgow International, from 2012-16, was equally impressive – again the spaces were unusual. Disused public baths, artist studios and project spaces, alongside more established museums and galleries. Many of the artists McCrory has chosen have a good dose of humour – the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams and his ultra-violent future-comedy film Echt premiered with the 2014 festival, while Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Bryne’s collaborative giant bouncy castle blow up versions of iconic sculptures bounced around Govanhill Baths. The 2016 iteration included work by digital artist Lawrence Lek alongside a serious solo show of the established Cosima von Bonin. Like Peckham, McCrory had a skill of aligning her work with places experiencing an artistic boom. Glasgow’s edge was a good fit for McCrory’s take on what the contemporary could be. Her exhibitions have always included a strong female line up and a strong sense of queer consciousness. 

In January it was announced McCrory would be leading the new gallery at Goldsmiths, University of London. It is a massive new project where former water tanks are being converted into a contemporary art space. The space’s connection to the students at Goldsmiths is vital. Architects ASSEMBLE won the competition to transform the tanks into an 8 galleries space. McCrory is used to working with unusual spaces and is openly ambitious about her approach for the space, which will include exhibitions and temporary projects that touch on the university’s collections, Goldsmiths alumni and international artists. “If ambition really is wanting to do what you like doing as well as you can, then why not? It’s very gendered - an ambitious man is to be lauded and celebrated, and an ambitious woman is somehow cutthroat and has no emotional intelligence.” 

More than anything McCrory feels like a curator who veers the focus on the artists rather than only on herself – something that feels refreshing in face of the decade of ‘super curators’ that has dominated the art world. She is part of a generation resisting the super curator focus. Curators who perhaps have a more mutable aesthetic or conceptual signature. The idea of a curatorial vision rather than an artistic one feels a little out of step with the changing landscape of what art can be. Her presence is a little subtler and the results are more successful for it.

Francesca Gavin is a freelance writer, curator and editor based in London.

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