Published on Linkedin, Jun 13, 2016
So my current hat - in a lifetime of oddly-shaped headwear, worn in the course of a long career in creativity - is curator. Specifically, my curatorship of Nesta’s FutureFest since 2012, this year focussing on the theme of Play.
I could talk for hours about curation - how it’s like being an “editor of things” (rather than words), or how it’s one of the last places where the intellectual generalist can make an honest buck.
But let me focus on one aspect today - and that’s how a curator manages talent and expertise How do you engage a major name to appear at your event?
I’ve done not too badly over the years at FutureFest - we’ve had Edward Snowden, Vivienne Westwood, George Clinton, Owen Jones, Paul Mason, Lily Cole, Eric Drexler, Sir Martin Rees, Helena Kennedy, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Roberto Unger. This year, we have Brian Eno, DJ Spooky and Will Self already confirmed.
Each of them represents a particular story of access. But there are some common elements that I’ve identified about effective curation that may be of interest.
What very much helps, in the FutureFest context, is that we make it clear to speakers that this isn’t your usual corporate or TED-style speaking event. We’re not charging 3-4K (£’s, $’s or Euros) per audience member - indeed we try to keep a day ticket to under £50.
We’re also a public-good charity - so the point of any revenue generated is to pay all the expenditures of the event, not to make a profit. And the point of the event itself is to engage the public in seizing their future
All that rules out by default most of the major speakers agencies - whose rates are usually themselves, even per speaker, a large percentage of our overall budget!
But what then gets ruled in is an appeal to the speakers’ or participants’ genuine intellectual or creative interest. Does the premise of this event appeal to you? Do you want to be with peers - not just on stage but before our fiercely sharp audiences - exploring the wide horizons of the mid-century?
That’s where, as curator, I start to have the most fun. It’s the opportunity to make the case for your event to speakers who themselves contain the most amazing multitudes.
To me it’s the most delicious opportunity. To read intensely into the CV or published works of a scientist or technologist, academic or artist, entrepreneur or activist - and find the strands in what they do that mesh most directly with your curated theme.
This may seem obvious, but it’s so important to make the first email the best one possible. Not just carefully giving an account of your event’s major names and achievements so far. But also showing in a few short paragraphs that you understand accurately and intelligently - and are even inspired by - what they do.
This is also important because, in the age of the in-box mail-trail, the integrity, commitment and comprehensiveness of your first offer is what sits at the bottom of every reply and chase-up. You don’t need to recapitulate your offer every time - the busyness of the major name, and the people around about them, can never be underestimated.
Even after the name has been commissioned, I like to stick around in the “cc” of the subsequent mailing - people always have last minute queries, or want their keynote or panel brief sharpened or updated in the face of recent news stories. Whenever I can, I like to close the “human” deal, and mediate the panels or keynotes they deliver at the final event itself.
And then the event happens in a heaving, pulsing rush of 48 hours - a year or more’s conversation and preparation gone like that. There’s the crude delight of everyone actually turning up on time - but also the richer pleasure of knowing you’ve helped every participant do their best to inspire, illuminate or instruct our audience.
Whatever a “curator” is these days - and there are no doubt apologies to be sent to qualified art-historical curators from the likes of me - I love being one. It’s a gig that brings ideas to life, by dealing with the actual, unpredictable, interpretable humans that prosecute them.
As I place this curatorial hat back in the box - among all the rest in my creative career - I hope to be plucking it out again for many years more.
Pat Kane has been curating FutureFest since 2012 - and this year (17-18 September, London’s Tobacco Docks) is in charge of its PLAY strand. Buy tickets for FutureFest here. For more on Pat Kane's creative consultancy, visit The Play Ethic.