On Being Curious: Our First In-House Book On Contemporary Arts Criticism

On 01/07/2016 by Young One Cheung

Words by editor Laura Robertson

Turner Prize winners, super slow canal culture, and DIY art schools… As it is published online and in print, editor Laura Robertson takes a personal look at the making of On Being Curious: The Double Negative’s first in-house book, and an essential snapshot of British contemporary arts criticism…

Since the very start, The Double Negative has recognised the value of practical, good quality support for emerging arts writers. We’ve made it our mission to prioritise and deliver what we see as essential, yet woefully overlooked, backing: clear and constructive editorial support; connecting writers with other publications; networking and skills-building; and critical writing bursaries. The latter two are often only achievable with the financial and logistical help of other partners and collaborators. So imagine our delight when the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North-West (CVAN NW) also decided to prioritise those things too, during their Arts Council England-funded Critical Writing Bursary & Workshop Programme (2014-16).

Invited onto the working group for this timely project, I collaborated with seven amazing editors, writers and curators – Sinead Nunes (Art in Liverpool/FACT), Susie Stubbs (Creative Tourist/Modern Designers), Steph Brocken (Blaze Arts), Elaine Speight (In Certain Places/UCLAN) , Rosemary Shirley (Manchester School of ART/MMU), Sophia Crilly (Bureau Gallery), and Bob Dickinson (BBC Four/Art Monthly) — to shape the offer. They all, like me, knew that we needed to get that crucial practical support right. A lot was riding on what we could come up with, as we all knew (through hard-won experience) how difficult it is to attempt to ‘make it’ as a freelance writer. Two concerns were a lack of confidence amongst writers in the North-West region, and a lack of career support that would guide a writer towards freelance work.

What we laid out was a series of intense writing experiences; including compulsory workshops, mentoring, writing, publishing and regional travel. Workshops took place throughout 2015 at venues across the North-West on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings (travel expenses included, very important). They were facilitated by specialists in the fields of writing, publication and distribution, both print and online: I led one about online media, and there were sessions about form and function, social media, self-distribution, print media, and relationships with galleries from the excellent Gerrie Van Noord (Artangel/UoL/Glasgow School of Art), Joanne Lee (Pam Flett Press/Nottingham Trent University/Sheffield Hallam University), Chris Sharratt (a-n News), and the afore-mentioned Dickinson and Crilly.

“On Being Curious provides a rich snapshot of the contemporary art scene outside of London and from over a prolific 18 month period”

Each of the 25 successful applicants — who live in, work in or were born in Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside – was awarded a bursary of £300 to produce one short exhibition review (1000-1200 words) and one feature (2000-2500 words) about the North-West region; and, crucially, they were all partnered with a critical writing mentor and publishing platform to receive one-to-one guidance (including tackling challenges like fees, pitching, structuring and editorial back-and-forth throughout the writing process). The 25 writers were all published here on TDN, plus Art in Liverpool, Creative Tourist, a-n News, This is Tomorrow, Corridor8, Confront, Red Eye Photography Network and The Skinny.

The result? According to the writers, a very significant injection of skills development and ambition building. One, Sara Jaspan, said that the Critical Writing Bursary & Workshop Programme ”provided me with the confidence to pursue writing goals that I never thought I’d achieve. For example, when I first began writing for TDN I had only contributed to a few, regional titles. I now write for national titles including Art Monthly and a-n, and am pitching to internationals such as Frieze and Art Review.” Other writers have since achieved PhD places, jobs and associate artist roles at Liverpool Biennial, and are writing their own books — in addition to continuing to write, as freelancers, for those aforementioned national publications.

The effect was also one of active cultural tourism and profile-raising. Unique to the North-West region yet contributing to national and international debates around visual art, the award-winning artists, projects, exhibitions, art schools, agencies and artist-led venues that the writers chose to write about — including 30 years of CFCCA; upcoming young artists including Joe Fletcher Orr and Natalie Wardle; Turner Prize winners Assemble and the Granby Four Streets; Super Slow Way culture along the Leeds-Liverpool canal; trials and triumphs at The Royal Standard; and investigating what artists need at Islington Mill Art Academy – provides a rich snapshot of the contemporary art scene outside of London and from over a prolific 18 month period.

And so to On Being Curious: New Critical Writing on Contemporary Art From the North-West of England; which is essentially a condensed version of those stories. 10 new articles on contemporary art from 10 (of those 25) emerging writers, contributing to national and international debates around what it means to make powerful, arresting and effective arts practice. In the full spirit of accessibility and widening participation, the e-version is free to download (click here), and the print version will be gifted to public and university libraries across the North-West and the UK, including the British Library.

“It goes without saying that I feel really honoured to have been part of this book”

Some incredible people have been nice enough to say a few words about the book, including a-n’s Chris Sharratt, frieze magazine co-editor Jennifer Higgie, and Oliver Basciano, international editor at ArtReview. For me, Basciano sums On Being Curious up best: “This book provides 10 smacks in the face to the idea that art criticism is dead. Art needs to be interrogated, artists’ ideas stretched and pummelled, loved and lauded: the writers contained within these pages do all this and more, with verve and humour, hitting points and making targets with scary panache.”

It goes without saying that I feel really honoured to have been part of this book — as its editor and producer, as a collaborator within the wider CVAN NW Critical Writing Bursary & Workshop Programme, yet also as the co-founder of The Double Negative. I hope that we can continue to provide excellent editorial and publishing services in this vein, spreading the word about good writing, good artworks and good people, and working towards a model of print that respects, pays and supports the next generation of arts writers.


Read the book online:


Published by The Double Negative on behalf of Contemporary Visual Arts Network North-West (CVAN NW): a network creating opportunities for artists, organisations and professionals to develop their practice, share ideas, knowledge & resources, and cultivate relationships. 

Forward by Richard Smith and Introduction by Laura Robertson

Written by Liz Mitchell, Amelia Crouch, Katrina Houghton, Laura Harris, Jack Welsh, Sara Jaspan, Lara Eggleton, Lauren Velvick, C. James Fagan and Sue Flowers

One of the articles titled From Global Revolution to Creative Catalyst: 30 Years of CFCCA, written by Katrina Houghton, features CFCCA’s success in the past 30 years as an Manchester-based Chinese Contemporary Art organisation.


“This book provides 10 smacks in the face to the idea that art criticism is dead. Art needs to be interrogated, artists’ ideas stretched and pummelled, loved and lauded: the writers contained within these pages do all this and more,with verve and humour, hitting points and making targets with scary panache.”

[Oliver Basciano, editor (international), ArtReview]

“This is a book that encourages and celebrates new writing, contemporary art and curiosity, and as such, I applaud it.”

[Jennifer Higgie, writer, co-editor of frieze and editor of frieze masters magazine]

“On being Curious is a good title for this book. But while curiosity on the part of a writer is important, the curiosity of the reader is a writer’s best friend-good writing provokes that curiosity, it makes you want to read on, to know more. The confident, clearly expressed articles in this collection provide an insight into contemporary art in the North-West, while also charting the development of new writing talent as it finds its voice. I am curious to see what comes next.”

[Chris Sharratt, writer and editor]



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