It was a visit to an Artangel installation in Spring 1995 that inspired Harriet Loffler to study History of Art and later, curatorial practice. Staged in the former Alcan Foil Factory near Wembley stadium, the project, entitled Self Storage, was a collaboration between the experimental sound and performance artist Laurie Anderson and musician and scholar Brian Eno. “I think my parents were really good at choosing great things to take us to, and Artangel was often on their radar,” Harriet says. This particular installation used the storage units then occupying the factory to set up a series of rooms, each curated to tell the story of one person through found objects, works from collections, and sound. The experience moved Harriet to consider a whole other world created through art and ideas.
During her undergraduate studies at the University of Bristol she joined the peer group network Raw Canvas at Tate Modern. “The initiative was new at that time, and really quite experimental,” she says, “especially in terms of young people taking their peers around the artwork.” This direct, hands-on engagement with the Tate Modern collection took her studies in art history to a new level. After graduating, she worked at Frieze before gaining a place in the Curating Contemporary Art MA programme at the Royal College of Art. Harriet then went on to be Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, before her current appointment as Curator of the Women’s Art Collection at Murray Edwards College Cambridge.
The largest and most significant collection of its kind in Europe, the Women’s Art Collection holds over 600 works of modern and contemporary art by women, including works by Paula Rego, Barbara Hepworth, Faith Ringgold, Guerrilla Girls, Tracey Emin, and Cindy Sherman. Murray Edwards College, founded in 1954, is now one of only two colleges for women students in Cambridge. The art collection was established in 1986 and continues to evolve and develop, amplifying the creative voices and stories of its artists while inspiring curiosity and dialogue between those who study and live surrounded by the works. The permanent collection is on display throughout the college buildings and gardens, and is also featured in special exhibitions held in college and elsewhere.
The main college buildings were designed in 1964 by the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, perhaps most famous for designing the Barbican and Golden Lane Estates in London. There is a lyrical poeticism in the juxtaposition of the brutalist aesthetic of the building next to its surrounding wild garden spaces. There seems to be an invisible threshold between the interior and exterior spaces, a synergy brilliantly maintained by Harriet through her meticulous approach to display. Works of art hanging in corridors look out to the garden spaces, their corresponding colours and form creating something new and exciting depending on the season or time of day. Similarly the portraits hanging in the dining hall or works in the library and in the residential corridors are curated with the aim of supporting the social, emotional, and intellectual journey of the student.
Harriet nominates a work by British artist Rose Garrard entitled Madonna Cascade (1982) as her favourite work in the collection, which is part of a larger series Models Triptych. Garrard has appropriated a self-portrait by the Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster. The painting is framed by white plaster figurines of the Madonna and Child which start to break away from the painting, revealing a dramatic cascade of entwined figures that spill onto the floor. Harriet explains: “There is an aspect of the work, the way it is displayed, where you can see the brickwork of the college,” Harriet explains. “Here you can see the support, the building itself, which we hope provides a wider support structure for women artists and also the other women at Cambridge.”
Harriet is also interested in peripheries and what they enable us to consider: “When I look at this collection, I am interested in discovering stories about the Cambridge-based artists, to think about our regional context as well as acting as a broader platform.” The Modern and Contemporary network in Cambridge is expanding not only in terms of exhibition spaces and programming but importantly in research and dialogue. Harriet also supports the newly formed Cambridge Visual Culture (CVC) which brings together academics, artists, and practitioners, both local and from abroad, to advance the discourse on visual culture.
Harriet brings a wonderful collaborative approach to her work. She brings people and art together in a truly unique way. This is largely due to her breathtakingly deep knowledge of art, along with her knowledge of contemporary issues and her genuine enthusiasm and love of discovering something new. When discussing a publication by her colleague and friend Rebecca Birrell (This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century), she lights up. “Rebecca has the ability to deconstruct pictures in a way that she would a poem or a text. It makes you think so much more creatively about pictures and how to occupy them or view them.”
There is a tiny painting by British artist Dora Carrington mentioned in Rebecca’s book, Iris Tree on a Horse (c.1920s). It depicts a female figure riding a horse through a dark landscape. Harriet was delighted to find that she could include this work in an upcoming special exhibition she is curating; a collaboration between the Women’s Art Collection and The Lightbox Gallery and Museum Woking. The constellation of poetic connections continues to evolve in Harriet’s curatorial practice.
Interview by Olivia Meehan.
Captured in the photographs are the following works: Gillian Ayres Sun, Stars, Dawn, 1996; Suzanne Treister, Discover the Secrets of the Universe, 1991; Eileen Cooper, Another Step on the Ladder, 2022.
The Women’s Art Collection is open every day between 10am and 6pm and free to visit.