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What I’ve Learnt: Chief Curator of the MCA

Rachel Kent turned a passion for the past into an intense job that demands flexibility and multiple time zone juggling. In partnership with Hostplus, we find out how she went from art intern to influencer.

Like many of us, Rachel Kent has a long-held fascination with the past. But as Chief Curator of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Kent is one of the few who has been able to parlay her curiosity into a career.

Since 2000, Kent has curated a series of high-profile exhibitions, including Grayson Perry, Mike Parr and Shahzia Sikander. She ranks the opportunity to curate “extraordinary female artists” such as Yoko Ono and Annette Messager, as well as the 2008 Yinka Shonibare retrospective, as some of her defining moments. Her path to becoming Chief Curator took time.

“After school I’d enrolled in Art History and English Literature at university,” says Kent. “But I took a gap year and during that time, I completed an internship in the UK at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I absolutely loved it. You were dealing with Bronze Age material from Bethlehem and Ancient Egyptian scarabs. To hold those things in your hand is incredible.”

Travelling around Europe compounded Kent’s love of ancient culture. “I was backpacking around and visiting modern and contemporary art museums, which were a revelation,” she says. “I travelled with a friend from the UK to the Pompidou, and he showed me the work of Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer. I was 17. I couldn’t believe it. I instantly thought: this is what I want to do.”

Kent returned to Australia to finish her degree and enrolled in a graduate program in curatorial studies at the University of Melbourne. She also volunteered at the campus’ museum of art, where the then curator and registrar took her under their wing. Kent became the museum’s curator in 1995.

Kent’s studies at the time were complemented by independent projects: curating shows at [the former Gertrude Contemporary] 200 Gertrude, and the Next Wave Festival. She also wrote for magazines and art journals. In the late ’90s the MCA approached her to curate Primavera, an annual show with a history of unearthing the country’s future art stars (Mikala Dwyer, Jess Johnson and Shaun Gladwell are among its alumni). But the timing was wrong and she turned it down.

“I couldn’t do it and begged them to keep me in mind for the following year,” says Kent. “They did. So the next year I spent some time in Sydney, [working on it while staying] with my cousin in Newtown. It was the early days of the MCA and it was such a young, innovative institution. I had the most incredible experience.” Soon after, in 2000, Kent was offered a curator role at the MCA. “I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

Kent says interning is critical to carving out a similar path to hers. She also says that emerging curators can’t be content to sit behind their desks. Going to shows, talking to artists and travelling as much as you can is critical to understanding the art landscape and generating new ideas.

“Voluntary work is a really important way to meet people in the industry and to get a sense of how it all works,” she says. “You also need to visit as many shows as you can – not just at the big museums but at the smaller, artist-run spaces. Talking to people and connecting on a basic human level really pays off. I love talking to artists. I love going to art events. Artists will tell you exactly what’s going on and you get an unvarnished view. They can also put you onto interesting practices and spaces. You have to put yourself out there and you have to do your time.”

Kent, who clears her emails by 7.30am and regularly works across time zones, says aspiring curators should accept their job won’t ever be nine to five. “It’s a very flexible approach to work,” says Kent. “You can only do it if you’re absolutely passionate about it. It’s really a creative enterprise that shapes your wider life.”

This article is presented in partnership with Hostplus, superannuation you can take with you throughout your career.

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