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In Conversation With…Sarah Howgate, Senior Curator of Contemporary Collections at the National Portrait Gallery

March 2024

Sarah Howgate is Supporting Curator of exhibition ‘The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure’

I grew up in an artistic household: my father was an artist, and my mother was a writer.” Sarah Howgate, Supporting Curator of the current exhibition The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure, followed in her parents’ footsteps into the creative arts. After school, she did a Fine Art Foundation Course at Wakefield College of Art, where she practiced painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. She then studied English Literature and History of Art at Downing College, Cambridge University.

Sarah started her career at the intersection of the visual and commercial worlds. She first worked in advertising as a copywriter, creating commercial and press campaigns for several London advertising agencies. After four years, she took her experience to Vanessa Devereux Gallery, in Notting Hill Gate, and then on to Angela Flowers Gallery, where she managed artists’ careers and produced exhibition catalogues. In 1998 she moved to California to launch the West Coast branch of Angela Flowers Gallery in Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

She made the move into the museum world and joined the National Portrait Gallery in 2001. Sarah has curated ground-breaking exhibitions including David Hockney: Drawing from Life in 2020 and 2023-4, and Lucian Freud Portraits in 2012. She has also been responsible for taking the lead on the re-display and interpretation of the contemporary collection, the recent major 3-year renovation project: “We took down the entire collection; it was reinterpreted and redisplayed from top to bottom. The contemporary collection is now on display in two locations in the museum. In the ‘History Makers’ display on the ground floor you’ll find a range of sitters from well-known faces to unsung heroes. In the Weston Wing, former offices have been transformed into a suite of stunning top-lit spaces displaying highlights of the contemporary collection and an intriguing cross collection display of life and death masks.

More recently, she was the supporting curator on The Time is Always Now working with ‘cultural polymath’ Ekow Eshun. It was Ekow who approached the Gallery five years ago with the idea for the exhibition: At the time, it was the first major museum exhibition in this country to be centred around Black figuration and we were blown away by the idea. Due to the pandemic and the Gallery’s major redevelopment, however, it was a slow genesis, but it’s been inspiring to realise Ekow’s thesis.” On the theme of the exhibition, she notes: “The title comes from a line in James Baldwin’s essay ‘Notes of a Native Son’ regarding segregation in the States in the 1960s, and the urgency of this cultural moment. It’s a celebration of Black figuration and represents its flourishing.” The show displays a collection of contemporary paintings, works on paper, and two sculptures by 22 different artists from 2000 onwards including Michael Armitage, Noah Davis, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, and Barbara Walker.

Sarah further explains: “The exhibition isn’t a blanket survey of Black figuration but an exploration of some of the questions and themes in current artistic practice. Through their working figuration these artists are inviting a shift in the dominant art historical perspective, from ‘looking at’ the Black figure to ‘seeing through’ the eyes of Black artists and the figures they depict”. The show is divided into three categories Double Consciousness, Persistence of History, and Kinship and Connection, which address the themes of race, identity, and the role of the Black figure in the Western Art History canon.

Of the 57 works, one of Sarah’s favourites is a sculpture made by Thomas J. Price especially for the exhibition: “It stands 9 feet tall and is 3D printed, and not as heavy as it looks! It’s a sculpture of a tall black woman, very classically presented but dressed in sports clothes. She’s an anonymous subject; her physic is a hybrid of different people observed by the artist in real life and on social media. Price is questioning the idea of who gets to be memorialized.”

Sarah’s responsibilities keep her very busy. Her role is diverse; alongside curating exhibitions and displays, she oversees the museum’s commissions and contemporary acquisitions. For exhibitions, “it’s a complex jigsaw puzzle bringing to life an exhibition concept and negotiating loans but it’s thrilling when the works, gathered from all over the world, come out of their crates and transform the Gallery walls.

HFF supported The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure exhibition as part of a £100,000 grant to the National Portrait Gallery. It will be running until 19th May 2024. The exhibition will be traveling to The Box in Plymouth over the summer and to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in autumn and then the Museum of North Carolina in Raleigh in spring 2025.