Curating the East Midlands: Laura O’Leary

Laura O’Leary is Assistant Curator and part of the programming team at QUAD in Derby, a leading centre for the use and creative development of digital technologies and host of FORMAT International Photography Festival. Before joining QUAD she worked at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, and did work placements at Artangel and Glasgow International. She has a BA Hons in Criticism, Communication and Curating in Art and Design from Central St Martins and an MLitt in Curatorial Practice from The Glasgow School of Art. Laura is also an arts writer.

Find out more about Laura’s practice at: and follow her on Instagram. Follow QUAD on Instagram.

How did you come to curating / producing?

When I was sixteen I joined Ikon Youth Programme (Ikon Gallery, Birmingham), thanks to the encouragement of my supportive A-Level Art teacher, Trisha. Ikon’s curators told us about their job; working with artists, traveling for research, generally, what’s involved and I thought – what a good job! I’d never considered working at an arts organisation before that moment. At Ikon, I also saw exhibitions that showed me how art can change how you see the world – this really affected me as I started to learn from others’ experience through art; experiences I’d never known or seen before. This led to me study curation at Central Saint Martins aged eighteen, to the financial dread of my family but luckily, also their support. I went to university at a time when I qualified for every grant going, and worked throughout my degree. If fees and grants were as they are today, it wouldn’t have been possible. It took me another degree, plenty more debt and practical work experiences before I joined QUAD as Programme Assistant, and now Assistant Curator. Throughout this time, I’ve always valued educators: without the Learning Team at Ikon, I wouldn’t learnt what I have about the arts or made the friends that I have. I feel lucky to say that my job makes me happy. I love learning from artists and supporting their practice. Art is a central part of my life.

QUAD, Derby

Tell us about the programme at QUAD. What are its priorities re. working with artists?

QUAD is a leading centre for the use and creative development of digital technologies, and also organises FORMAT International Photography Festival, which welcomes over 100,000 visitors from all over the world to its Biennale. QUAD works with local artists, for example, I recently curated an exhibition of 273 self-portraits by Derbyshire-based or born artists. QUAD champions creative practitioners that engage in the intersection between art and technology, such as, Mimi Ọnụọha (US), Memo Akten (Turkey), Tom K Kemp (UK) and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (UK) who we’ve worked with this year. These artists critically engage with subjects, such artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), data-sets, machine learning, algorithms, gaming and digital archives.

QUAD supports artists through residencies, new commissions, masterclasses, mentoring, pay-as-you-feel portfolio reviews, and supports Derby’s community through artist-led, educational and well-being workshops for schools, and communities. Evidently, QUAD isn’t one thing, but many. You can feel this as you walk into the building; there’s usually always a group here, such as young people creating fun work in Q-Club, which is curated by my colleague Abbie Canning, who was recently celebrated for her work keeping arts in our local area alive and accessible during lockdown. You may find visitors learning how to create artwork using virtual reality; in a literature workshop learning how to write their first book, or watching a black and white film with a live orchestra! You might find me drinking a chai-latte with my friend Clara before watching a film in one of our three cinemas when not working.

Max Pinckers ‘Margins of Excess’ in, ‘Sleight of Hand’, from FORMAT19. ‘Margins of Excess’ was guest curated by Tim Clark and ‘Sleight of Hand’ was curated by Louise Fedotov-Clements. Lishui Art Museum, Lishui International Photography Festival 2019. Photo: Isabella Wang

Who is in the programming team, and how do you work together to devise and deliver it?

The programme team includes many people but on a day-to-day/email-zoom-basis, I talk to Peter Bonnell (Senior Curator), Louise Fedotov-Clements (Artistic Director of QUAD and Founder & Director of FORMAT) and Niamh Treacy (FORMAT Coordinator). We also have a dedicated and creative Education, Front of House, Participatory and Technical team who make the artistic programme what it is. Louise, Peter and I work on the exhibitions programme for up to four years in advance of the show happening. FORMAT is a biennial and each festival has a theme, this involves producing an open call, creating a distinct city-wide festival, public programme of events, including Europe’s largest portfolio review and working with a range of artists from around the world. The exhibitions also tour globally. Last year, I oversaw the installation of a FORMAT exhibition in Lishui, China. As an emerging curator, QUAD gives me a lot of freedom to develop ideas, commission artists, and learn. I’m hugely grateful for that!

How do you identify and select the artists you work with?

Through a range of things; research, open calls, partnerships, touring projects, consortium projects, residencies, by working with colleagues, masterclass programmes and graduate opportunities, to name a few…

Memo Akten, ‘Deep Meditations: A brief history of almost everything in 60 minutes’ in ‘How We Make Meaning’, QUAD Gallery, 2020, Photo: Charlotte Jopling
Mimi Ọnụọha, ‘Us, Aggregated 3.0’ & ‘In Absentia 2.0’in ‘How We Make Meaning’, QUAD Gallery 2020, Photo: Charlotte Jopling
Mimi Ọnụọha, ‘The Future Is Here! in ‘How We Make Meaning’, QUAD Gallery 2020, Photo: Charlotte Joplin

Tell us about your current exhibitions and projects

On display currently is a season of exhibitions focused on Artificial Intelligence. As part of this programme, we are exhibiting ‘How We Make Meaning’, two solo exhibitions by artists Memo Akten and Mimi Ọnụọha. Both artists explore aspects of AI – particularly in relation to the gathering and use of data, machine learning and how humans/machines input and interpret data, as well as how they view the world in scientific, spiritual and deeply personal ways (the exhibition is co-curated by Peter Bonnell, QUAD’s Senior Curator and myself). In QUAD’s Extra Gallery Spaces, we have ‘Napoleon Complex’ by Tom K Kemp, which explores weather modelling algorithms used by global catastrophe insurance speculating on their social impact both economically and intimately. The project is influenced by Weird genre fiction, in which the protagonists are often the subjects of systems and phenomena which are too large or complex for them to fully comprehend. The exhibitions collectively ask what do you see as the future role of AI in society? Who owns data? What data is being harvested? And what does the endless gathering of data mean when the data becomes unreliable?

In QUAD’s Extra Gallery Spaces, we are also showing QUAD Self Portrait Online. Following a global open-call for digital self-portraits between May-August 2020 during the lockdown period. We received a number of deeply personal responses from artists around the world that are exhibited in the Extra Gallery Spaces.

Tom K Kemp, ‘Napoleon Complex’, QUAD Extra Gallery Spaces, 2020 Photo: Charlotte Jopling

What’s happening behind the scenes at the moment? What has lockdown looked like for you in your role and for QUAD?

Over the lockdown I’ve been lucky enough to be in conversation with artists all around the UK, China, Hong Kong, Italy, Nigeria, The Netherlands, South Africa, Turkey, and the USA about their work is definitely the funnest part of my job. We’ve been programming digital programmes, and considering ways to implement social engagement in virtual spaces to name a few examples, as well as getting ready for future exhibitions. We also mentored students, including Nisa Khan and Jas Lucas who made a work called ‘Impending Zoom’ as part of our University of Derby Graduate Residency Programme. Their work is a parody about using Zoom; Zoom backgrounds, plant-positioning, “can you hear me”?, “You go – No you go!”

Who are the artists and/or partners that you’re working with at the moment?

We are preparing FORMAT International Photography Festival, where this year the theme is CONTROL. From our global Open Call, we recently announced our shortlist, and we are exhibiting the work of 70 artists from over 90 countries and are organising a range of projects with partners. For example, we are working on ##MassIsolationFormat which features 40,000 photographs from across the globe documenting our experience of the global pandemic, in partnership with the People’s Picture, The Gallery of Photography Ireland, Ballarat Foto Biennale, Northern Photo Centre in Finland, and Impressions Gallery. Another example of a partner project is our involvement in a consortium Project called Here, There, Everywhere, organised by New Art Exchange. As part of this, we are exhibiting the work of Anthony Bila, Sipho Gongxeka, and Uzoma Orji in FORMAT21. The artists were selected via a pan-African open-call, organised by QUAD/FORMAT, HTE, in partnership with African Artist’s Foundation and Lagos Photo, Nigeria.

What or who are you excited about?

I recently interviewed Liu Mengxia for a forthcoming Young Artists In Conversation; I loved hearing her perspective on the world, such as her first encounter with the “giant pigeons” in Birmingham! I listened to Open Deck the other day, organised by Ashley Holmes, which reflected on R.I.P Germain’s exhibition “Dead Yard” at Cubitt Gallery, London, curated by Languid Hands. Listening to this live on NTS was the first time in ages that I’d had a meaningful exchange with art, as galleries have been closed for so long – it was really moving and I’d recommend listening to Part 1 of 2 here.

What dates should we put in our calendars?

Something very soon is our FORMAT Press Launch on 11 December at 6pm (GMT), free tickets bookable here. And in the future is the launch of FORMAT Festival on 11 March 2021!

FORMAT21 – Preview. Join us for the announcement of the FORMAT21 festival exhibitions and events!

Whose work or what space would you most like to curate?

I’d like to work with anyone who can teach me things – whose work is honest and brave. I admire plain speaking language in exhibitions, beautiful writing that’s easy to take in, that’s sensitive to the content being shown. I’m currently working on a project with my friend, Sean Burns, which aims to offer words of advice for recent graduates – Sean and I actually met at Ikon Youth Programme! This project comes from me asking performance artist Liv Fontaine for some advice for graduates, Jas Lucas and Nisa Khan – who have a performative practice. This became an article in frieze, edited by Sean, and was appreciated by Jas and Nisa. I think exciting projects come from research, conversations, critical questions, fair budgets and from a genuine place of trying to support artists. I’m excited to say that next year I’ll be working with Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley and loads of other artists through FORMAT and other QUAD projects. In summary, I enjoy working on a programme that critically engages with art, technology, and photography, and has an engaging learning, participation and well-being programme.

What do we need to see more of in the East Midlands?

We need students to stay in Derby, to exhibit here and start projects here. The city has many exciting arts organisations such as ArtCore, Banks Mill Studios, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Dedá, Print Works, the second oldest photography studio in the world – W.W Winter – but we need more! It’s great to see the start of something in RAM Projects – @ram.projects – organised by Derby based artist Thomas Wynne. I think Derby is underrated by some, and from my experience, it’s a nice place to live – with the Peaks on your doorstep and the warm nature of the people I meet who call me “duck”.


Laura was interviewed in December.

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