Charlotte Mullins is an art critic and historian. She is currently appearing in BBC2's Show Me the Monet, and has previously worked for the Independent on Sunday, Art Review and tate: the art magazine. Here, she talks about her route into arts journalism...
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Charlotte Mullins, 40, art historian, critic and broadcaster. I have written 10 books on visual art and culture, including Painting People (Thames & Hudson) and a Rachel Whiteread monograph (Tate Publishing). I’m currently working on the follow-up to Painting People and am the new editor of Art Quarterly, the Art Fund magazine. I am also a judge on BBC2’s Show Me the Monet, an open submission opportunity for artists both professional and amateur to have their work considered for inclusion in an exclusive London exhibition.
Please give us an overview of your average day.
There is no such thing as an average day writing about visual art – every day you are challenged, excited, thrilled and sometimes flummoxed by the artworks you see. Judging Show Me the Monet for BBC2 presented me with the widest range of contemporary art possible, and offered me the opportunity to really consider each piece I saw. I was also able to meet each artist, which is highly unusual when you judge a visual art prize.
We started before 8am each day we were filming and at times finished after 11pm, but despite the long days I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to see such interesting artworks and meet some real art stars of the future.
This summer I am taking over as editor of the Art Fund magazine Art Quarterly so my working pattern will change again, but looking at art is always at the heart of my day, and I am very fortunate to be able to say that.
What is the most common misconception about your job?
Some people believe that art is elitist, and that the people who talk about and write about art are in some kind of inward-looking club, using language that the wider public can’t understand. But there are many great writers out there commenting on art and opening it up for as broad an audience as possible. I hope I am one of these people – certainly I believe great art can touch everybody, and everybody should be offered opportunities to experience it for themselves.
What is the hardest thing about your role?
Despite having a heavy work-load I do find it hard to say no to good writing opportunities – the chance to interview a great artist for example, or to write about a subject I am passionate about. My family can attest to my lack of discipline in this area! There is also an inherent sense of failure in being an art critic in London – it is impossible to see every exhibition that opens and you always feel you could have missed out on seeing something or someone brilliant.
When did you decide what you wanted to do with your life and how did you set out to achieve it?
I chose to study art history at university and was fortunate to be accepted to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art, arguably the best place to study the subject in Europe. The three years I spent there were so important to both my education and to getting my first pieces of work as a writer and editor. I also edited my school magazine, my university magazine and a post-graduate magazine, which was a great foundation on which to build when I started looking for work after my Master’s degree.
What can you do to get a head start?
Get the best education you can, and don’t stop learning (I’m currently finishing a PhD). And try and get as much experience in the area you want to go into before you start applying for work. My first job was as an Editorial Assistant on tate: the art magazine and I worked on it during my Master’s, practically for free. But it gave me vital work experience and soon I had a freelance job on the magazine and later became Assistant Editor and then Deputy Editor. Work experience is your foot in the door. Experience at school or university level gets the door to work experience opening in the first place.
Could you describe the creative element to your job?
Everything I do – as an editor, broadcaster, art historian and critic – is grounded in looking at art. Despite looking at the creative work of others, as a writer you then have to be creative yourself in how you choose to approach the material you have seen, what angle you want to concentrate on and what you want to bring out in the artwork. You need to write in language appropriate for your intended audience and there is something both creative and frustrating about wrangling over which words to choose to describe the things you have seen.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known at the start of your career that you know now?
That a career in the arts, perhaps in any industry now, is not a one-way walk down a straight path to glory. Things happen that you might not expect but often these offer you brilliant opportunities and everything you experience will feed back into your career in some way.
Which organisations/websites/resources do you think would be useful for people entering your industry?
The art world is a behemoth and it depends on which aspect of it you want to enter (museums, contemporary, public sector etc) as to how you should approach it. If you want to be a writer or editor you must see as many shows as you can, consider what you think of them and write, write, write.
I got my work experience on tate: the art magazine by asking the editor after a lecture he gave; I got a job at the Independent on Sunday as deputy arts editor by cold-calling a CV I had designed along the lines of a newspaper front page (this makes me cringe now, but it did make my CV stand out at the time!). Other jobs I have had – Editor of Art Review, Editor of Art Quarterly – I applied for in the regular way through adverts in the Media section of the Guardian (now online). This is a good place to start but everyone in the arts looks for jobs in it so be prepared to really battle for the job you want.
Show Me the Monet starts on today, Monday 9 July, at 3pm on BBC2 and will go out every day for three weeks in that slot.
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