Catherine Wood

Fitz formative in Catherine’s art education

Catherine Wood (History of Art 1992) discusses how her experience at Fitzwilliam contributed to her role as Senior Curator, International Art (Performance) at Tate Modern.

I chose a place at Fitz to do art history over going to Courtauld in London, which was a very specialised - and thus rather narrow - art history course. I applied to Fitzwilliam because I liked the fact it had more state-school students. I was quite intimidated by the idea of Cambridge and fitting in. It was really friendly and down to earth. I loved the fact you were living with people doing such different subjects. My friends, many of whom I’m still in contact with, were all doing different things from me. It’s such a rich experience intellectually and in terms of having conversations about everything from Classics to Computer Science. I got most involved with Fitz Ents, which is a nightclub event. I organised club nights that took over the whole of the central block, which was formative experience for me in terms of what I do now! The visual art society was great. Even the location of Fitz, being near Kettle’s Yard, was one point of inspiration.

I did English part one, History of Art part two, because you couldn’t do a whole Art History degree then, which is a little bit absurd. It wasn’t taken quite as seriously then. But actually the part I English Tripos taught by John Mullen and Ruth Morse was fantastic, the small scale of seminars and the intimacy of discussion we had was foundational and confidence-building. The chronological overview of the English part one I did gave me a very solid grounding, even though I moved into art. The absolute classical training of Deborah Howard and John Gage in the Art History department made for foundations I was able to play with later in terms of contemporary art. It was fairly conservative, in terms of subject matter, but the inspired teaching I had at Cambridge is something that I draw on constantly.

A large part of what I do now is critical writing about art and having to share ideas in forums with fellow creators and critics and artists. So that particular mode of critical thinking we had at Cambridge was really valuable. The discipline of formulating arguments is extremely useful when it comes to having a conversation with Tate Modern’s interpretation department about writing a 200-word text panel. It really helps me to know my own perspective and articulate my argument. Having had to write an essay a week at Cambridge was a fantastic practice to get into. When I have catalogue essays to do now then I think ‘I wrote one a week at Cambridge – I can do this’ – in the margins of my life when I have time!

Catherine Wood and Nina Caplan
Catherine Wood, left, with Nina Caplan (MML 1992)

I’m a Senior Curator of international art and I specialise in performance, which is a broad term encompassing artists who make live events or experiences, often out of their work in other mediums, like painting, sculpture and video. It’s also to do with cross-disciplinary collaborations where musicians, dancers and artists might work together and do things that challenge the medium’s boundaries. Tate Modern, as a relatively young institution, is quite open minded about that and has given me the freedom to really establish as part of the programme here. My work moves between more conventional curating of exhibitions – I did a schematic show called A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance – but I also commission artists to make live art installations. I’m involved in collecting art from all over the world, liaising with colleagues. My specialism being medium specific, but blurry, means I’m plugging into lots of conversations internationally to make sure we’re representing this area of practice. Then I’m working on collection displays to tell the story about how to show that work in our spaces. I write quite a lot as well. I published a book last year called Performance in Contemporary Art, trying to articulate this area.

Without sounding too aggrandising, we do have a role in shaping the public’s idea of what art is. That’s very much in all of our minds – how to go out into the world, and to artists’ studios, and to be constantly looking and learning from artists, to think what can we bring back to this very public space and make it as open as possible. I work closely with our Interpretation department, who do the text side, or Learning, who do the Public Programme side, but also Visitor Services at Tate Modern. The flow of the public into the space is intense and quite free. I’ve been trying to communicate this area of work – performance, or participation - as something which could be accessible to the public. It isn’t just a weird body art thing which happened in the 60s! Art in most cultures has a ritual basis, and that’s something that modern art denied in the establishment of the white cube gallery. 

Catherine Wood in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern
Catherine Wood in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern

The Turbine Hall commission a year ago by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, which highlighted the migrant crisis, was something I worked on. She has been working with performance for two decades and we’ve been trying more and more to bring that work into the main commissioning areas, like the Turbine Hall.

Engaging with the artist and learning from them, and about them, helps you learn about and understand new perspectives on the world. We’ve challenged ourselves to look at our own habits, to see whether we’re really being open minded, from a diversity point of view, for example. But we don’t programme for attention, shock value, or even to provoke a discussion in a confrontational way. We try to show the most interesting and thought-provoking art by artists from around the world.