Blair Todd – A list of things I have learnt

At the launch of Nicola Bealing’s Dead-man’s Fingers and Melanie Manchot’s STEPHEN exhibitions on Fri 10 May 2024, Blair Todd gave some farewell words:

“When thinking about what I might say, as a farewell thing this evening, I have been making notes on my phone. It’s become, it seems, a list of things I have learnt. Not having been to uni or art school, and this being my first job in the arts, everything has been learnt here, particularly from the artists I’ve worked with. I haven’t named them, as there have been thousands, and we’d be here another 30 years, but I thank them.


A list of things I have learnt

  • If in 1993 while on the dole you attend an experimental music night, smoke cigarettes and talk about Brookside with the gallery director they might ask if you would like to help install a Peter Lanyon exhibition.
  • At the end of that week, make yourself useful, and run their gallery shop.
  • Later when you spot that another gallery director has allocated too many days to install an exhibition, have a drink with artists and hatch a plan for a three-day performance art festival that needs very little budget. Learn that directors like low-cost solutions.
  • Keep filling those gaps in the programme with DIY events, and lo-fi artist residencies, until they become the regulars in the programme.
  • And for one of those residencies, when an art student shows you a photo of a Victorian velodrome and says they’d like to build one, to be cycling in endless circles, which might illustrate the futility of life – help build it, and invite everyone, as it’ll be beautiful, and just a little bit dangerous.
  • Embrace, celebrate and champion risk.
  • Never underestimate visitors’ openness to enjoy something they didn’t know they would like.
  • When you sense that artists about to start a residency might need some inspiration, rename the project Vertigo and hire an aerial acrobat for them, to somersault from the beams.
  • But learn when to divert. When an artist is struggling with a public event and asks for an air rifle (true story), offer them a set of darts and a safely cordoned off area.
  • Don’t be daunted by the epic – to celebrate the anniversary of an artist’s attempt to cross the Atlantic in a 12-foot yacht, finish the journey for them with a flotilla of sailing ships from Newlyn to Falmouth, each crewed by artists.
  • Understand early on that it’s not your thing to create exhibitions that academically interrogate art histories, so bring together artists who look at their worlds as poets, who like Bas Jan Ader look to the horizon in search of the miraculous; or who celebrate the beautiful and messy transition from childhood to adulthood; and seek out those artists who inquisitively float in the nebulous space where land meets sea.
  • When talking with colleagues, and with peers, say we, not I.
  • There is a glory in team-work and the conversations that evolve the way we think as a team. Realising that artworks from national collections can be chosen from a catalogue, like items from Argos, then it becomes clear that those choices can be made by anyone, and they can choose works that speak for them. This changed the gallery’s role from gatekeeper to guide.
  • When you create a two-week residency for a dozen artists and realise you haven’t budgeted for feeding them, set up a kitchen in the gallery and cook their lunch each day. It will make you useful as a curator, and they will continue to talk and collaborate as they eat.
  • And at weekends, walk with artists, cook with artists, create a school with artists. I am forever thankful for all that I have learnt.
  • To wrap up, I would like to thank the three gallery directors I have worked with, Emily, Liz, and James, for the opportunities they have let me run with. And most importantly, I salute the colleagues who through the years, through thick and thin, as friends, collaborators, and conspirators, have made it so much fun. And lastly I thank the current board of trustees who have opened the door to a whole new chapter for me.
  • We (me and Cat) are going to build some shelter in a field in England, with our bees and some chickens, some ducks, a poly tunnel and a workshop. There will be a lot to learn. This is a fine future, but who knows, one day we may wake up and decide to invite artists to come be in residence. In a field.”


More info: Changes to the Gallery Team