In the latest edition of our QTalks series, Qubit gave Sarah Hardy - Curator and Manager of the De Morgan Foundation - a warm welcome to the London HQ. Sarah generously shared with us some incredible stories along the way to finding herself in her leading role at the forefront of a culturally significant art foundation.
As in other highly competitive, specialized industries, “getting to the top in the arts was not an easy ride” for Sarah - in some ways, literally. From sitting on a truck on a three-day road trip to Budapest with only an £80 million Rembrandt painting for company to bagging a Divination room armchair from the British Library's smash-hit Harry Potter exhibition, Sarah’s career has never been dull.
Art curation and management
Sarah’s career began at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in Lancashire, which she thought was “the best place in the whole world”. So much so that she started a campaign in 2014 to save it, when the building was on the verge of permanent closure. With the support of over 10,000 signatories and Sarah’s determination, the museum is open and continues to thrive.
From there, she began a momentous weekly commute between London and Manchester, where she was simultaneously completing her master’s degree and working for the National Gallery: “I was desperate to move down to London, so I was only halfway through writing through my master’s thesis when I started working at the National Gallery. I would travel back to Manchester every weekend to complete my dissertation!”
A lesser-known area of art curation and museum management is the transportation of artworks between exhibitions.
One of the first exhibitions Sarah helped with at the National Gallery involved shipping Van Gogh's Sunflowers from Amsterdam to reunite it with its counterpart in London.
To put the cultural and financial risk of this in context, Sarah shared with us that “The UK Government underwrites the risk of borrowing of paintings up to a certain value, which saves galleries a fortune when putting on exhibitions. This piece, however, was worth over £120 million, so we had the fun task of meeting the art council to get the threshold changed. Otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to borrow it.”
This wasn’t the only time Sarah had to accompany valuable art from A to B: “For a Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery, I had to sit in a truck with a painting for three days as we drove it to Budapest!”
Next time you go to an exhibition and see a piece that has been borrowed from an international museum, it is more than likely that someone like Sarah has gone through a pretty arduous journey to get it there.
The wand-erful world of witchcraft at the British Library
Sarah then worked at the British Library, where she was deeply involved in organizing the Harry Potter exhibition. This presented a whole new set of challenges, including selecting and curating ‘interesting’ pieces of work to fit in with the theme of witchcraft and Harry Potter props.
“We received an exploded cauldron that was actually full of live beetles, which ended up going into quarantine. We also got sent some wizard’s ‘gardening tools’ that were actually animal bones - it was a nightmare to get installed.”
“My final hurrah at this exhibition, though, was managing to procure a pink chair from the original Harry Potter ‘divination room’. It was worth over £1000 and I got it for around £8!”
Working on this project was a pretty big career highlight. She not only had the joyful privilege of reading original Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban manuscripts, but also the unexpected pleasure of meeting JK Rowling during an inventory check.
The De Morgan Foundation
Sarah now works for the De Morgan Foundation; an independent charity for which she has sole responsibility, working closely with seven supportive trustees.
The De Morgan foundation manages the world’s largest collection of artwork by William and Evelyn De Morgan. Established in 1967, it oversees and maintains a 56 painting, 600 ceramic piece collection spread across three main sites in the UK.
Expand your artistic horizons
Sarah said that if she could leave us with only one takeaway from her talk, it would be, “Please visit museums!”
When asked about places to visit in London, she recommended the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, and Leighton House in Holland Park.
“Also, Two Temple Place was the estate offices of William Waldorf Astor and he made the place to his own personal specifications; they've got amazing wood paneled rooms and marble floors, so it's definitely worth seeing”
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