Creating a space for important conversations through art

  • Sandev Handy on the role of a modern art curator

With art being an incomparably powerful medium of communication, an arguably equally important skill is the ability to be able to collect and position art in a way that helps it make sense to a larger audience. This skill of curating art to amplify its power and message is core to what makes a good art curator.

Artist and curator Sandev Handy PHOTO Luka Alagiyawanna

What an art curator does has evolved over the last few years, moving beyond the traditional idea of an art historian, who – through skill and experience – is able to understand and contextualise art to amplify its message, to become more nuanced. Brunch chatted with independent artist and curator Sandev Handy to learn more about what an art curator does. Sandev works as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka (MMCA Sri Lanka), Sri Lanka’s first museum dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art. He is also a Co-Curator for a transoceanic art project called “A Language Where Yesterday And Tomorrow Are The Same Word. Kal.”. He is also part of the zine culture-inspired artists’ collective The Packet. As a creative facilitator, Sandev is passionate about building community dialogue in politically urgent climates. 

With the field of art curation being such a dynamic field and one going through great change, Sandev shared that the traditional view of what it means to be an art curator is shifting as well, with educational institutions now recognising (and capitalising on) the power of art curation as a field of work, offering degrees. Sandev, who is himself a self-taught curator, shared that this recognition has added to the rapid growth and expansion of the field. 

Defining being an art curator, particularly in today’s context, as something of a challenge, Sandev explained that the field of art curation is quite new, although it is expanding rapidly. In its most generalist sense, being an art curator means caring for artwork, ranging from conserving and preserving artwork to understanding the history and context behind the art, what inspired it, and communicating this effectively, both by itself and amongst other work.

Sandev speaking to visitors at the MMCA Sri Lanka

Ideally, curators work with all forms of art, taking responsibility for the collection and spending time arranging it, researching it, writing about it, and speaking to other people about it to gain more comprehensive knowledge. 

Curating art, like art itself, is subjective, and different curators will view the role they play as art curators differently, Sandev shared, adding that to him, curating matters because “it is mainly about bridging the gap between the materials I’m presenting and the people I’m presenting it to. It’s about bringing work into a space and researching it and finding really compelling educational and reflective narratives in the work”. 

Curating art is a way for art to be introduced to people in an environment that helps them reflect and learn. “Curating art matters to me because it’s a facilitation of important conversations,” Sandev said, adding: “Ultimately, while I still do a lot of work in terms of conservation, preservation, and research, I am particularly interested in the fact that there is so much potential through art for conversations on politically and socially relevant issues, and curating can create a space for these really important conversations.” 

Embodying Power: An exhibition curated by Sandev Handy and Tamara Fernando

With regard to curating art, Sandev shared that to him, well-curated art is always something that brooks conversation. “Something can be really well researched academically and give you complete encyclopaedic knowledge on an artist or painting and that might be well curated. For me, within my specific field focus on curating, and with my point of interest, the work I appreciate most are shows that facilitate conversations and where people feel engaged and invited in to take in the work and talk about it and discuss it. Exhibitions that instigate many conversations are always a sign that something has been curated well and been cared for.” 

Speaking on the traditional misconceptions that art curators face, Sandev explained that being an art curator is a much more active and dynamic role than most people think. “Many people think I spend my days in archives and dusty old rooms looking at old materials, and yes, that is something I like to do, but the field of curating is changing and evolving. I spend a lot of time talking to people, researching, going to events, visiting artists and spending time with them, being a part of a lot of conversations, and also helping artists to show their work,” Sandev noted, adding that the most memorable and enjoyable part of being a curator is the breadth of memorable conversations he gets to be a part, form the conversations he had with visitors at the MMCA Sri Lanka to the amazing conversations he has through his work with Kal and The Packet, to the conversations with people he has had as an independent artist.