SafARI is the ‘unofficial’ fringe exhibition that accompanies the Biennale of Sydney, showcasing emerging artists in multiple artist-run initiative spaces during the Biennale’s opening weeks. SafARI is intended to be co-curated, two curators – one incoming and one outgoing. With its unique co-curator model, Danielle Robson, one of the current co-curators, discusses the model’s ups and downs, and how it has impacted her learning.

Interview by Iris SiYi Shen

What role does an artist run initiative (ARI), such as SafARI play in the development of its collaborators?

I can really only answer this question based on my experience with SafARI. SafARI was ‘officially’ recognised as an artist run initiative in the lead up to the 2010 exhibition, although the model and intention behind the organisation has been largely the same since it began in 2004.

SafARI’s collaborators are emerging artists, emerging arts workers, other ARI’s, emerging designers and emerging curators. Essentially anyone who wants to get involved, in whatever capacity, can contribute and become a collaborator.

In this way, the role of SafARI is to provide a place for experimentation, professional development and to build and expand on professional networks. It also shines a light on the grass-roots of the arts world at a time when the global arts’ focus is on Sydney during the Biennale.

Explain how the SafARI’s co-curator model works?

Although SafARI was founded in 2004, the emerging co-curator model was first initiated in the lead up to SafARI 2010.

Founded by Lisa Corsi and Margaret Farmer as a vehicle for them to develop their own professional experience, SafARI was also developed in response to an identified need for other activity to take place in the city during the Biennale. They co-curated the inaugural SafARI exhibition held in 2006. The idea for the co-curator model was hatched by Lisa Corsi at some point between 2007 and 2009 and was formally introduced in 2009 with a call for submissions to co-curate SafARI 2010.

The co-curator model builds on Lisa and Margaret’s original intention for SafARI to be a platform for emerging arts professionals to get a start. Having achieved that for their own careers, the doors have now been opened for up coming arts professionals to grow and learn through their experience and involvement with SafARI.

I came on board as the first incoming emerging curator working with Lisa Corsi to co-curate SafARI 2010. Lisa has since stepped down from a curatorial role on SafARI and Presides the SafARI board. Late last year we put out a call for co-curator applications and Nina Stromqvist was selected as the new incoming emerging co-curator to work with me on planning and delivering SafARI 2012. After 2012, I will step down and another call for co-curator submissions will be put out to find a new person to work with Nina on SafARI 2014 – and so on and so forth.

The beauty of the model is that a level of organisational memory remains intact, as one half of the curatorial team carries the experience and lessons learnt from the previous SafARI. Yet each new co-curator brings new ideas and energy to the collaborative mix. In this way, SafARI remains fresh, current and adheres to the spirit of experimentation that is at the heart of SafARI.

Co-curators can come from anywhere in Australia, provided they are willing to be in Sydney at certain critical points to make it workable – particularly the last few months. And while situations can understandably change over the course of four years, in accepting the role of SafARI co-curator there is an expectation; a hope that an individual commits to the role for two rounds of SafARI.

What challenges have you faced in your role?

I think the challenges I experienced as co-curator are common to many people working in the arts: limited time, budgets and resources combined with big ideas and aspirations. SafARI is not my day job, nor is it the day job of anyone else involved – i.e. the SafARI Board, the artists, designers, arts workers, or people involved with the ARIs. SafARI is what everyone fits into their spare time around all their other work/life commitments. In the face of minimal time, I just did what I could, where I could, to make sure things happened. For example, I drew up floor plans in my diary on the bus on the way to and from work. I also remember tapping out email responses on my iPhone to an interview that had a tight deadline whilst sitting in my graduation ceremony.

How does it compare to other learning models you have experienced to date?

There are lots of excellent opportunities out there for motivated emerging artists, curators and arts workers to gain valuable learning experiences. I think what makes this model unique is the incoming/outgoing collaboration that happens each year between two appointed co-curators – two individuals who have more than likely never worked together or even met before.

It enables shared learning, insight through different points of view and forces a negotiation of working with someone else to jointly deliver a project you are both proud of.

I cannot compare the SafARI co-curator mentorship to a similar learning experience I have had myself, but I can attest to what a remarkable and invaluable experience it has been. Its existence is a wonderful legacy for Lisa Corsi to have left to SafARI.

Organisations that support learning in the arts can be found below: