We’ve been chatting with Matt Retallick since the launch of Cotton On MCR. He has curated some amazing exhibitions and we are constantly following his Instagram account to see what new projects he has coming up. So, for our first Manc of the Month that isn’t an artist, we happily give the crown to Matt Retallick!
Cotton On MCR: How would you describe what you do?
Matt Retallick: ‘This is always a more complex question than it probably should be – put simply I am a curator, but in reality, that can be many things. When I meet new people, I always say curator and writer, which I think covers all bases. I started studying curation back in 2006 at Central Saint Martins in London, and can you believe at the time the word curation wasn’t even in the dictionary? It was a bit of an in-joke that we were all studying something that didn’t actually exist. It’s only in recent years that the word ‘curation’ has become more familiar, everyone seems to have a concept of what it is.’
CO: Can you tell us more about The Modernist Society?
MR: ‘I’ve been working at The Modernist Society since the start of January this year. It’s a creative project that celebrates 20th century Modernist design and architecture, and this is realised through the publishing of a quarterly magazine, exhibitions and events. I’m there a couple days a week doing all things production and collaboration. The society was founded back in 2009, and it’s been a pleasure to take up my role in the 10th anniversary year. There are only four of us and we’re all part-time, and most recently we’ve been super busy moving to our first publicly accessible gallery, events and retail space in the Northern Quarter.’
‘We are at 58 Port Street. It’s reasonably small scale, but we’ve unearthed lots of hidden gems from our archives, and these are on display for people to view. We also have a small shop section where people can purchase our own merchandise, and design-led products from a few carefully selected companies such as David Mellor and Mepal. As part of this new venture I secured some in-kind support from our friends at David Mellor, and a Dieter Rams designed 606 shelving system from Vitsœ – everything must look the part of course, and we are excited by conversations we are having with other collaborators at the moment. Every purchase helps us fund our creative programme, so pop down, say hello and buy yourself something nice.’
CO: Can people get involved?
MR: ‘Absolutely! The Modernist Society has chapters across the country in Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Birmingham, Croydon, and of course here in Manchester. We are almost entirely volunteer run, so if you find you have some time to spare, and you love all things Modernism, I’m sure we would be glad to hear from you. Most of my fellow Modernists are doing it purely for the love of post-war architecture and design, and we’ve built up a solid community, it’s a great thing to be a part of.’
CO: You are also working on a new solo show for our previous Manc of the Month artist Liam Fallon at The Turnpike Leigh, can you tell us more about that?
MR: ‘I am indeed, and I am really excited for it. I’ve been developing this show with Liam for nearly three years now. I was aware of Liam when he was a student at Manchester School of Art and have watched his work keenly. It was after seeing his Degree Show in 2017 that I knew I absolutely had to work with him, especially as he was dealing with many influences that we mutually share including the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the writings of Jean Genet. We’ve developed this exhibition collaboratively over many hours of chatting and thinking, coffees, studio visits and more chatting. It’s been wonderful to watch Liam’s work flourish over the last year in particular. When the exhibition opens at the end of July, visitors will be treated to a series of brand-new works that interrogate the boundaries between public and private space, alongside the themes of love and loss. Liam’s sculptures will look great in The Turnpike’s main gallery space. I was working at the gallery until Summer last year, so I look forward to temporarily returning to Leigh and seeing the great team there again.’
CO: Yes, you’ve worked across a number of Manchester galleries, Grosvenor Gallery, Whitworth and as you mentioned the Turnpike to name a few. Could you tell us a bit more about your work in the city?
MR: ‘I’ve lived in Salford since February 2015 and so far, I have worked in five of Manchester’s cultural institutions. I’ve certainly hopped around a bit in my career, and I have always seen this as a negative thing until very recently. I facilitated the Conversations in Curation programme at Manchester School of Art late last year, and as part of this we held a public talk about my past curatorial work, where I was in conversation with Ian Rawlinson. It’s only when you’re asked to chat about your past projects that you realise the breadth of achievement. Since doing that talk, I see the twists, turns and indeed knocks of my career as a positive thing, and I’ve realised I have a wide-reaching experience working in galleries which allows a more holistic outlook than most.’
‘Conversations in Curation is a fantastic programme, and I was honoured to be asked to lead it. I worked with fine art students at Manchester School of Art to create an exhibition titled CATALYST. I asked students to respond to the idea of transformative processes, requesting artworks that would adapt, promote adaptation, alter or change in some way throughout the exhibition duration, with transformations that occurred either naturally or with intervention by artist or visitor. It was a joy to work with the students, all of whom produced high quality artworks, and there’s definitely a few to watch out for!’
‘I was lucky to be Curatorial Assistant at The Whitworth when it was still Museum of the Year and all eyes were upon it. I worked with senior curators on major exhibitions by Ben Rivers, Elizabeth Price, and a major sculptural commission by Anya Gallaccio. I also co-curated the exhibition Beyond Dementia with Holly Grange and the Fabulous Forgetful Friends group. It was certainly one of the most rewarding exhibitions I’ve worked on in recent years, and it was even extended four times due to popular demand. I left the Whitworth after Beyond Dementia to work as Exhibitions Coordinator at The Turnpike in Leigh, then very newly revived. I am proud to have been on the tiny team that brought the gallery back into people’s consciousness and made it a professional organisation again. We worked on exhibitions with artists including Mark Leckey, Nick Crowe & Ian Rawlinson, Mary Griffiths, and other projects with artists such as Mark Titchner.’
‘When I first moved to Manchester, I also worked on the Artist Liaison team for FKA Twigs at Manchester International Festival 2015. I’m looking forward to seeing how MIF 2019 shapes-up this summer, and having many sunny beers in Festival Square, which is always a highlight.’
CO: What do you think of Manchester’s art scene?
MR: ‘There are so many talented and wonderful artists in Manchester, but it’s not necessarily the easiest city to be an artist. Opportunities for exhibition space are steadily decreasing, and existing artist-run spaces and studio complexes are under constant threat from the wrecking ball. All these shiny apartment blocks with stick-on brick facades are being built at an alarming rate, and I fear artists are being forced out. Our artistic community should be nurtured as a priority. People who know me will be sick of me saying this, but Manchester is desperate for an exhibition space that follows the European kunsthalle model, an exhibition space that doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to a collection, and has enough flexibility to show established artists and emerging artists in equal measure without compromising in quality. It should be neutral, have plenty of exhibition space and should be in the centre of town, just like you find in all other major European cities.’
‘I worry that all the excitement about The Factory is misplaced with what looks like an unevenly weighted emphasis on theatre. In my opinion if there’s one thing Manchester doesn’t need it’s another theatre, we have so many great ones already. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but it would be a missed opportunity if the visual arts are a side-line.’
‘There are however so many great things happening in the city that are worth getting excited about at the moment. I’ve really enjoyed the exhibitions at Bunker Gallery curated by the Cat Flap Collective, well worth a visit if you’re that end of town. Caustic Coastal is always pushing the envelope, and I am constantly in awe of Zoe Watson and the work she does at Holden Gallery, the recent Simeon Barclay solo show was a stunner. Also, an exhibition of Manchester and Prague artists curated by Pavel Büchler and Mariana Serranová at Castlefield Gallery last year was utterly refreshing. I also need to give a shout out to Katy Morrison, and the exhibition she curated at the Grosvenor Gallery back in March. I always have the most inspiring conversations with Katy, and we have very similar goals. Her project Matters of Procedure looked at performance, choreography and the frameworks of collaboration as a way of exhibition making by setting up a ‘curatorial studio’ in the gallery. Also, a special mention must go to Poppy Bowers, exhibitions curator at the Whitworth, for friendship, advice and coffees. If you didn’t see her recent Ruskin exhibition ‘Joy For Ever’ at the Whitworth, you’ve missed out!’
CO: What has been the best exhibition you have visited and why?
MR: ‘This is such a hard question! I must have seen thousands of exhibitions in my life, but naturally there are a few stand out examples. The Karin Sander exhibition Office Works 1990-2016 at Sammlung Haubrok last year was breath-taking. It was part of Berlin Gallery Weekend, and it’s in a small handful of exhibitions that have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand-up. It was beautifully and simply curated, paired with a Haubrok collection exhibition of minimal works on paper. I was in my element. If I was pushed, I would say minimalism is my first love; I even did my BA dissertation on concepts of nothingness in art history. The challenge to the curator of dealing with something that is barley there is always tantalising, and there’s a real skill to it. This exhibition was one of the finest examples I’ve seen.’
‘The Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective at Tate Modern in 2017 was unexpectedly moving. Tillmans is an artist with whom my life has overlapped to varying degrees. When I lived in east London his studio was behind my flat, so I saw him around, and I know a few people that are well acquainted with him. He has taken photos of the places I used to go, and I find much of his work relatable in different ways. There is an unfathomable magic to a Tillmans photograph, he elevates the most mundane subject to become exceptional. The exhibition was successful as it was curated by Tillmans himself with a characteristic lightness of touch; the Tillmans magic was noticeable throughout. I wish I could see the exhibition again, thankfully I bought the catalogue.’
‘Another exhibition I adored was the Isa Genzken: Make Yourself Pretty! at Gropius Bau, Berlin in 2016. It was a long-awaited survey of her entire career, and quite simply nobody matches Genzken in her ability to be always relevant, ahead of the curve, radical, and to present something truly new every time; even her oldest works look fresh.’
‘Danh Vo’s 2015 exhibition Slip of the Tongue at Punta della Dogana in Venice, Oh, and how can I forget Cy Twombly at Tate Modern in 2008, sublime! Poul Gernes at Louisiana in Denmark in 2016… there’s just so many I could mention here…’
CO: What advice would you give to budding curators?
MR: ‘Take every opportunity that comes your way, and don’t be afraid to be cheeky and take risks. With the increase of recognised curatorial degrees, it’s naturally a much more competitive industry these days, so opportunities can often seem few and far-between. Grasp the nettle and keep plugging away. Don’t let people tell you there’s one way to curate, there’s never been a handbook. Be nice, that’s a really simple one. I once saw a very well-known curator humiliate a waiter for getting a coffee order wrong in a busy bar, the cult of the personality curator has created some monsters. At the end of the day a curator is there to work for the artist.’
CO: What’s next for you?
MR: ‘I’m going back to school! I’ll be studying for a PhD at Manchester School of Art from October, both very exciting and daunting. I won’t get into the subject matter of that now, we would be here all day, but it’s essentially revealing an aspect of modernism in Cornwall (my home county) that nobody knows about… wish me luck!’
CO: And to end, if you could live in any artwork, which would it be?
MR: ‘There’s a 1993 painting by Martin Kippenberger of the interior of Paris Bar in Berlin. I’d happily move in. Crisp white label cloths, the walls filled to bursting with great art, sitting in one of the booths at the back sipping a cold wine and reading a book, bliss. The last time I went to Paris Bar in real life was for a gallery weekend dinner that ended with everyone up on the tables dancing into the small hours. I couldn’t do that every night, but once in a while is fine…’