We interviewed current MA Curation Practices student Helen Dryden, who told us about her path to study curation, the amazing projects she is involved in and why Leeds is a great city to study and be part of...

Header image: The First World War display case at Leeds City Museum that Helen was involved in co-curating with other volunteers

What makes Leeds a good place to study?

I have lived and worked in Leeds since 1997 when I came from Teesside to study BA (Hons) Graphic Arts and Design at Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett). Back then I saw Leeds as a cosmopolitan, cool city where I would meet so many new people from different backgrounds and be able to dive into the cultural scene – taking part in things that were lacking in my home town. Over the years I have seen the city develop and bloom, especially within the arts, and there are that many cultural things happening now in Leeds it’s impossible to see/hear/do them all. There are lots of opportunities here for students who want to be part of something creative.

How does Leeds Arts University help you develop your practice?

Coming to Leeds Arts University has helped me to consider what type of artist-curator I am. Talking to my tutors and peers, plus meeting professionals from the curating world has given me an insight into different career paths in the sector.

I began curating exhibitions of my own and other artists’ work a few years ago, but I felt that I lacked the historical and theoretical knowledge and the right vocabulary to enable me to progress with more ambitious projects. Now I am in my second year of part-time studying I feel much more confident about my ideas and my ability to communicate these to others, as well as to practically carry out projects and evaluate them afterwards.

Image: Courtesy of Helen Dryden. MA Curation Practices students' jointly curated group exhibition 'Petri Dish' at The Rotunda at Leeds Arts University (L-R: Helen Dryden, James Gray, Aaron Batey, Coralie Datta, Yi Jen Chen).

The course is a great combination of practical and theory. There are a series of modules where we develop our own practices by researching an area of theory, applying it to a practical exhibition or event or project of some kind, and developing conclusions based on this research. We share our ideas and findings and discuss them in our regular seminars, and we are often able to talk through our projects with visiting professionals. We also have extended on-site visits where we carry out field studies, gathering data on curatorial practice in established institutions for up to a week at a time. This helps us understand different curatorial models of working, can be a good way to network, and I’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience.

What was your route to University - what did you study before starting University? Did you always have an interest in curation?

I did a one-year Foundation Diploma course at Cleveland College of Art and Design in 1996 before my degree in Graphic Arts and Design at Leeds Beckett, which I graduated from in 2000. During my degree it became apparent to me that I wouldn’t get far as a graphic designer without a Mac and I couldn’t possibly afford one; so, I spent my time drawing and painting and taking photos. This developed into my tutor advising me to switch to the Fine Art course. But at the time I found that notion so intimidating! (I had the idea that fine art was for middle class people and being from a working-class background, I had chosen ‘Graphics’ as a vocational course).

Image: Courtesy of Helen Dryden. Helen Dryden pictured with Tim Linley (owner of Coffee on the Crescent) with work by illustrator Joe Bean for the exhibition 'Destruction to Construction'

I graduated, and then spent years working in retail and university libraries, all the time painting, taking photos and having exhibitions. I started to promote the work of other artists as well as my own, collaboratively working on some group exhibitions. I also set up an urban sketching/artist network group, called Sketch That – we meet up monthly to draw and socialise, and have a Facebook group to communicate with each other about art related things. I realised that maybe I had become a curator, and that I wanted to do more and do better. I also thought that there would be a chance that I could stop working in unrelated fields (retail, libraries) and find a job in the art/museum world – and so I applied for the MA Curation Practices course.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying MA Curation Practices at University?

I would say – take the time to come and look around the university, but more importantly find out about the city. Because while you may be studying at the Uni, your curation practice will mean that you need to look outwards from the course, make connections with people outside, find venues to put on shows, people to work with, etc. Come and spend time in Leeds if you can, or at least do some serious Googling, and see what cultural stuff is going on here, and see if it feels like a place you would enjoy being part of. Yorkshire people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, so I think it’s a great place to be a curator as often people are willing to listen to your ideas and will help you out if they can.

I also think that this course is great if you are a ‘can-do’ person, so if you want to get stuck in to making things happen, then come to an open day and find out more.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I can’t imagine five years ahead – however I’m certain that I will be making and curating art!