You Should Know Her

You Should Know Her: Helen Nisbet

June 23, 2017
Helen Nisbet
Meet Helen Nisbet: contemporary art curator, London-dwelling Shetlander and creator of Shetland Nights in London. 

Why You Should Know Her

Originally from Yell, Shetland’s 2nd largest island (population approx. 966) Helen works as a contemporary art curator at London’s Cubitt gallery, a space created by artists for artists 25 years ago.
She is also the founder of Shetland Nights in London – get togethers featuring the best of Shetland, served up in the city: think drams, dancing, and delicious Shetland fare cooked by top chefs.
Her second exhibition for Cubitt, a solo show Mark Leckey: Affect Bridge Age Regression, opens to the public today, and runs until the 30th July.


Mark Leckey

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

I’m from Cullivoe, [Yell, Shetland] and I now live in Hackney, East London.

Can you tell me a bit about what you do?

I am a contemporary art curator  – currently at a small, artist run gallery called Cubitt.

Did you always want to work in art?

No. I wasn’t properly aware what working in art meant until quite a while after leaving University.  

You studied History of Art at Glasgow University. Was working as a curator always your plan, or was it a more organic process?

It was more clumsy than organic. I went to Glasgow University to study Politics and English, but luckily Scottish Universities enable you to choose 3 subjects. My third was History of Art, something I knew very little about at the time.  

Studying art history was revelatory, and turned out to be life changing. But it wasn’t an easy transition from graduating to doing what I do now. I was trained in art history, and a very thin slice of art history at that, so getting into contemporary art took a lot of sussing things out. This is particularly complicated when you don’t have familial connections in the art world.

What was your first art job?

It was in environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s studio. My dissertation supervisor Dr.Tina Fiske was leading the creation of a digital archive of his ephemeral work (much of his work only exists for long enough to photograph it before a weather change takes it away) and I was lucky enough to work as an assistant on that project as well as sometimes helping Andy make new work (which once involved getting an electric shock and pretending I hadn’t to save face).

Working in art in London is a world away from island life in Shetland. Was there anyone around you when you grew up that worked in art, or was creative or inspired you in any way to work in the arts?

That’s a good question. I think it’s only in looking back that you realise how much people you meet along the way inspire what you do. There was an arty primary teacher called Eileen with a bow in her hair, the artist Adam Robson who would come to Cullivoe a few times each year, teachers at the Anderson High School who could see abilities in me that I wasn’t able to see and people who encouraged me to continue my education.  

The most important thing was the confidence that came from learning: getting interested in politics, music, books, films, cultural theory, philosophy, history… these things were the catalyst for everything that has happened since.  

Heen N Orkney Do you like to make art yourself?

Seeing how much time and commitment it takes artists to make good work and be able to scrape out a living from what they do, I tend to steer clear.


But I do have a friend who likes to facilitate communal games of Watercolour Challenge when we go on trips. I recently came third in a drawing competition with two others in Blaneau Ffestiniog.

You’ve recently been appointed curatorial fellow at Cubitt Gallery.  Can you tell me a bit about what your job there involves?

Cubitt is a gallery in London, set up 25 years ago by a group of artists. It is still run by artists and has 31 studios and a very good education programme as well as the gallery space. Each 18 months they bring in a new curator to programme the space. It is a unique opportunity; allowing freedom and a place to conduct research and experimentation. People who have done the fellowship in the past have gone on to run galleries in London, New York and elsewhere in Europe.


You have also worked a lot in public art commissioning and social practice. Is art with a social and political focus important to you? Why is that?

I’ve been interested in politics for a long time. For me this is more closely aligned to everyday life and action, rather than theory and academia. Because of this I’m interested in art that happens outside of traditional gallery spaces. This might be because I didn’t go to galleries when I was young, so I know how hard to penetrate they can feel, how few people really go to them.

I care a lot about representation, which feels like both a social and political issue. The history of art I was taught was a very male, white and western art history, often about people who had been born into money and who had access to cultural life. I’m more interested in what happens when we support “other” people to have a cultural life or to be artists themselves.

That said, I don’t think art should have to be political, or useful. It’s just that those are the things I’m thinking about when I’m working with artists on projects.

Is there equality in the art world, for women and minorities? Are these issues you come across?

The problems evident across the world are definitely mirrored in the art world. Curating is a woman rich industry, but most directors of institutions are men.

The focus of big exhibitions, artists doing well and making money from their work are still predominantly white men. It’s crazy. It is important for me to address this in the work that I do, but I also think it’s something that will be hard to change without big social and political change across the world, and of course this all starts very early in a person’s life with who has access to education and opportunities. We could talk about this for a long time.

What do you love most about what you do, and what do you find most challenging?

I love working with people whether supporting artists to develop ideas or making connections between people, locally, nationally and internationally. I prefer to work with a spirit of camaraderie and solidarity – we all work best when supporting each other.

The most challenging thing is lack of money both personally (it’s a fairly poorly paid industry) and institutionally, especially under increasing budget cuts to the arts.

What does art mean to you?

I guess one way for me to answer this is to frame it slightly differently – “what does contemporary art mean to you”? Figuring out what constitutes ‘contemporary art’ is something me and my sister in law talk about a lot. The term “contemporary art” arose in the 20th century to describe art that is made in and of the specific time it comes from. This might mean art that responds to or looks at the Internet, or northern soul dancing, language, form or Brexit. Sometimes it can just be a means of figuring something out without necessarily using words. Artists ponder the same questions we all do – questions of science, community, mental health, social media, gender…

Art for me isn’t necessarily something pretty to hang on the wall or a literal representation of the world we see, what’s difficult is helping give people the confidence to look at art without feeling they need to explain what they’re experiencing.

Art for me isn’t necessarily something pretty to hang on the wall or a literal representation of the world we see, what’s difficult is helping give people the confidence to look at art without feeling they need to explain what they’re experiencing.

Mark Leckey Cubitt

Who are some artists that you’re excited or moved by at the moment?

I’m generally most into artists I’m working with or have worked with in the past, like Bedwyr Williams, Mark Leckey, Hannah Black, Heather Phillipson.

Artists I really like but who I haven’t worked with yet including Scottish artist Charlotte Prodger and US conceptual artist Adrian Piper.

You’re founder of Shetland Nights in London, which have been really successful. Are you surprised at how Londoners have taken Shetland into their hearts? Why might that be? Do you have any plans for more.

Shetland Nights are one of my favourite things I’ve done! People who have attended include Shetlanders, Shetland fans and folk who would find it hard to place Shetland on a map (and those who wore tartan!) I think people are fascinated by the idea of an island in the middle of the North Sea and people hanker for something that feels like it comes from a community. The nights are inter-generational, people who attend meet and have dinner next to folk they’ve never met before. I’m sure the very good music and food don’t hurt either.

I am planning the next night now – I’ll have more details on this soon.

What does an average day look like (if there is one)?

If it’s a week day I get up around 7.30, shower, make porridge whilst getting dressed and generally start the day slowly. I’ve been trying to not look at my phone or emails till after breakfast, but it’s hard. My commute takes just under an hour, so from around 10 will either be in the office at Cubitt, or doing studio visits with artists and curators. I’m trying to give myself a couple of nights at home each week in order to have some peace and to read more, but quite often after work I’ll go to a talk, private view or have dinner with friends.

Weekends are increasingly home-based. I’m trying not to spend money, I’m tired from the week and winter seems to have been going on forever. I fairly recently moved into a new flat and I’m enjoying filling it with cheap flowers, cooking and reading a lot. In between all this chilling I like to see as much of my friends as possible, usually with food and a dram.

What woman/women inspire you?

I’m not a big fan of heroes/heroines. So I’ll say family and friends – my grannies, my aunties, my mam, my sister in law, cousins, friends in Shetland, friends in Scotland, friends in London, friends across the world.

And Angela Davis.


This post is part of a longer interview for a piece for Shetland News, which you can read here. 

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