Curating the East Midlands: Rachel Graves

Rachel Graves is the Visual Arts Officer at Attenborough Arts Centre where she is responsible for the exhibitions programme across the centre’s four gallery spaces. Rachel also oversees Attenborough Arts Centre’s visual arts commissioning programme which supports artists to develop new work, take risks and access opportunities to further their career. In previous roles with the Arts Council Collection and The Hepworth Wakefield, Rachel has worked on major national and international touring programmes as well as the care, research and display of modern & contemporary British art.

Attenborough Arts Centre is the University of Leicester’s public arts centre, and champions emerging talent and disability-led artists, seeking to make the arts a more accessible and inclusive space. Recent exhibitions include ‘Mel Brimfield: Talking Heads’, ‘Sargy Mann: Let it be felt that the painter was there’ and ‘Kelly Richardson: Mariner 9’. Find out more about AAC online and keep up to date with its programme on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

‘Criminal Ornamentation: Yinka Shonibare curates the Arts Council Collection’ installation view

How did you come to curating / producing?

I studied photography at NTU and realised quite quickly that I was interested in art in a much broader sense, and that I was really curious about working in museums & galleries. I went on to do an MA in Art History at the University of Nottingham – part time so that I was able to get direct experience of the sector alongside my studies. For several years I worked in various front of house roles with galleries in Nottingham, did some short-term volunteering with the curatorial team at Nottingham Castle, as well as volunteering at Surface Gallery. I took every opportunity that came along, and that was really useful in helping me figure out what sort of career I might want in the sector.

I moved out of the East Midlands as there weren’t many jobs coming up, especially anything that would help me move from front of house roles into exhibition planning & curatorial work, which is what I was really interested in. A year at The Lowry as Galleries Administrator gave me a fantastic introduction to exhibition making and working with an art collection. After that I got my first permanent job in the sector: Collection Coordinator with the Arts Council Collection. There I looked after the day to day care and administration of sculpture in the Collection, supporting the curation & delivery of national and international lending and touring. I then went on to a similar role at The Hepworth Wakefield, managing the practical delivery of exhibitions and touring programmes.

I returned to the East Midlands last year, and it felt like coming back home. I’m excited to be part of the team at Attenborough Arts Centre, and in my role as Visual Arts Officer I have the chance to dig deep into developing my curatorial practice and producing a programme that has a strong focus on widening access to contemporary art and championing the work of artists who face barriers to working in the sector.

Gallery Late event

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

AAC seeks to support artists who are disabled or otherwise face barriers to developing a career in the arts. We do this by exhibiting their work, commissioning new projects and supporting artists to access opportunities elsewhere that can further support them. We want to be active in challenging bias and discrimination in the art world and in our communities.

We aim to show artists at different points in their career, across four gallery spaces. We have presented solo exhibitions by major contemporary artists including Mel Brimfield, Noemi Lakmaier and Aaron Williamson, and we are increasingly looking to work more frequently with early career artists by commissioning new work and supporting them to take risks and extend their practice.

‘Sargy Mann: let it be felt that the painter was there’, November 2019, installation view

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

The Visual Arts team consists of me, our Deputy Director, Jeremy Webster, and part-time Curatorial Trainee, Jenny O’Sullivan. We get together on a regular basis to plan the delivery of exhibitions and discuss new ideas. We also meet regularly with the wider AAC team – including colleagues from the learning team, visitor experience, marketing, etc – to consult more widely and make sure our programme is going to meet AAC’s wider aims and will be a good experience for all our visitors. It’s always a big team effort!

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

Making time to go and see exhibitions, talking to artists about their work, reading widely and being attuned to current concerns and debates in the art world. Having studio visits with artists and getting to know their work really well over time is important – I want to know that collaborating on an exhibition or commissioning a new piece of work is going to be valuable experience for that artist as well as hopefully leading to something that our audiences will be excited to see.

I’m also very aware that I don’t come from a Disability Arts background, so I spend a lot of time worrying about unconscious bias and the routes by which the art world can unthinkingly reproduce & reinforce barriers to access – specifically the ways in which artists can be overlooked even at this stage. I try to make sure I’m not just reading and looking at things within a strict art world context, and that I’m open to discovering new work in less traditional settings.

Current exhibition ‘Kelly Richardson: Mariner 9’, Installation view

Tell us about your current or recent exhibitions and projects

Like lots of other galleries, we had just opened two new exhibitions in March (Kelly Richardson: Mariner 9 and Reasonable Adjustment by Justin Edgar) when the country went into lockdown. We had been so excited to bring Kelly’s and Justin’s works to Leicester and share those exhibitions with our visitors, so it was heartbreaking to close our doors. Just before we closed our Marketing Officer Adam Unwin created a video walkthrough of Reasonable Adjustment so that our visitors could get a flavour of that exhibition remotely:

Some of the things we’ve been up to during lockdown include:

  • Launching a new podcast, featuring interviews and conversations with some of the artists we have been working with.
  • Collaborating with No Jobs in the Arts on a new issue of their fantastic zine, which will be focused on showing work by early career disabled artists in the East Midlands – due to be published on 10 September, with a limited print run for distribution during Leicester Art Week later in the Autumn.
  • I am involved in the selection for the UKNA Leicester city takeover, which will take place in February next year
  • We are planning some exciting digital activity for Leicester Art Week in November, including a special episode of our podcast featuring an interview with Kelly Richardson

We are also getting ready to begin reopening AAC from 28 September. I’m delighted that we will be able to reopen the galleries to the public, and have extended Kelly Richardson: Mariner 9 through to the end of the year. Opening times will be slightly different and there will be a booking system in place, so anyone thinking of visiting should keep an eye on our website and social channels for more details soon.

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

It goes without saying that it’s a really worrying and difficult time for the sector. I’ve been having lots of conversations with colleagues in other organisations and artists who are in a really precarious position, facing redundancy or temporary contracts not being renewed. I’m anxious about the future of the sector and what is going to happen after the furlough scheme ends.

It has been difficult to adjust to working digitally, going from having four physical exhibition spaces which were at the centre of our work, to having to find other ways to continue working with artists and keep in touch with our audiences at a distance. It has been a real learning curve, but has also provided opportunities for some longer term thinking and planning around embedding more digital activity into our programmes.

As we look towards reopening, as a multi disciplinary arts centre there are lots of complicated conversations happening behind the scenes around when different parts of the programme might resume, and what social distancing and hygiene arrangements need to be in place for different types of activity. The approach we are taking for gallery visits, for example, won’t be suitable for theatre shows. We’re hopeful that a phased reopening from September will help us make the right adjustments and support our visitors to return when they feel safe to come back.

installation/exhibition planning in progress

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

It has been a pleasure to work with Kelly Richardson, bringing Mariner 9 to Leicester, and now that the exhibition has been extended through to the end of the year I’m really happy that more visitors will have the chance to see it.

Over the coming year we are going to be rescheduling exhibitions and projects that were interrupted or put on hold by the pandemic, and I’m especially looking forward to showing newly commissioned works from Yambe Tam and Loz Atkinson. Both artists were going to have solo exhibitions this summer, but these shows will now happen in 2021.

I’ve already mentioned UK New Artists – we’re looking forward to the UKNA Leicester City Takeover next year and preparations are well under way for that. Attenborough Arts Centre will be one of the venues welcoming new and early career artists from across the UK and we’re looking forward to being a hub of activity over the festival.

In March we will be showing Mik Godley’s ‘Considering Silesia’ – the exhibition will be an insight into Mik’s exploration of his Anglo-German identity which has been ongoing since 2003, examining conflicting heritages and cultural histories through virtual expeditions.

Looking further ahead, the University of Leicester celebrates its centenary year in 2021 and we are planning something big for the galleries in the autumn!

What or who are you excited about?

I had a bit of an identity crisis during the first months of lockdown – being unable to go and see any exhibitions, I actually discovered that I had been carrying lots of guilt about never being able to see enough, or read enough or learn enough to feel like I was keeping up with the wider art world. Having 5 months where that choice was completely out of my hands was… really nice. It felt like useful time to recuperate from what can be a really demanding industry to work in. So I’ve been back to see a couple of shows since galleries started opening back up, and I can’t wait to see other spaces in Leicester reopen, but I’m also trying to be excited about other things too. I’ve been giving more time to reading for pleasure, spending time on the allotment, etc, and I recently started going open water swimming, which I never seemed to have the time for before. So I’m excited for those things right now, and also curious to see what effect feeling like a more rounded person might have on my work.

installation/exhibition planning in progress

What dates should we put in our calendars?

28 September: our reopening date

20 – 29 November: Leicester Art Week

26 Feb – 1 March: UKNA Leicester city takeover

Also, the dates haven’t been confirmed yet but look out for a digital version of our popular Gallery Lates programme coming later this year!

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

Having spent a lot of my career touring exhibitions and artworks to other curators’ galleries and always feeling like an interloper, I’m most looking forward to focusing all my attention on the galleries at AAC and working on exhibitions that fit together as a coherent programme.

But if we’re talking pie in the sky, I would LOVE to get my (nitrile gloved) hands on MoMA’s photography collection!

Exterior photo of Attenborough Arts Centre

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

A more self-sustaining sector that can support artists and arts workers through all stages of their careers, and that recognises the importance of retaining talent in the region. It would be nice to see more collaboration between cities, and greater recognition of some of the amazing spaces and artists working outside of urban centres. And a united effort in working for a more inclusive and permeable sector that better reflects the diversity of our wider communities.


Rachel was interviewed in September 2020

All images are courtesy of Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo credits: