London is one of the world’s most vibrant centers of contemporary art. This summer, Jennifer Thatcher will be leading the Summer Study Course Contemporary Art in London (June 28 - July 22). We spoke to Jennifer about her career, the London art world, and what students can expect when taking her course this summer.
Where did it all begin for you? How did you develop a passion for art?
I initially read languages and literature for my undergraduate degree. A second year abroad in Paris gave me the time and opportunity to appreciate the collections of all the incredible museums the city has to offer and by the time I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to study art history. My postgraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art focused on French post-war art, allowing me to combine my knowledge of France, its literature and its art. It’s not unusual to come to art history through other disciplines – knowledge of other cultural spheres can be very handy when interpreting art. During my studies, I saw that the contemporary art scene in London was exploding. I couldn’t wait to be part of it.
Tell us about your career trajectory and how you came to work at the Institute in London.
I’ve had a very varied career. My first job was as press officer at Anthony d’Offay Gallery, where I met many world-class artists like Jeff Koons and Ed Ruscha. I was quite blasé about it at the time as I was so young; it was only afterwards that I realised how lucky I was. When d’Offay retired in 2001, I was asked to become managing editor of a magazine called contemporary, which was wonderful as I really wanted to write. Since that time, I have combined freelance criticism with teaching and curating public programs. It’s a good balance between the solitary experience of writing at home, and meeting people and talking about art, whether students or speakers at my talks. I have been teaching in the Contemporary Art department at Sotheby’s Institute of Art since 2007, and I also regularly lecture at other colleges and give public talks. I ran the Talks department of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) for six years, and I have curated the public programs at the Folkestone Triennial, and will do this year for the Whitstable Biennale.
In just one month, students learn the confidence and knowledge to talk independently about an artwork in front of both their peers and experts. They don’t believe it when you tell them at the start of the course!
In your experience as a Course Leader, how do the Sotheby’s Institute of Art summer courses lend themselves to learning about the art world?
The summer courses give students a wide range of skills to prepare them for entering the highly competitive art world. In just one month, students learn the confidence and knowledge to talk independently about an artwork in front of both their peers and experts. They don’t believe it when you tell them at the start of the course! The Sotheby’s teaching method is very object-focused, which means that theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom is continually tested against art in galleries, museums and studios. A typical day would start with lectures and seminars at the Institute in the morning, followed by a field trip to an exhibition or studio in the afternoon. It’s fantastically intense and hands-on.
How does being an active professional in the art world as well as a lecturer on the MA in Contemporary Art benefit those who come to study at Sotheby’s Institute of Art on the Summer Study programs?
With contemporary art, it’s obviously vital to stay in touch with current developments – which means travelling, seeing as many exhibitions as possible, meeting artists, writing about art and keeping up to date with recent publications. The students really appreciate that first-hand knowledge that tutors can bring, and the advice they can offer students about working across different fields within the art world – whether as a writer, curator or artist.
In your opinion, what advantages are there to taking a Summer Study course at Sotheby’s Institute in London?
London is a vibrant, tolerant, highly cosmopolitan city. You are spoilt for choice in terms of museums and galleries! There are, of course, the world-class museums and international galleries, but equally important are the dozens of smaller galleries and project spaces in the East End and south London. It often feels as if there are new spaces opening up each week! We make sure we visit a cross-section during the course. Students on the Contemporary Art in London course will be seeing exhibitions most days.
London is a vibrant, tolerant, highly cosmopolitan city. You are spoilt for choice in terms of museums and galleries!
What contemporary art exhibitions are you most looking forward to in 2016?
Like all Londoners, I am curious to see the new extension of Tate Modern in June this year. The opening of Tate Modern in 2000 was the catalyst in bringing the London art scene to international attention, and I hope that the new extension will also lead the way with its focus on showing new types of art, from new technology to performance.
How would you capture the Sotheby’s Institute of Art – London Summer Study experience in three words?
Life-changing, informative, exhilarating.
What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career in the international art world?
Learning about art is a mix of art history, theory and getting out there and seeing work. You need to be disciplined about visiting exhibitions on a regular basis, otherwise you won’t develop your own opinions about what you like and don’t like. Likewise, you need to put in the work to develop your analytical, written and presentation skills. You also need to meet people. So many art jobs are word of mouth. It can happen at openings, or if you go to smaller galleries when it’s less busy, the director is often happy to chat. Evening talks are also a great way of meeting interesting speakers, and there are increasing numbers of networking events and groups around.