The Cluny

Sam Lackey

An interview with the senior curator of the Whitworth.

We had the pleasure of meeting Sam to discuss how she came to be the Senior Curator at The Whitworth. We also chatted to her about her curating the current Warhol exhibition on display until April.The exhibition, ‘ARTIST ROOMS: Andy Warhol’ shows the sharp critical opinions of an artist known to many primarily as an art salesman, purveyor of product and celebrant of capitalism. The exhibition focuses on themes of death, politics and identity, representing Warhol’s reading of the American Dream. These works seem perhaps more poignant than ever, with the US under heavy scrutiny following the 2016 US Presidential Election. 

Cluny: How did you come to work at the Whitworth? 

Sam: So when I first came here it was a much quieter gallery, but there were some brilliant things happening. I was an undergraduate student studying History of Art at the University of Manchester. I went to a welcome event and they had Richard Hamilton’s version of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’. It was just amazing work. It was a time of weird politics in the early nineties, and there was just a display of terrifying, beautiful, massive paintings. 

Cluny: Is there a set educational path into curation? 

Sam: No. No there isn’t. I mean when I worked in the Hepworth (The Hepworth Wakefield), I was one of two curators. I had a History of Art background, and the other had been an artist. A painter and she was completely brilliant. That worked really well because we had such different skills. She had such an incredible way of working with the artists. I learnt a lot from her and I think she learnt from me too. It is so hard to get into institutional curation. There are so many curating courses and museum study courses; but obviously there are loads of brilliant people who don’t have natural access to that. The Whitworth is really keen to broaden our pool of people who might apply for work here. 

Cluny: Would you consider leaving Manchester to work in London at sometime in the future? 

Sam: Well I’ve only recently got this job… So I wouldn’t really think about it… But there is something really interesting in not working in London. There is something interesting in the things that you can make happen in other cities, that is a bit obscured in London. I feel like this is my home now. 

Cluny: In your opinion why is Warhol’s work still so celebrated today? 

Sam: I think he was underestimated as an artist. I think the more time you spend looking at the art, the better it gets. Everyone thinks they know what a Warhol is about… Campbell Soup Cans, Coca Cola, Marilyn Monroe, America... Capitalism… But then you go to the exhibition and you realise that each painting is completely different. The work on display in this exhibition is deeply affecting and not just about surface appreciation. Also, for me, Warhol is what I would call a ‘gateway artist’. It might not be everybody, but it gets you thinking. Warhol is a great entry point for anybody. 

Cluny: If Warhol was alive today, what do you think he would make of the modern world? 

Sam: I think he would just be himself, which was completely non-committal. Do you know he painted a work for Donald Trump? They eventually started rowing and fell out. It is mentioned a lot in Warhol’s diary. This show is about a political Warhol, he is being critical of America and the American Dream. But in his private life, Warhol was not really publicly committed about anything. Actually... You know what... he would probably just be mates with Kim Kardashian and then he would say snidey things behind her back. I think he would just see this as a continuation of his experience of America and the world. I don’t think much would surprise him. 

Cluny: Do you have a favourite piece in the show? 

Sam: There is a piece called ‘Are you different?’ – it is one of the black white works and one of the quieter works in the exhibition. I really like it because Warhol always saw himself as different. Different due to being a child of immigrants, due to his physical appearance (having been so ill as a child), and partly due to his sexuality. It’s not the biggest or shoutiest piece in the exhibition, but I just really like it. 

Cluny: How do you feel about unpaid internships?

Sam: I think it is a real problem. It’s wrong that the only people that get the opportunity to start working in art galleries are ones that can financially support themselves. It’s a real, significant problem. I also think that as university becomes more and more difficult to afford, then that will also have an impact on a cultural landscape. But the Whitworth is kind of amazing. Our former director Maria Balshaw went to a comprehensive in the Midlands and didn’t do any unpaid internships! And now she has been announced as Director of the Tate. So that is a story we need to remember. The way that this country thinks about art has shifted radically in the past ten, twenty years. It is now something people talk about. Maria was on the front page of the Times after her appointment. That is something that would have never happened a decade ago. The Tate didn’t exist as this sort of huge public attraction. However, it is complicated at the moment politically; no one really knows what the future holds for the incredible amount of institutions and organisations that have grown up, proliferated, and thrived in the last ten years. 

Cluny: Do you have any hidden gems in Manchester? Stuff you like to do, places to go... 

Sam: One of my favourite cultural places is Cheethams Library. It’s amazing. You go in and knock on this massive wooden door and someone takes you upstairs to the medieval library. In there are the seats Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sat in and discussed Capitalism. You can just go in and sit in the seats, it’s amazing.Obviously Manchester Art Gallery and Home are both great! Also, Islington Mill has an amazing energy and spirit and it is under fire, which is just extraordinary to me. 

Cluny: Do you have a Desert Island Piece of Art? 

Sam: I do! It is Max Ernst’s ‘Two Children Are Threatened By A Nightingale’. I saw it an Exhibition when I must have been about fourteen or fifteen years old. It’s a surreal piece. It’s a deeply disconcerting piece of work and I love it. I couldn’t understand it at that age and that interested me... 

Sam! Thank you so much, it has been a pleasure. 


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