THE best curators are invisible. Toiling behind the scenes, they are the progenitors of ideas; the people who build on a single idea, bringing together artists along the way to realise a vision. And it helps if they know how artists think. It’s even better if they have worked as artists themselves.

Tiffany Boyle, the new head of exhibitions at the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre, is one such figure.

Starting out as a fine art student at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, Boyle was halfway through the course when she was drawn to the curator’s world.

“Around the midpoint of my studies, I got a small research grant during the summer to undertake conversations with artists and curators, and view museum collections for my graduate thesis,” she says.

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“It was this process that led me to realise that I wasn’t interested in having my own studio practice, but instead working with artists through curating.”

After graduating, Boyle undertook two different postgraduate curatorial programmes, the contemporary art theory masters programme at Edinburgh College of Art, and the CuratorLab curatorial course at Konstfack University in Stockholm.

“The former was very much rooted in theory and art history, the latter framed as a professional development programme, and they both gave me very different, yet formative, learning experiences,” she says.

“There have also been a number of initiatives locally, such as Framework led by Kirsteen Macdonald, that hosted curatorial conversations in Scotland that were really important for me as a young curator.”

Boyle went on to meet other curators, encountering their practices and approaches along the way, understanding how work by youngbloods like her related directly to what had been happening locally in the visual arts over the years.

“There would be too many people to give credit to here,” she says. “But I feel that there was a lot of encouragement and openness from a number of individuals and organisations to work with emerging curators, which I’ve always been very grateful for.”

Before her new appointment, Boyle was curator and exhibitions manager at the Edinburgh Printmakers visual arts hub and printing studio (shown below) and co-founded Mother Tongue in 2009. She also co-founded Mother Tongue, along with fellow curator Jessica Carden, in 2009. Working aAs a curatorial platform, Mother Tongue used archival research to develop collaborative projects.

The National: Solace, Edinburgh Printmakers

Pictures: Alan Dimmick

How important was Mother Tongue in her career trajectory?

“Every single project had something new within it due to the nature of the artists’ work or venue, from using offsite spaces beyond the gallery walls to translation, radio broadcasts, posters, and commissioning performances. With each new direction, there were things to be worked through,” Boyle says.

Mother Tongue’s approach of using existing data posed new challenges.

“There was a lot at the beginning that I didn’t know about. For example, acquisition processes and collections care – areas that I learned about through projects, collaborations and the generosity of colleagues and peers. However, I would always underscore that Mother Tongue worked, in terms of funding, on a project-by-project basis. We would generally produce a single project each year, realising this in tandem with other kinds of work in the sector.

“For example, I received a research fellowship from the Hauser & Wirth Institute [in] New York between 2019 and 2020, and taught at The Glasgow School of Art part-time between 2016 and 2021.”

Mother Tongue highlights include Swapnaa Tamhane’s The Golden Fibre installation at the V&A Dundee in 2022 which used the University of Dundee’s archives to explore the city’s relationship with colonialism, and the Revisiting the Work of Black Artists in Scotland Through New Collecting group exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow the same year.

Pulling together any kind of artistic endeavour is becoming increasingly difficult. The arts seem to be slipping further down political and social agendas, and people are leaving the industry for more secure, less creative careers. What advice does Boyle have for anyone thinking about a career in curating?

“Although it’s not your question exactly, when you ask about advice for those interested in pursuing a career in curation, I immediately imagine that I’m answering this for someone from a working-class background,” she replies.

“I’m quite worried about the reality of the sector at the moment, and the number of artists and arts workers leaving the sector from working-class backgrounds. In the past, when asked to lecture and tutor on curating programmes in Scotland, I’ve always been keen to stress that I would like to be useful.”

Also, context is everything. It’s important to remember that we often hear about the success stories but not so much about the projects that crashed and burned. Some things just don’t work out.

“When we speak about our career in the sector, it can often seem like we move from one success to the next,” Boyle points out.

“Like ‘I did this project, then I started this one, and this led to the next thing…’ but often in-between all of these are unsuccessful proposals, funding applications, and discussions that never got off the ground, so expect this and know that everyone is in the same boat.”

And how about funding? It’s increasingly hard for artists and curators to be able to self-fund their projects, but there are still a few organisations out there that have the resources to help. Building long-term partnerships is a good idea.

“Funders and partners are interested in your project, but they’re also interested in you. These are conversations and relationships that you will develop that span more than the timeline of one specific project, and can be really nurturing,” Boyle says.

And then there’s the question of money. How much can a creative idea generate? How much should a new curator with a great idea expect to ask for?

She said: “There’s a lot of information in the public domain about fee structures and incomes across the sector – be aware of rates, and decide boundaries for yourself around the way you want to work.”