I sat down with the podcast host of Jo’s Art History, Jo McLaughlin, to discuss the future of the art world, her job as an artist liaison and curator for London’s Pangolin Sculpture Gallery, the ethical dilemmas the art world currently faces, our mutual love of Degas, and so much more.
Though she only just recently began the podcast, Jo’s status as a curator, artist liaison, and art historian have put her right in the crossroads of witnessing a lot of the art world in the past several years. It is that enthusiasm for art history and for introducing everyone to art that will draw you into the episodes.
From interviews with artists, one of whom is her very own illustrator sister, to interviews with bloggers and other podcast hosts, Jo’s Art History explores a new way of learning about art, a way that reflects the way we take in information in a technological society. In the conversational setting, Jo keeps it light and easy while discussing each guest’s interests. Her goal of “art for all,” is in line with DailyArt Magazine and we are excited to see how the relationship continues. Keep reading to learn more about Jo and a few highlights from our recent interview.
Tell us a little about yourself. Was there a specific moment, artist, or artwork that captivated you and had you thinking “That’s it…I want to be an art historian”? Has art always been a part of your life?
It’s a good question, but actually no, it’s really interesting. There’s three of us in the house, three daughters, and my one sister and I have always been really creative, but my mom and dad aren’t. They didn’t take us to museums. We had some art on the walls but it was never like, “Let’s be arty or let’s make things.”
My mom, when we were picking subjects in school (and it’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given) was, do something you love because you have to do it for a really long time, and you might as well enjoy it. I just picked the subjects I liked at school and then I kind of accidentally fell into art history. It’s just so brilliant how that happens, though.
Where I’m from in Scotland, you’re not taught art history in school. I just think that’s bonkers because it so beautifully ties in so many things. It wasn’t till quite recently when my sister and I were chatting about it and I’ve been a guest on the ministry of art podcast hosted by Gary Mansfield; and he was talking to me about growing up in the house and did I have this sort of creative environment. It wasn’t always that way. I’ve always been good with my imagination and I think art lends itself naturally to people who have a great imagination because you can look at something and it can take you in so many places. And it’s really exciting. It was a complete happy accident that I ended up studying art history.
I remember the first time I went to a museum that I can really really remember. I was about ten years old and its this amazing place in Glasgow called the Burrell collection. William Burrell was a collector of things. He has everything from Impressionist paintings to banquet halls. I remember when I was ten and walked into this old banquet hall and being like what is this place? This is amazing! Then you walked through a gallery of stuffed animals, and Chinese puzzle boxes, then Degas drawings and paintings… it was just mind boggling. It was a school trip and I had no idea it was a job you could work in those types of places. No one ever said growing up that I could be a writer, or an artist, or a curator. It is often seen as a joke subject. My mom asked me what I could do with an art history degree, and what people don’t realize is how much you can do with art history. There are endless possibilities to what you can do.
How’d you get started with your podcast?
For a little while, I’d been wrestling with doing my own thing and making my own mark in the art world. I love writing and researching, but one of the things I really love to do is talk. And more specifically, about art. And then we were put into lockdown and all of a sudden I had all the time in the world, I was suddenly put on furlough because the gallery wasn’t opened and essentially had three months off work. I could complete Netflix single-handedly or I do something. So, I started the blog to see if I enjoyed it and to get the ball rolling and loosen up a bit. Then it flowed into the podcast.
What is your go-to or comfort era of art history? (genre/theme, etc.)
There are loads of things I turn to but no matter what, no matter what example I see of his work, it’s Degas. Degas till the cows come home. It’s just so good. And Degas just nails color, for me, even in black and white.
But I also really love sculpture. Fun and colorful sculpture. An exhibition that blew my mind was an Alexander Calder exhibition at the Tate in London several years ago. I’d never seen an exhibition like it. He made tiny things that could fit in the palm of your hand and huge things that would fill a room and needed cranes to move them. I love the idea of balance and kinetic things.
I love Carl Plackman. He’s a conceptual artist, really under the radar. He was a cornerstone for artists like Damien Hirst. He said to them that there was really no right and wrong in art. If you want to make it, do it. I love him for that, his works on paper. You could lock me in a room and bury me under them. That’s my idea of a good night.
You are actively working in the art world, based in London. How do you feel that COVID and all of the shutdowns across the world have affected the art community? Do you feel that we are hindered by not being able to visit museums and tangibly see the art? During COVID, many museums have had to shut their doors but for the most part, they’ve maintained a steady presence online (social media, their websites, etc.). How do you feel that this has shaped the future of art history education overall?
What I’ve seen, community wise, is a huge pivot to everyone scrambling to get everything online. And all the institutions sort of ignored that till now, and now it’s been a mass scramble for them to digitize. Once things were lifted, people were so happy to interact with art again once the museums opened. It’s all I did when I could go out. It gives you something. When you’re a creative person, being around beautiful, interesting, unique things can take you to loads of places.
It is never the same. My sister said something in one of the podcast episodes: you can’t take away the experience of seeing the art work in real life. I think art is deceptive. You think it’s huge but then you see it in real life and think, ‘are you kidding?!’ Look at the Mona Lisa.
I think, as a way of learning, it’s always great to see these things. But there has to be councils and governments saying to these institutions and schools that these places (museums) are very important. I would be sad if everything flipped digitally. It’s kind of going that way and it gives kids something. But I’m on the fence about this. Part of me thinks that teenagers and kids have grown up around screens. So in order to reach the next generation, what’s the harm in reaching them on a platform that they relate with. Podcasts, blog posts, social media posts. If it reaches the next generation of art enthusiasts and encourages them to visit these places, where’s the harm? Social media and websites are a link to these things we want to see in person but aren’t able to. Digital is a great tool to introduce people to things.
What are some things you would want someone just beginning to dip their toes into the art world to know?
Don’t bog yourself down with dates. Dates can be so off-putting. And that you’re in for a real treat and art is so important because it influences everything. Let yourself fall down rabbit holes. Particularly, at the moment when we are all home and have all this time to spend online. Start by looking at some Impressionists but then be like ‘Ok, so who did the Impressionists influence?’ Before you know it, you have found these incredible things you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the industry.
For me, I found a lot of things in art history to be confusing. And then I did a little bit of traveling and that opened my eyes a little bit to who I was and when I experienced different things in life, I could return to paintings and be like, ‘oh, I totally understand that now.’ I would also say that art history falls into this sort of academic and stuffy niche. Something like the magazine is brilliant because it’s written in a very informal style and the app sends you different stuff everyday, it doesn’t bog you down. If the academic thing doesn’t light a fire under you, there’s nothing wrong with watching a couple of YouTube videos, you’re still learning. Not everyone thrives learning the same way. Talk to your friends about it. Even if you don’t know anything about art, everyone will have an opinion.
You’ve asked your guests this in the past, so I thought we’d ask you here, why (do you feel) is art important?
It’s a huge question, but it just encompasses and influences and records everything. It’s historical. Even the really old stuff, if you don’t think that’s important. There wasn’t a lot of money, so everything that is recorded meant something. It’s a window into someone’s soul and creativity. It’s something that was created hundreds of years ago and is still influencing modern day. It gives people purpose; it’s always giving. It’s always there. It’s always changing and going with the times. It can give you a really interesting pocket of time. It’s life. It’s everything.
I know that you are a “one-woman band;” and unlike over at DailyArt Mag where we have plenty of people and editors to bounce ideas off, you run the show seemingly by yourself. What’s your process for deciding topics?
It’s different for each platform but I do it very structured for the blog and Instagram. It’s my time to go down a rabbit hole. Rabbit holes are my guilty pleasure in the researching part. I think if one person finds it interesting, you’re going to attract your people. With the podcast, I always say to my guests, ‘the floor is yours.’ So I always ask them to send me images so we can narrow down the field of conversation. It’s more about what they are passionate about so they are great at picking the best bits from an artist, and then I research and it helps me narrow the field in that aspect. You can get so overwhelmed though.
I would say about 95% of the people I’ve had on the podcast, I’ve had no prior relationship with. If I like what you’re doing on Instagram, I’ll ping them a message and tell them I love what they are doing. It’s really interesting. I’m part of an online platform for side businesses and put out on the Facebook group that I was interested in talking to people and seeing what they had to say. And I’ve used ‘Curator Space in the UK’ and put up a post saying ‘Hey, this is the podcast. This is the idea. Is anyone interested in coming on? Send me your ideas.’ It’s a numbers thing. Not everyone will want to do it. Because it’s great for them as well so they can jump up and down and wave their flag for their niche of things.
I spoke with Jo for over an hour and we discussed more than what is written above. For the sake of brevity, I’ve included the highlights here and summarized it all. For more information, head over to her blog, podcast, or Instagram account. She is always ready for a fun conversation about whatever piece of art history that excites you!
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