| Interview by Geordie Groenhuysen | Août 2020 |
Christine Lalumia is a curator, gallery owner, and lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art–London.
Video : Sotheby’s Institute of Art, 2015
Geordie Groenhuysen: At what age did you first take an interest in the arts?
Christine Lalumia: My mother was an artist. Art and making things was a part of daily life. I was so lucky in that, as a child and teenager, my siblings and I were constantly taken to exhibitions and to see art and there was always a creative project on the go in our house usually in the basement, which was my mother’s creative lair. It was quite magical. My mother was always working with papier maché and clay, or making delicious pies, sculptures from driftwood and wild flower arrangements. I think this gave me an interest in mixing up materials in unexpected ways.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up just outside of New York City.
So tell me a little bit about your childhood and if that influenced what you do now in any way?
I had a childhood rich in books, movies, music and all sorts of creative activities. I had a balance of city and country, which has left me with an affection for and appreciation of life in both.
Where are your parents from? Tell us a little bit about your family.
My mother was born in Canada and was of English and Irish descent. My father was a Connecticut ‘Yankee’ as we used to say. They met in Manhattan in the late 195O0s when he was building a career in business and my mother was working as an interior designer, having graduated from Parsons School of Art a few years earlier. My parents both absolutely loved New York City but in very different ways – so our family life encompassed both museums and Broadway and also the Mets and Shea Stadium and discussions about where to find the best cheesecake in the city. In retrospect, I can see that we really made the most of New York and all her gloriousness.
I understand you have degrees in Modernism, Gardens, Ceramics and Furniture. If I were to ask you, ‘what do you do?’, How would you best respond?
I have focused on Modernism – or various modernisms – for a large part of my career – I find its beginnings in the early 20th century utterly fascinating. I also have an abiding interest in the interplay between art and gardens and a huge passion for ceramics.
What was it like growing up in New York City in the 80s?
I lived in New York City as a young woman in the years following my graduation from university. I loved every minute. It was absolutely wonderful. I walked everywhere – from the top to the bottom of the island. I explored and saw so much and learned so much. The city was rough and tough and certainly edgy in those days but surprisingly it felt like quite a small and intimate place in a Zelig-like way. I somehow met a ridiculous number of fascinating people – Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol to name two. Thrilling! It was a fantastic place to be young and beginning one’s adult life.
Did you always have your mind set on Modernism as a career goal? Tell us about your career path as a young women and how it all started for you?
Until I got to university I thought that I would be a writer. This was my long-held dream. Then in my first year of university I took an introduction to History of Art course and I guess I just got hooked. Having said that I never ever thought that I would end up working in the arts for almost forty years. I didn’t know how to even begin thinking about that or moving toward that. Not a clue about how to go forward. But I just kept working and tried to make the most of every job, every opportunity. And somehow I have ended up working in a lot of interesting and special places. And through that have worked with some fascinating people with hugely diverse interests, skills and outlooks. I feel privileged about that.
What was the reason you chose to come to London?
Marriage! And I had been a student at University College London in the late 70s/early 1980s and had fallen in love with London then.
How long have you been living in this beautiful city?
I’ve been living in London on and off since 1980; permanently since 1988: always in North London. I absolutely consider myself to be a Londoner. Although I miss New York dreadfully, both are wonderful but so very different.
You’ve worked for Sothebys and The Geffrye. Can you briefly tell us about your time spent at these two iconic establishments?
I worked at the Geffrye Museum in Hackney for twenty-one years. It was a formative experience and a great privilege. I loved the way in which the collections of fine and decorative arts sat so harmoniously together. The cultural context of when and how and why an object was created was always fore-grounded and I found this very satisfying. And it was then an intimate quirky place. At Sotheby’s Institution of Art I have lectured and been a tutor on two different Master’s programs on which I concentrated on 20th and 21st Century design history. Teaching is wonderful – you learn so much from the students! My natural instinct is to communicate about art and design – I love it when I can see someone clicking with a subject, becoming engaged, wanting to learn more.
Why the Contemporary Applied Art Gallery?
I love contemporary objects whatever the label be it art, craft or design. It doesn’t matter. If it is well made or intriguing or beautiful then I’m interested. I have undying respect for people who can actually make things well. People with real practical skills fill me with me with awe, almost ridiculously so . . . perhaps because the only really practical skills I have are cooking and gardening! And I admire the dedication that true artists and craftspeople have to their material or discipline.
Making objects by hand in such a commercial and also increasingly digital society as ours is today is not easy, financially or otherwise. CAA’s sole mission is to celebrate making and makers. I love that we have such a clear focus on this. The sense of purpose is invigorating. CAA is a charity, set up to advocate for the crafts and to promote great design. We have a relevant cultural and educational role to play.
I hear you also lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum. What do you lecture about there and is there something special about the CAA that not many people know?
I have been lecturing at the V&A for many years and am now a part-time Course Leader, meaning that I think up ideas for courses for adults and I lecture and teach. Mostly the focus is on the 20th Century, sometimes moving into the contemporary period. My ‘specialism’, so to speak, is in weaving together ideas about the fine and decorative arts, by examining them in their social and cultural context and then making connections. I love making connections.
Rumor has it that you’re a brilliant public speaker, demanding gentle attention and public interest whatever the subject. What subject could you talk about for hours and why?
There are some subjects that completely fascinate me. For instance, the origins of the Modern Period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, post war studio ceramics and recently the Bauhaus. Art and gardens . . . gardens that are works of art . . . I could go on!
Is there something in your personal world that is magic to you?
I love the accidental meeting of a person with an object . . . those moments when someone sees something that they weren’t expecting to find . . . or like . . . and they fall in love. The idea of an intriguing or fascinating object giving someone pleasure for years is something I find immediately satisfying. And I love it when people come to CAA, for instance, and take time and care with a purchase. Buy less, buy better. That should be the universal mantra. And CAA delivers in that way which I love and I’m proud of. All the objects in the gallery are imbued with skill and the artistic choices and individual vision of the maker. There is meaning here. It inspires wonder, really.