INSIDERS: Diana Campbell Betancourt

INSIDERS: Diana Campbell Betancourt

26 September 2018

Juan de Lara

The Artistic Director of the Dhaka Art Summit has come on board Frieze London 2018 as Curator of Frieze Projects including the Frieze Artist Award, Frieze Live and Frieze Film

Diana Campbell Betancourt is the newly appointed curator of Frieze Projects including Frieze Film, Frieze Artist Award and Frieze Live, and is also the Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Chief Curator of the Dhaka Art Summit [DAS]. Campbell Betancourt has developed the Dhaka Art Summit into a leading research and exhibitions platform for art from South Asia, bringing together artists, architects, curators, and writers from across the region through a largely commission-based model where new work and exhibitions are born in Bangladesh.

As part of the first interview in Asia House’s INSIDERS Series, she speaks to Juan de Lara, Asia House Arts Programme Manager.

Further to your ongoing commitment to the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) we want to congratulate you on your appointment as Curator of Frieze Projects which is comprised of Frieze Film, Frieze Artist Award and Frieze Live—which marks a big milestone in your career. Could share with us what this new role means to you?

Thank you! I would describe joining the Frieze team as an exciting opportunity to realize an experimental exhibition platform within one of the art fairs I respect and enjoy the most, Frieze London (in fact it is the only art fair I have never missed since the time I became a curator). Most of my work has been in experimental formats outside of the centres of the art world, and I was honoured and excited when Frieze called me to join their team, as was my team in Dhaka who saw this is great recognition for the work we do supporting emerging artists to expand their creative horizons.

Frieze is not just a marketplace, it is an institution that is committed to being a part of and contributing to the evolution and development of what we now call contemporary art, and which will have another name in the future. They do this through the auxiliary programs of the fair such as the artist award, acquisitions funds, the talks programme, etc. I am cautious not to take my practice too far into the mainstream though, and I would not take this “milestone” as a sign that I’m transitioning out of the institution-building work that I enjoy in Asia. I like to dip in and out of the art world and Frieze is just the right combination of mainstream and experimental for me. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to work completely outside of any regional remit.

How different is it to work in an art fair environment—perhaps considered a place which conducts sales—to that of a biennale?

I am not alone in pointing out that the lines between art fairs and biennales are becoming blurrier and blurrier. I really appreciated the recent Berlin Biennale in its attempt to try to redefine what a biennale could be in terms of scale and expectations– I am really not a fan of biennales and to quote Zoe Butt, it is almost curatorial mission impossible to make a good exhibition under the mandate of a large scale recurring exhibition model. We at the Samdani Art Foundation buy a lot of art from biennales, the sales channels are not at the surface but they are there. Galleries play a massive role in supporting the production of artworks exhibited in a biennale, which is very similar to what you see explicitly in a fair. What I love about the Frieze artist award is that the fair itself, with a few smaller non-profit partners, supports an emerging artist who might not even have a gallery to prepare an ambitious new performative work which will only exist for the duration of the fair. The budget is generous and the artist and his performers are paid fees- this structure is actually better for artists than many museum structures.

Of course, there are challenges of inputting a curatorial programme into a marketplace- but I decided to play with the idea of the marketplace and the art fair structure to envision my programme – so this becomes a set or a stage for a wider set of interventions which spark critical thinking through surprise and humour.

The impact of DAS—introducing important voices from the region to an international audience —has been praised. What do you think is still to be done, and which do you think is your greatest short-term challenge in achieving your goal?

I am now less interested in promoting “regional artists” to an “international audience” – I am now more interested in creating situations where regional voices (be they artistic, academic, curatorial, etc) can be amplified on an international level and where diaspora voices can also be heard and respected, and where the figures that the “international art world” is discovering can keep their sense of expertise and authority rather than being consolidated, swallowed up, or watered down under the umbrella of a big institutions abroad.

I don’t want only the people who speak international art world English to have a chance to be heard – so the short-term challenges as someone who does not speak Bengali is to find a way to diminish English as the “key to the kingdom” and to break down the gates of gatekeepers so you don’t see the same small number of artists circulating everywhere out of the region.

How do you measure the success of DAS after each edition?

We measure our success on many levels – but primarily based on our how our local audience responds to the exhibition, and how many of our commissioned artworks, exhibitions, and programmes are invited to travel elsewhere in the world. DAS is successful based on the mobility of what happens within those 9 days, which catalyses other movements both within and outside of Bangladesh after the exhibition is over. For example, the Asian Art Biennale is being revamped in Bangladesh and has taken many of our formats to transform this from a sleepy government relations exercise to one that thinks of furthering a conversation about contemporary art in the region with attention to exhibition display and art mediation, and with a platform for the next generation of Bangladeshi artists.

Asia House works particularly with the Asian diaspora; London is home to the largest number of people of Bangladeshi origin outside of Bangladesh. Do you think South Asian institutions have the means to connect with this diasporic community and integrate them by facilitating access to their cultural and artistic heritage?

Absolutely and there are many UK institutions are actively trying to engage with these audiences, which are primarily Sylheti. The Whitechapel Gallery has a long history of engaging with Bangladesh and the Chisenhale is currently working on a commission with Imran Perreta, an incredible artist who has Italian and Bangladeshi origins. We hope that our art centre in Sylhet will welcome a large number of London and the United Kingdom’s South Asian diaspora and we are thinking about how we communicate to this community through the architecture of our future graphic identity.

The DAS is perhaps the most dynamic hub for South Asian art and architecture in the region at the moment; however as curator of such a diverse project , with hundreds of coexisting cultures in constant evolution, what do you feel are your responsibilities in the current socio-economic climate?

The Samdani and I have built DAS into what it is because of our love and support for artists. Creating a place where they are safe and their voices can be heard and their art shown to the standards that the work demands is of paramount importance to us. Making this art accessible to diverse audiences without dumbing it down is another big responsibility- and the artists appreciate having their work reach different publics who they can also engage with in the exhibition. If colleagues from around the world are paying their hard-earned money to come and see our exhibition, it is my responsibility to make sure that the show is open on time, and that we are not recycling what these visitors could see more easily or better installed elsewhere in the world.

Would you say DAS programming is reactive to the regional changes, or stays in line with a well-defined objective?

People do not define themselves as regional – and the regions in which people can navigate are constantly shifting and changing with growing xenophobia and tightening borders across the world. Bangladeshis cannot easily travel to India or Pakistan – so to proliferate this idea of “One South Asia” is a fallacy that we do not want to fall into, which is why we have begun to bring in our neighbours in Southeast Asia who share similar histories and socio-political realities and also share Bangladesh’s relative lack of visibility in the international art arena, as we are not India or China.

What would you say will be the main differences between DAS’s 2020 edition, and the previous ones?

Without saying too much – we are going to look at histories of solidarities between former colonial subjects and build new solidarities between them – rather than focus on traditional North/South kind of exchanges that proliferate London, Paris, New York, etc as centres of power and discourse in their structure.
A new themed section at Frieze London 2018 will “celebrate artists who challenged the male-dominated art market of the 1980s.” However this statement could easily apply in say thirty years, as it is an issue that continues to be raised.

A new themed section at Frieze London 2018 will “celebrate artists who challenged the male-dominated art market of the 1980s.” However this statement could easily apply in say thirty years, as it is an issue that continues to be raised. As a female curator, do you think the panorama for professionals and artists has achieved some of the objectives pursued by these women artists in the 80s?

I certainly hope this statement won’t apply in 30 years! I think the fact that I can lead an institution like the Samdani Art Foundation as an independent woman born in the 1980s without parental or spousal financial support speaks to the fact that people of my generation (the Samdani are within ten years of age from me) see the leadership potential of women and take action to create spaces for people like us to execute our vision. Institutions like Frieze (whose leaders are also of my generation) have taken active steps to hire and support women – and institutions such as MoMA through its International Curatorial Institute in partnership with the Centre for Curatorial Leadership have been investing in female leadership like me to give us the executive level skills to combat a traditionally male dominated industry. We can’t keep talking about the lack of women in places of power in the art world – we have to take active steps to change that.

From my side, I hire women, I commission and collect female artists, I support women as a colleague and a mentor – but not because of their gender but because of their talent and ability. Other colleagues do things such as refusing to be on male-only panels; there needs to be a system of checks and balances and I am seeing more and more of this these days.

Finally, I would like some encouraging words for our younger audience. It seems an ubiquitous question amongst students: how do you become a ‘successful’ curator? We guess this is a highly demanding and competitive environment, however what do you think is necessary to become an established curator in this decade?

Beyond the obvious set of advice of reading, studying, visiting exhibitions, etc…

Be yourself. There is no need for another cookie-cutter curator. Be curious. Be weird (in a good way not a creepy way). Be sensitive. Fight for what you believe in and fight on behalf of those who don’t have the agency that you do. Have principles and stick to them. To be successful people have to respect you, and you have to respect yourself – you are the only person you are guaranteed to wake up and see every morning, so don’t take short-cuts that keep you from achieving the bigger picture. Be an expert in something—and be driven by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Do not try to “manage up” with powerful curators, everyone is trying to do that and there’s no need to join an endless queue. Learn to navigate your world with and around artists—try to feel and understand the world deeply and profoundly. Spend your time with artists—artists have been and will always be my biggest confidents, allies, and advocates. Appreciate them, they don’t need to spend their time showing you their work in the studio, and their trust is paramount to achieving anything as a curator.

Your work should be your network. And when it comes to networking—be sure that you are close to your peers and support them (both on an artist, curator, team but also non-art world public perspective), and also give opportunities to people who are younger than you, you will need their help too. The best piece of advice I received was “surround yourself with people who are naturally collaborative” and it is very easy to see who those people are. The other piece of advice was to surround yourself with those who are generous with their knowledge. If you are an open book and the other person you are speaking to holds their cards too close, then cut them off—this is not an equal form of exchange and you are just being mined for information. Be competitive with yourself, not with others. Have an excellent work ethic—and have the skills to be able to do other peoples’ jobs yourself if needed (loan forms, contracts, press releases, captions, etc.)

Be responsible to works of art. Too many independent curator-types fly onto their next project without making sure people’s loans are returned or that the artworks are returned in good condition or restored into the condition they need to be in. You are supposed to be the custodian of the works of art in your exhibition— don’t forget that. If you want to work in a museum one day, be sure you have experience working with a collection. Having many gigs without collection experience will keep you from having certain jobs one day.

Save your money. Financial independence is the only way to truly be free and be able to do the kind of research that is not tied to national or market agendas and to have the freedom to take jobs you are interested in or risk not taking jobs that you are not interested in just because you need the money. This is extremely hard to achieve in the art world, so if you have to, get a side job. Honest hard work is always something to be proud of. My friend Dayanita Singh was recently advising her art students in a workshop to become Uber drivers so they don’t have to be dependent on the market to be artists. I think similar advice could or should apply to young people hoping to be independent curators.