A day in the life: an interview with French art curator and Mina Raven founder Sandrine Servent
What exactly does it take to get a work of art on the walls of a gallery? A lot more than you might think. The people running around behind the scenes – the curators, the collectors, the conservators – are the people that make things happen, the cogs in the machine, the unsung heroines (and heroes) that shine a light on stories and messages that may otherwise go unseen.
Sandrine Servent is one such person. From her first exhibition on the older transgender community with photographer Bex Day, the independent art curator and producer has often found herself asking the same question: how can she curate a powerful experience that connects with the viewer?
The answer, in short, is by collaborating with artists that share her vision of questioning the human experience. Working with big and bold names to exciting newcomers on the scene, Sandrine often finds herself stuck on flights between London and Paris, travelling between the two cities to promote international artists for her organisation Mina Raven, which she founded in 2018. Here she shares her experience of breaking into the art world, the realities of her line of work and her definition of success…
Kirtey Verma: What does your daily routine involve? How do you set up an exhibition or collaboration?
Sandrine Servent: As an independent curator, I don’t have a proper daily routine – each project is different and I am involved in different ways. I can be commissioned to handle an exhibition or a project. For instance, at the moment, I am working on a project in Paris for an NGO named Act & Help, which works mainly with children in India. I am co-curating and co-managing the project with Elisabeth Bernard who was also a member of Gamma – an important French photo agency. The project is named “Legendary Photographs Captioned by Their Authors”. We have asked established photographers to donate one print with a handwritten caption, which we will exhibit and sell to benefit the NGO. We will showcase photographs by Martin Parr, Sarah Moon, Susan Meiselas, William Klein, Reza, Jane Evelyn Atwood, Salgado among others. With Elisabeth Bernard, I am handling the artist’s liaisons, choosing the photographers and the photographs, and then I will supervise the exhibition that is currently set to take place in early 2021 at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.
If it is for my own organisation Mina Raven, I tend to work with emerging artists with a distinctive voice and approach. At the moment, I am working on an exhibition with Colombian artist César Cuspoca – he spent a month among a Native American community in the region of Amazonia in Colombia, the Korebaju. With a production team, he has produced videos, sounds and photographs. He uses these materials to create artworks and installations in situ. His work is fascinating. The Korebaju exhibition will take place in November at Offshoot Gallery (North London).
KV: What made you decide upon a career in the art industry? How did you start out?
SS: I have been working in photography for seven years, but I’ve always been passionate about visual art. I didn’t study it at university, so I had to build up my own culture out of curiosity and passion. Everything came gradually from what I was attracted to and the desire to extend my own knowledge. At first, I was interested in photographers with strong visions, so when I moved to London I got in touch with DMB Represents, a photography agency that represents Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden and Simon Roberts, alongside different and talented photographers with an artistic approach. I didn’t really know what I was stepping into, but as I started to understand more about the art world, I evolved as a person. I met people and I started to develop my own creative approach to things.
Being an agent and producer has helped me a lot to develop my networks and to understand the artists from the creative process to the production of imagery and the delivery of the work. At DMB, I was mainly in charge of the younger artists, managing their career, producing shootings and promoting their works through meetings and private group shows. I bonded with Nadia Lee Cohen, a talented British photographer and director. We grew up a lot together and that made me realise how interesting it was to work with emerging talents. Each move is strategic and you need to have the right speech to promote the work of the artist. It’s how I started to edit, write and talk about photography. It was mainly in the context of commercial photography and to get commissions, but these kinds of exercises stimulate my desire to develop my own way to showcase artists.
KV: What would you consider to be your best career moment?
SS: When I curated ‘Hen’, an exhibition about the older transgender community in the UK by photographer Bex Day. We started to work on it in 2017 and I was not really confident to do curation at that time. It was challenging in many aspects; we didn’t have money to fund the exhibition and it was a sensitive theme. We can’t just decide to approach a subject like this and hang on prints on the wall. We needed to really question ourselves and research the subject, keeping in mind: ‘What do we want to share, what is the message? We were also thinking constantly about the public’s experience/engagement. For instance, with Hen, the message was clear: give a voice to the older transgender community. We had around 40 artworks, very intimate portraits of people in their house, bedroom, gardens or places where they were feeling safe. How to enhance this proximity with the viewer? We decided to ask each of them to write a caption for their portraits, a paragraph written in the first person. It became a dialogue between the portrait and the visitor. This was simple but powerful, and of course, it was possible because it was a recent project; the subjects were alive and they had this relationship of trust with Bex. The programme around the exhibition was as important as the show – we invited some of the subjects to attend panel discussions, organised curatorial tours of the exhibition with Bex and we partnered with Stonewall Housing, an LGBTQ+ charity, to provide workshops during the exhibition. It was a great success and the exhibition received a lot of support from the press and people involved in the LGBTQ+ community. More than this, it was a beautiful human experience.
KV: What was it like curating your first exhibition with a friend?
SS: It’s lucky that we were supporting each other; we worked a lot on this exhibition. We didn’t earn any money and Bex invested a lot on it. At the end, it was a big success with the press and the public. When we decided to do it, we knew it would not be easy, but it was a turning point. You have to stay open to these kinds of opportunities, being ready to work hard on a project even though you know that you will not earn anything!
KV: Most people don’t consider it to be an affordable career choice, though. You always get that image of the struggling artist. Do you have any advice for them?
SS: It’s not easy. We don’t do it to receive success – that happens when you are really consistent. But there are a lot of great artists that don’t earn any money. Success is a very subjective idea. Sometimes, you have people that really make it at 20 years old, and then at 30, they’re completely lost. And sometimes, people make it at 40.
KV: Why did you decide to start Mina Raven?
SS: I launched Mina Raven in 2018. I wanted to promote visual art between the UK and France, because both countries have a big background in the story of photography, but in very different ways. For me, it was interesting to start off by promoting British artists in France and French artists in the UK. But then, it evolved in a different way, showcasing artists in different countries and building a link between countries and people.
KV: Part of the great thing about being the founder of your own company is picking what you work on. What type of art do you prefer to share and exhibit?
SS: I like to work with emerging artists that explore different forms with photography and film, as well as artists that challenge social and cultural problems. With Bex, it was the transgender community; César likes to speak about Native American communities. These stories question the public and leave something behind.
KV: They give a voice to people that might not have had a platform otherwise.
SS: Yes, it’s simple. We learn so much when we question things that are obvious. For me, the experience that we can leave through art can be very powerful. It’s not just an aesthetic experience. You can question yourself as a human being, society, and so many other things.
KV: Is it important to specialise a field of interest early on?
SS: There is no rule. Like artists, curators have to build their own creative process and visio; this comes with experience and networking. Some people might want to specialise a field of interest early on; some others might not. It’s all about passion, common sense and being open to opportunities and accidents.
KV: Most of your exhibitions feature photography. What draws you to this medium?
SS: I will always be fascinated by the power and complexity of images. We can approach photography in so many different ways – we can create the world, we can document people. As a medium, you can do anything with it. It’s very flexible.
KV: What artists do you particularly admire right now?
SS: It’s very difficult to choose, as there are many. Cindy Sherman is a really amazing artist. Sophie Calle for her freedom and the way she blurs boundaries between the intimate and the public. Jeremy Shaw for his incredible video installation named ‘Mutations / Créations’ that I saw at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Susan Meiselas for her humanity. I’m also obsessed with Marina Abramović and her partner Ulay, and the work that they did together.
KV: What advice would you give to young creatives?
SS: At first, the art world doesn’t give that much confidence to people. There is a lot about being curious and being in movement, in action. It’s important to create opportunities and not wait for someone to give you the permission to be. You ‘are’ already; it’s all about a state of mind. Don’t wait to receive validation or permission from people in the institution. You have to do things and believe in yourself. If you don’t, nobody will. Once we understand that, we can do anything. You can do anything, even work with big artists – they are like everybody else. Most of the time, they are kind and aware about the difficulty to break in the art world. The art world is not a crystal ball. It’s a part of our own world, available to everybody. More concretely, I would say to develop a network with people and friends with whom you can create and forget your fear.
For more information about Sandrine and the exhibitions that she is working on, visit Mina Raven