Career Profile:

Jonathan P. Watts
Writer, Curator and Lecturer

Born in Great Yarmouth in 1986, Jonathan is a writer, editor and occasional curator who lives and works in Norwich. In 2018/19, for one year, Jonathan ran LOWER.GREEN, an art gallery in Norwich. In Norwich he programmes ‘Of&By’, a series of artist talks and lectures at The Assembly House. 

Jonathan is a lecturer on art history and critical writing at Nottingham Trent School of Art and Design and at The Royal College of Art, London. 

As a self-employed writer he is a regular contributor to Art Monthly, Frieze and Artforum. He has written for Tate Etc magazine, FlashArt, the TLS and Blueprint, among other publications. In the past few months he has written exhibition texts for contemporary artists such as Adam Linder, Kira Freije and Maki Suzuki.  

‘The Annotated Reader’, an exhibition Jonathan co-curated with the artist Ryan Gander is – or was, before lockdown – touring the world. Jonathan is a recent recipient of the Joanna Drew Travel Bursary, a legacy left by the former Hayward Director to enable artists and writers to travel for research.

Could you talk a little bit about your career path from secondary school to where you are today?

High school? My path from high school to where I am today is circuitous. I’ve been lost many times on the way. One of the most significant moments was when my English Literature teacher – I don’t remember her name; she taught my sister too – asked me in the final year whether I intended to be an idiot all my life. 

Prior to that, in year 10, I did work experience in a nearby industrial estate learning about oil rig derricks. Learning? On the first day they put me in a room of computers with other office workers who completely ignored me. I remained there a week, during which time I learnt how difficult it is to appear busy. The second week was a little better: I learnt to weld out in the yard. 

My dad had been in the army and everyone else in my family were nurses. I assumed I would do one of those things. That English teacher encouraged me to do my A-levels instead of going to the technical training college. This was about keeping my options open. At sixth form college – East Norfolk Sixth Form College in Great Yarmouth – I had active, caring, politically-engaged art, literature and photography tutors. Students came from a large catchment area which meant that for the first time I met people from quite different backgrounds to my own. Some had hippy-artist parents. On Wednesdays we did elective subjects like poetry and art history. 

Martin Pigott, my Photography tutor, was the second of several people in my life – outside of my family – to have had a formative interventionist influence on me. At lunchtime Martin screened French New Wave cinema in the mobile classroom. Regularly took us to London. Lent us books. His background was in social documentary photography and community-based skills sharing. We’re still close. He and his partner Katie retired to a town in rural Wales where people are leaning on him to become the mayor. 

Martin was politically anti-London and steered his students to other cities. I passively went to Nottingham to study Photography (my decision was partly based on the DIY music scene there; in retrospect if I’d known more about art history I might have pursued that). Within the first six months I bumped into a tutor at a Bob Dylan concert who subsequently asked me to assist him with sound recordings of contemporary and avant-garde music. David Reid and his wife, Julia, became surrogate parents. They talked to me about literature, film, psychology, music and politics. Fed me exotic things like olives. Changed my life again. Because of friendships with East Norfolk students across different year groups, coordinated by Martin, and my passion for music I mixed widely in the city’s DIY art and music scene. I’m still friends with many people I met in Nottingham – brilliant artists, writers, curators, musicians, playwrights, etc. 

Then, with nine months of my degree to go, I had a dreadful realisation that all this would not last. I fancied myself as an art photographer, and I wrote too. But I had no intention of working in the photography industry; I did not expect for a second anyone would pay me to write. I did not know how to become an artist. But I also had such optimism, curiosity and motivation. In the final month a tutor told me: ‘If it is important you will find a way to keep doing it.’ I was unable to see how or where I would use WJT Mitchell out in the working world. 

After graduating I moved in with a couple – a dance and performance curator and a self-employed bricoleur – from who I learnt that basically 40% of a creative life was administration. They taught me how to invoice, where to look for opportunities, collaboration, how to make opportunities, as well as employing me to write short essays for projects etc. They taught me that life goes on. That you have to earn money from whatever means, including signing on, alongside doing the creative work. The transition from undergraduate to working life was, in retrospect, difficult – at times I was quite depressed. Undergraduate art education was nothing in the larger scheme: more formative professional and personal growth happened in the couple of years after with friends and peers. 

Eventually I moved back to Great Yarmouth to live with my parents. Before enrolling on a course at the Royal College of Art called Critical Writing in Art and Design, I did groundwork in off-season holiday camps, worked at Children’s Services at the council and then taught at my old sixth form.  

When I began at the Royal College of Art it had been four years since I graduated. I had stopped making art, but continued writing, ran a small publishing initiative, was on the committee at OUTPOST, a contemporary art gallery in Norwich, engaged in some exciting collaborative projects, and, as I mentioned previously, was teaching art in my old sixth form college part time. Things were stable. I quit teaching and moved to London to attend the RCA, but was determined to sustain working relationships alongside study so that when I graduated I could just continue. The memory of graduating the first time lingered.

Somehow I’ve always met mentors and friends along the way who have transformed my life. I don’t know how to explain this except that I’m curious, open, interested and available. I think there’s a way of being where you open yourself to these encounters. 

Soon after I began at the RCA I met a painter who employed me as her assistant. She is Viennese Jewish. She studied at the Slade in the late ‘50s. To characterise, from her I learnt about late nineteenth/early twentieth century central European culture. 

In my second year at the RCA I took over a shortcourse in art and politics that the artist Dean Kenning ran at Central St. Martins. Dean objected to what he considered to be the increasing commodification of education so posted the job on Facebook asking whether anyone wanted it! I had done the course two years earlier so knew the content. I enquired whether he thought I would be able to do it, to which he just said, ‘yeah, you’ll be fine’. In the end I taught the course collaboratively with Deidre Daly, a freelance lecturer. When I met Dean to get the course notes they were a series of incomprehensible scribbles on a swatch of tatty paper. Deidre and I decided to rewrite our respective parts of the course, which became a much bigger job. While studying at the time, and with limited teaching experience, this was a risky but invaluable experience. I taught an art history course the summer I graduated. Teaching is a great opportunity to learn yourself, make connections, and form opinions. 

I also worked as an editor to a freelance curator, who I met at a John Cage concert. I’ve also done ghost writing for curators you’ve probably heard of. The short of it is that I needed to earn money to live. Somehow the jobs I got were related to art. These jobs did, and continue to, influence my experiences in complex and unfolding ways.

In addition to the hustle of freelance writing, teaching and organising exhibitions, I did do an editorial traineeship at Frieze magazine. I applied and interviewed and was offered the six-month post. I often worked in isolation but to be part of a highly intelligent, plugged in office was a valuable experience. I met some wonderful people who I still collaborate with today. 

I left London after a decade. Shortly after moving to Norwich I opened a gallery called LOWER.GREEN with my friend Henry Jackson Newcomb. Using a ‘meanwhile’ space in a shopping square earmarked for demolition, we programmed eight exhibitions (including a residency in the gallery) alongside public events, such as performances, exhibition tours and talks. Two of these exhibitions featured artists who worked and lived in Holland – an acknowledgement of Norwich’s history as a refuge for Dutch Protestants and a reaching towards Europe in our divided times. 

For each exhibition at LOWER.GREEN I wrote an accompanying text that offered contextual details about the artists’ works on display and the wider research and ideas we carried out in planning the exhibition. In my work across writing, teaching and talking, I’m really very passionate about broadening access to contemporary art.  


What was the first artwork that had a palpable effect on you?

I was spellbound by Walker Evans’ ‘American Photographs’ when Martin showed it to us at college. I wrote a 3000 word essay on it in my first year. My first piece of writing at length. I’ve been looking at the book again in lockdown, scrutinising it, still captivated. So familiar and yet so complex and elusive. 


What is the most memorable book that you’ve read?

Typically I don’t reread books. But I’ve read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing many times. Martin suggested I ask for a copy of this for my seventeenth birthday, which I did. I’d never seen book design like it before – the text is on the cover! I read it cover to cover several times with a dictionary to hand. Berger’s simple argument is that seeing seems natural and straightforward and therefore simple but it has a history and is influenced by society and economics more widely. This is why it requires scrutiny. Watch it with the BBC television series – available via YouTube – that it was based on. I think this book changed my life. 


What is the best advice you’ve ever received? 

Aside from the stuff above, I do remember another piece of significant advice. This was in the jobs fair in my high school assembly hall in Great Yarmouth, just prior to work experience. A double-glaze window salesman looked me in the eye and said with total conviction: ‘Try not to get a job for as long as you possibly can.’ 


What would be your top tip for pursuing a career in the arts? 

If you’re not a trust fund child, be prepared to be poorly paid, and get a second job. Join a union. Work collectively. Don’t rely on lecturing work. You will live a varied and exciting life. But as the great curator Lynda Morris said – and I heard this via someone else – you don’t have to have a job in the arts to be in the arts.


Find out more on Jonathan’s website: