Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen

A Tate art handler is being given his own exhibition to mark his retirement after 43 years dealing with the gallery’s vast collection

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“I just started working at the Tate as a fill-in job when I went down to London,” explains Ken Simons with a laugh. “I was a bit of a young hippy, didn’t know what to do with my life, and I just got lucky really.”

From working in his native Scunthorpe’s steel mills to that fateful London trip and a subsequent 43-year career with the Tate organisation, Simons comes across as a man content with life. Although recently retired, when he was art handling manager in Liverpool Simons was charged with giving practical support to the team that sets up exhibitions – helping design shows, preparing plinths and showcases, working with conservators, unpacking and checking artwork and often liaising with artists themselves.

Through this hands-on experience – and as the sole member of Tate Liverpool’s staff to have worked at the Albert Dock venue since its 1988 inception – he’s familiar with the Tate’s extensive collection – familiar enough to take advantage of being offered his own exhibition.

Above: Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) and main image Philip King, Within (1978-9)

Featuring 30 of his favourite works, Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen will occupy the large, ground-floor Wolfson Gallery. And although the pieces won’t fit a strict theme, there is an overarching focus on what Simons describes as “artists who investigate unseen areas, like space within a sculpture, or the depth of a painting, or the emotion an artist demonstrates and explores in a picture. I’m delighted to have pieces by my favourite artists in the show and while choosing them I realised they were tied together by that general idea of exploring what may not at first be obvious.”

Included will be the irreproachable Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by JMW Turner – “probably the greatest artist this country has ever produced,” according to the art handler turned curator – the imposing Figure (Nanjizal) sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, a large Phillip King sculpture titled Within, and Graham Sutherland’s Picasso-inspired painting Entrance to a Lane. Works from Mark Rothko, Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormley and Piet Mondrian will also be displayed.

“It’s been really quite difficult choosing just what to show as the Tate collection is vast,” Simons says. “I’ve always been interested in sculpture but I of all people know exhibiting large works can be difficult, so that led me to reduce the number of sculptural pieces and instead include two-dimensional work by those favourite sculptors. But I’ve managed to show what I like to think of as core works.”

Simons appears equally enthused by the workshops planned to coincide with opening week. He aims to run these on an informal basis with members of the public. “We’ll discuss art, artists, what they like and what they don’t like, just like the friendly chats our team used to have during tea breaks.

“No non-curator has ever done a show like this in the Tate’s history. I was just completely floored to be asked. It’s an incredible honour.”

Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen, Tate Liverpool, 30 March-17 June

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