Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rachel Kent, immediately dispels even the slightest romanticised ideals about art curators swanning around exhibition launches with cocktail glasses.
‘I don’t even remember when I did that,’ she laughs. ‘People often say to me, oh my gosh you have the best job in the world, you get to travel, you are dealing with all these amazing artists and going to fantastic launches – but actually the day-to-day is hard work. It requires an awful lot of dedication, and you have to be really rigorous in the way you approach the job.’
As an art history and theory student, Kent volunteered at The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, where she was mentored and eventually hired as the Curator. In 2000 she joined the team at MCA in Sydney.
While a large part of her role is liaising with some of the world’s most renowned artists, including Grayson Perry, Olafur Eliasson, Tim Hawkinson, Annette Messager, Yoko Ono, Mike Parr, Tatsuo Miyajima and Shahzia Sikander, a typical work day is also filled with travel, meetings, and research seeps into all parts of her life.
‘I’m a lucky person in that I absolutely love my work, and it is a very much part of my wider life – you don’t do art nine-to-five, and you don’t work in an art museum nine-to-five, it is a much broader thing.’ – Rachel Kent
Yet Kent is also a big believer in downtime. As a working parent with a demanding role in the arts, what we learn from Kent is balance. ‘People burn out if they are constantly working. I find that when I balance things I am a whole lot more effective in what I do, and the fact that I have a child means that it’s essential he has time and attention.’
Rachel Kent’s Extraordinary Routine
My son has just started secondary school so we are awake reasonably early. Once I’m up getting organised for the day, I like to clear a round of emails if possible, and check my diary so I know what meetings are happening and what the day is looking like. A lot of the artists I work with live in other parts of the world, which means a lot of my correspondence comes in overnight so it’s good to be across it bright and early.
The rest of the morning routine is the same as everybody else’s – breakfast and getting a child out the door to school!
My son heads off to school at 8.30am and so I get organised and head off to work on the train. We live in Erskineville so it is a 15-minute trip door-to-door, but it’s also just a quiet little thought bubble for me twice a day. I usually bring a book – a group of friends and I have a very dedicated book club that meets every month – but if not I’ll have some work texts with me.
I try not to organise meetings before 10am because I like to have that little bit of time to make sure emails and correspondence are all under control and everything is ready for the day.
I have a lot of one-on-one meetings with members of my team in the exhibitions area of the museum, but sometimes I have media interviews, exhibition tours, or I might take a group of VIPs through an exhibition before the gallery opens.
Often I have artist meetings in relation to upcoming projects and a typical day will usually involve being off site here and there – I might be looking at some new acquisitions or a body of work by an artist.
I travel interstate a number of times each year, and abroad probably three or four times a year. I’ve got a lot of travel pending over the next four to six weeks – I’ll be in Hong Kong for Art Basel where Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, who is the focus of our next summer survey, has a public commission launching on the 21 March at the ICC Tower there. The week after I’ll then be in Japan to work with Tatsuo on our survey exhibition.
It is always a juggling act – achieving balance between work life and home life, and ensuring that I can get things done interstate or abroad when I need to. But I am a planner – so it is all quite carefully mapped out and I will have a few days off for downtime and family time in-between.
Often rather than breaking for lunch, I’ll walk to the gym and that is a really good way to get away from a computer screen and de-stress.
I have to say it’s very hard to do clear, careful thinking and writing in the office environment because there are constant interruptions – meetings and people popping in with questions and requests, or last minute things that invariably pop up. So I go through my diary and block out sections of time for writing, because I do have a lot of deadlines at the moment. In the next couple of weeks I have to write eight short artist texts for a forthcoming MCA collection handbook, as well as the introductory essay for a forthcoming exhibition called Telling Tales (opening in June), all about artists and narrative.
My day can really vary – I might have an exhibition-planning meeting, an outing with a patron, a Skype meeting with an artist, a studio visit with an artist, or time at the MCA’s offsite art storage facility.
I do keep the large majority of my meetings and studio visits contained within work hours, but outside of that there are also exhibition launches, or talks or programs at other institutions that you want to attend.
But you’ve got to be able to manage it and work out your deadlines, work out your priorities, so you can also have low-key family time.
I think family time is really about finding a balance. Often I think the last person in the office isn’t necessarily the best, because they are not managing the work load well, so I don’t want to be that person who is working ridiculous hours constantly.
I’m quite interested in food, and particularly, diet and cooking. I’ll often pick up a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables at the Eveleigh Market on Saturday and I generally like to cook fresh food myself at home.
The rest of the evening might be spent having dinner with friends and relatives, or sometimes a film or a DVD.
A lot of my thinking time happens outside of work hours in my private time and invariably I’ll end up doing a lot of my writing late at night or on my weekends. It is the easiest time to think.
I’m a terrible night owl, I try and force myself to bed before midnight because I really need a seven-plus hours sleep. Otherwise I pay the price the next day.
“Art is such a fertile area and it is all about asking questions. Working in a public institution and being able to give artists a platform is really exciting. It’s an immense privilege too.”
This story was written as part of our monthly collaboration with Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines.