The Wick - Interview Curator and collector Marcelle Joseph The Wick - Interview Curator and collector Marcelle Joseph
Monday Muse

Interview Curator and collector Marcelle Joseph

Marcelle Joseph
04 April 2022
Marcelle Joseph
04 April 2022
No stranger to success, London-based independent curator Marcelle Joseph quit an international career in corporate law to launch her namesake nomadic curatorial platform in 2011. She has since produced 42 exhibitions in the UK and the rest of Europe, featuring the work of more than 250 international artists. Following on from her studies in feminist art practice at Birkbeck, University of London, her curatorial work focuses on gender and the performative construction of identity with an emphasis on material-led artistic practices.
She is also on the advisory board of Procreate Project, a London-based organisation devoted to supporting the professional development of contemporary artists who are also mothers, and collects artworks by female-identifying artists under the collecting partnership, GIRLPOWER Collection, and more generally as part of the Marcelle Joseph Collection.
Until 23 April, her collections are on public display for the first time in the UK in a travelling exhibition she co-curated at the Rugby Art Gallery & Museum.

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday.

Marcelle Joseph:   After either a morning yoga or spinning class, Mondays are an office day. As an independent curator, my office is in my home. I live quite peripatetically between two places in the UK – I divide up my week between being in London, running around to meetings with co-curators, studio visits with artists and seeing as much art in person, and being in Ascot behind my desk. Mondays are all about catching up on my emails, doing research for upcoming curatorial projects or checking out the next artist whose work I would like to acquire for either the GIRLPOWER Collection or my own collection. Mondays are also a time for reflection as I am on my own in Ascot as my husband is working in town and my children no longer live at home. After lunch, I try to spend some time outdoors. Luckily, I live near Swinley Forest and Windsor Great Park where there are excellent hiking trails, and forest bathing is one of my favourite things to do. Walking in nature is where I come up with my best ideas, whether it is the title of an upcoming exhibition or the lyric of a song I would like to use as an epigraph in an exhibition press release.

TW:   Who is your personal Monday Muse?

MJ:   As a curator whose academic specialisation is in feminist theory, I would have to choose the American gender theorist Judith Butler. I am reading a lot of her work for a 2023 exhibition I am co-curating with Becca Pelly-Fry at GIANT, a not-for-profit contemporary art space in the former Debenhams department store in Bournemouth. This exhibition will pair historic second-wave feminist artists with early-career contemporary artists. Like Butler, I am a big believer in the performative construction of gender identity, meaning that one’s learned performance of gendered behaviour such as femininity or masculinity is not natural but an act of sorts, a performance, one that is imposed upon us by normative heterosexuality.

TW:   Are there any aspects of your life in law that influences your approach today and how did you pivot to being a curator?

MJ:   As a trustee of Matt’s Gallery and Mimosa House, two London-based contemporary art spaces, I am using my skills as a former corporate lawyer on a daily basis. I sit on the financial committees of both institutions, given my skills gained from 11 years of reading and analysing financial statements before taking a corporate client public in an IPO. After over a decade of impossibly long hours and incessant corporate travel, I burned out on that lifestyle and also wanted to have children so I left the law. I have always been passionate about art as I took an Art History class at Cornell University as a lark with a friend and loved it so much, I ended up with a minor in Art History. After leaving my legal career, I went back to school to retrain, completing first a foundation course in Art Business at Christie’s London and later an MA in Art History at Birkbeck. In 2011, I set up Marcelle Joseph Projects. At first, it was very much DIY from finding a gallery to hire (you could do that in 2011 in Shoreditch – imagine!) to transporting the artwork from the artist’s studio to the gallery myself. Now, I only independently curate exhibitions for galleries and museums.

TW:   What do you enjoy most about curation, and what makes for a brilliant exhibition?

MJ:   The best bit of curating for me is working with living artists. I learn so much from the artists I work with as they are always at the forefront of the issues of the day. Studio visits are such important times to make new discoveries, whether it be a new artist or, more importantly, new lines of thought and enquiry. In terms of what makes a brilliant exhibition, it is a well-researched exhibition thematic and a group of cross-generational artists whose artworks are in lively dialogue and debate with each other in ways that the viewer had not already thought about or thought possible.

“The reason why I buy the work of predominately women artists is to explore my own subjectivity as a woman in this world.”

TW:   How do you think the landscape has changed for female-identifying and non-binary artists, and what challenges still concern representation in the art world?

MJ:   Slowly but surely, the landscape of the art world is changing for womxn and queer artists. Just look around at the leadership of museums, galleries, auction houses and smaller not-for-profit spaces in the UK, you see a lot of womxn at the top. Hopefully, this will trickle down to the art they are showing and selling. I think the biggest challenge is for mother artists or those artists with childcare responsibilities. They cannot compete with artists who do not have the 24/7 demands of childcare. Mother artists lose out on crucial networking opportunities as they usually cannot attend private views in the evening during their family’s witching hours (mealtime, bathtime and bedtime) and sometimes cannot even make it out of their house to their studio. And forget about international residencies as most residency providers do not accommodate families. I am on the advisory board of Procreate Project. Over the last few years, they have been writing a set of best practice guidelines for museums, galleries and residency providers so that they take into account the challenges of mother artists. I have taken those guidelines into account for my own curated projects. For example, I now always make sure that the private views of exhibitions I curate have extended hours that can accommodate the attendance of womxn with children.

TW:   How have you approached building your personal art collection?

MJ:   I have really enjoyed developing my eye over the years, learning what drives my taste and honing the philosophy of my collection. I call myself an activist collector as I largely collect early career womxn and queer artists who make work that is about the performativity of identity politics and/or is all about materiality and the processes of making. I also care a lot about supporting artists at the point in their career when they need it the most, so I am predominantly buying the work of early career artists. This is enforced by setting a strict maximum financial amount per artwork so at a certain point in an artist’s career, I am priced out of their market. But what I’m most interested in achieving across all my activities – whether it be curating, collecting or patronage – is the representation and support of artists who have been marginalised by the patriarchal canon and the white male dominated art world.

At the end of the day, the reason why I buy the work of predominately women artists is to explore my own subjectivity as a woman in this world. Also, collectors need to invest in excellence and excellence has no gender or race.

TW:   If you could add one piece to your collection, what would it be?

MJ:   This is such a difficult question, and my answer may not be in keeping with my raison d’être of supporting female and queer artists that have been marginalised by the patriarchal canon, but I would gladly take Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed out of the MoMA in New York and bring it home. This 1955 work was one of Rauschenberg’s first Combines where he took a worn-out pillow, sheet and quilt, scribbled on them in pencil, splashed them with paint and hung the entire ensemble on the wall. It was the first artwork in my early art history classes at university where I said, ‘This is what art can be’. I am a huge devotee of material-led artistic practices – ceramics, textiles and the like. And I am not interested in what some might term ‘classic beauty’. This work stopped me in my tracks – it’s visceral, bodily in a way, and above all, an original idea that sprang out of the artist’s head to become a work of art that has resonance to this day. Using the stuff of everyday life in his work, Rauschenberg opened up the art canon to more intimate explorations of selfhood.

TW:   What would be your top pieces of advice for an art novice looking to build their collection?

MJ:   See as much artwork as you possibly can, whether that be in artists’ studios, graduate degree shows, commercial galleries, museums, Instagram or online. Physical encounters are best.

Do your research. Research the artist and their gallery: look at the artist’s bio, website and Instagram feed; read their interviews, solo exhibition texts and art magazine profiles; get to know the artist’s gallery: who else do they represent and what do they stand for in the art world; schedule a studio visit (if possible) with the artist if you want to know more. Meeting the artist is very important for me as I look at my collection more as a collection of conversations. The lion’s share of the works in my collection were made by artists I have either worked with on an exhibition, done a studio visit with or written about.

Then simply wait… after finding an artwork you absolutely adore and doing your research, wait a few days to see whether you still think about it before you go to bed and before you wake up in the morning. If you cannot get the artwork out of your head, then this is the work to add to your collection.

TW:   What are your favourite culturally curious spots in London?

MJ:   I always look forward to the graduate degree show in June at the Royal Academy Schools. As an ambassador to the Schools, the oldest and only three-year postgraduate institution in the UK that is free to its students, I am a bit biased. Wandering through the rabbit warren of studios in the bowels of the Royal Academy, you are confronted by an artistic surprise around every corner. The tutors and leadership are top-notch and they always choose the most interesting and critically engaged students. Only 15-17 new students matriculate there every year, so it is a very rigorous and selective admissions process. I also love the Whitechapel Gallery – there is always so much to discover with four different exhibitions on offer, an excellent book shop and a restaurant. As a collector, I love to check out its Collections Gallery, which features a different collection every six months selected by a contemporary artist.
At the end of the day, the reason why I buy the work of predominately women artists is to explore my own subjectivity as a woman in this world. Also, collectors need to invest in excellence and excellence has no gender or race.

TW:   Desert island quarantine: what one artwork, book and album would you take with you?

MJ:   Music is always the artistic medium that brings up the most memories from certain time periods of my life. I would choose Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album, which would transport me back to the mid-1990s when I was living in LA at the top of Sunset Plaza Drive with views from downtown LA to the Pacific.

For the book, I would choose Dancing at the Edge of the World, a collection of essays by American feminist science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Filled with utopian thought about women and their rightful place in society, it would be a constant source of inspiration. I used the title as the title of a group show in Rome I curated in 2020 featuring 10 empowered female-identifying artists.

For the artwork, I would choose a work that I could literally, physically and metaphorically take refuge inside against the elements – Niki de Saint Phalle’s She – A Cathedral. This vibrantly coloured sculpture/house has the form of a gigantic pregnant woman, laying on her back with knees raised and heels planted. Back in 1966, the year I was born and the year this artwork was created for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, spectators could enter the figure through a door-sized vaginal opening between her legs. Once there, they found themselves in a warm, ‘dark’ female body that functioned as an amusement park with a love-seat sofa, a planetarium, a gallery with ‘fake’ artworks, a 12-seat cinema, an aquarium, a milk-bar inside a breast, a fish pond, a coin telephone, a sandwich vending machine, a brain with mechanical parts (by Jean Tinguely), a playground slide for the children and an early Greta Garbo film playing elsewhere. I would be safe and sound and constantly entertained. I may not need my book and album if I had this artwork.

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