Meet Fatos Üstek: Internationally-acclaimed art curator, contemporary art critic, and writer

"From Here 2020" by Nathan Coley, St George's Dock Pumping Station Mann Island, Liverpool © Mark McNulty

This week, Artsper had the opportunity to sit down with Fatos Üstek, the Turkish-born writer and curator whose innovative contemporary expertise has long been recognized on the international stage. Born in Turkey, Fatos is now based in London and has curated some of the world's most prestigious exhibitions and biennials. We were delighted to hear from Fatos about her journey to art curation, her groundbreaking efforts in gender parity and fair remuneration in the art world, and what she has in store for us as the lead Curator of London's Frieze Sculpture 2023. Welcome to the world of Fatos Üstek!

1. Hello Fatos, we're so excited to speak with you today! Could you start by telling us how your journey into art curation began? Did you always plan to carve out a career in this sector?

I did not grow up with art, nor did I think that I would have a role in the arts sector. Rather traditionally, I was expected to become an engineer of sorts, and so I studied mathematics at undergraduate level. One thing that has been a thread in my life's narrative, is my excitement and curiosity about the world, especially my appetite for literature and philosophy, which then expanded into visual arts over the last few decades.

In my early college years, I started building a strong interest in photography, visual arts and performing arts. These circles of interest grew as I started assisting various festivals in Istanbul and working for commercial galleries and art institutions - which were at the time only a handful.

2. You've advised international art institutions, published acclaimed books, and curated exhibitions around the world. Do you have a favorite project to date?

It may sound a bit generic but each and every project I am involved in tremendously matters to me. 

Perhaps fuelled by the fact that I have been working independently for the majority of my career, I have mostly initiated my own projects, or had the chance to realize my projects with a degree of curatorial freedom. The 10th Gwangju Biennial enabled me to expand my perspective on the arts and artistic practices, the “fig-2 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks" allowed me to generate tremendous amount of artistic and curatorial content (also winning me the glow-in-the-dark badge of crazy), Art Night 2017 reached audiences to far and beyond, engaging 75,000 visitors overnight. While I was at the helm of institutions, artistic content was accompanied by strategic thinking and vision building for institutions and even for cities. Most recently I had the pleasure of working with Conrad Shawcross on his largest survey exhibition in the UK, at the Mathematical Institute, Oxford University in Oxford. The exhibition takes place over three floors and on display for more than a year, being accompanied by a series of four lectures that bring together an outstanding array of mathematicians, philosophers, artists, architects and curators. This exhibition resonates with me personally, and my background in mathematics.

This is a long way of saying, I commit to each and every project wholeheartedly without judging its scale of ambition and its potential. I learn from everything I do, and I enjoy reflecting on and growing my skills and abilities to further myself. Hence, no there are no favorites, some milestones for sure but I don't have any 'best of' lists. 

Akbank Sanat, 49th Contemporary Artists Prize Exhibition, Istanbul © Fatoş Üstek

3. You were recently named as the next curator of Frieze Sculpture. What can we expect from London's 20th anniversary programme? 

I am building a new vision for Frieze Sculpture, approaching this exciting platform with ambition and curatorial rigor on sculptural practice today. I approach sculpture from its expanded notion, engaging artists and artistic practices that contrast the monumental with ephemeral, that include aspects of other media such as sound, light, performance, AR and VR. 

You may expect a wider representation of artist profiles, more female sculptors than in previous years, and a wide demographic of participating galleries. It will still be international and bring forward an outstanding array of artistic practices.

4. Having grown up in Turkey and worked across Europe, where do you feel the most inspired in your work? Do you feel that location impacts your creative direction ?

Context is everything. I think I cannot curate the same exhibition in various different socio-political frameworks. The reason for this also lies in the fact that I am a concept-driven curator and I mostly work with new commissions. The context, site, and potential thus play a huge role in building curatorial frameworks for my projects. I truly believe that the projects I come up with and deliver would not be the same if I were to live in a different country or a continent.

For me freedom to experiment and play is very important. For instance, I recently curated the largest UK survey of artist Conrad Shawcross at the Mathematical Institute in Oxford. We are delivering a series of lectures to accompany the exhibition, which has been on show for more than a year. It brings together an incredible array of mathematicians, artists, philosophers, architects and curators. I feel the level of experimentation and openness to explore the artistic and scientific method with the possibility of cross-fertilization would only be possible on a small number of occasions, if not only for this particular one. 

5. Do you have a particular favorite artist or artistic movement?

I have a soft spot for Dadaists and Surrealists. I sometimes find myself drawing parallels between the beginning of last century and this one…

Cascading Principles Expansions within Geometry, Philosophy and Interference, The Mathematical Institute, Oxford University, Oxford © Ricard Ivey

6. We were delighted to see that you co-founded an organization called FRANK Fair Artist Pay. Could you tell our readers a little bit about this organization?

FRANK Fair Artist Pay, was borne out of frustration and need for change in the UK's art sector. Fuelled by the sequence of lockdowns and aligned with the changing values of our times, with artists Anne Hardy and Lindsay Seers we decided to offer a new perspective to the problem of economic precarity in the arts. 

Our approach is different to many others in the sense in which we are addressing the philosophical and ethical foundations of not paying artists fairly. Instead of offering a new pay grade, we are attacking the core of the problem and exploring ways to demystify fair practice in the arts that includes fair remuneration, fair contracts and fair working conditions. 

In an era where trust, transparency, solidarity, inclusion and diversity are key, fairness needs to be practiced as a norm. When building new forms of collaboration, we have to bear in mind that economic parity is a barrier to inclusivity, diversity and equity.

We are currently building a membership network composed of artists, art institutions, commercial galleries, collectors and public and private funding bodies. We want to elevate the sector and build better practices all together. For this we are working on a charter of principles, with which we will seek alignment from the whole UK arts sector, an artist and institution questionnaire to provide guidance to collaboration with artists, a conceptual fair pay calculator for institutions and commissioners to level their fee allocation in accordance with artists' level of engagement, labor, time and professionalism.

FRANK Fair Artist Pay is committed to making change happen and, while doing so, is dedicated to collaborating with artists, art institutions, commercial galleries, funding bodies and collectors. Instead of being an authority, we want to catalyze the long-needed change in the UK arts sector, together.

7. Finally, what advice would you offer to someone wanting to pursue a career in contemporary art curation, or the wider artistic industries?

I guest lecture at various colleges and universities in the UK and Europe. To the curatorial students I always ask to identify what their conversation is, their values are and who they want to partner with.

Once you know all three answers, you can pursue any career. 

Their favorite artworks

Photography, Graffitis, Marc Held


Marc Held

Photography - 23 x 35 cm Photography - 9.1 x 13.8 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Foot Musik, Roberto Matta

Foot Musik

Roberto Matta

Fine Art Drawings - 50 x 50 cm Fine Art Drawings - 19.7 x 19.7 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Divinity - III, Jean Cocteau

Divinity - III

Jean Cocteau

Fine Art Drawings - 32 x 26 x 0.1 cm Fine Art Drawings - 12.6 x 10.2 x 0 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Un Acteur de Talent - Original Frottage, Max Ernst

Un Acteur de Talent - Original Frottage

Max Ernst

Fine Art Drawings - 36 x 28 x 0.1 cm Fine Art Drawings - 14.2 x 11 x 0 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Bucolic Scene, Oskar Kokoschka

Bucolic Scene

Oskar Kokoschka

Fine Art Drawings - 31 x 22.5 x 0.2 cm Fine Art Drawings - 12.2 x 8.9 x 0.1 inch


Print, The Me I Never Knew, Harland Miller

The Me I Never Knew

Harland Miller

Print - 124.5 x 99.1 cm Print - 49 x 39 inch


Sculpture, Sleeping Beauty, Michael Kirch

Sleeping Beauty

Michael Kirch

Sculpture - 46 x 46 x 46 cm Sculpture - 18.1 x 18.1 x 18.1 inch


Sculpture, Mobile losange rouge, Julio Le Parc

Mobile losange rouge

Julio Le Parc

Sculpture - 80 x 80 x 12 cm Sculpture - 31.5 x 31.5 x 4.7 inch


Photography, Woman Thinking #1, David Lynch

Woman Thinking #1

David Lynch

Photography - 104 x 137 cm Photography - 40.9 x 53.9 inch


Photography, Procession of Nuns, Rangoon, Burma, Steve McCurry

Procession of Nuns, Rangoon, Burma

Steve McCurry

Photography - 50 x 60 cm Photography - 19.7 x 23.6 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Composition, Sonia Delaunay


Sonia Delaunay

Fine Art Drawings - 50.9 x 35 x 1 cm Fine Art Drawings - 20 x 13.8 x 0.4 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Drawing For Sewing 3, Kyung-Sup Byun

Drawing For Sewing 3

Kyung-Sup Byun

Fine Art Drawings - 200 x 100 x 5 cm Fine Art Drawings - 78.7 x 39.4 x 2 inch


Print, Bianchi e Neri II (Acetates), Alberto Burri

Bianchi e Neri II (Acetates)

Alberto Burri

Print - 48 x 64 x 0.2 cm Print - 18.9 x 25.2 x 0.1 inch


Sculpture, Triangle vert, Bernard Froment

Triangle vert

Bernard Froment

Sculpture - 107 x 70 x 25 cm Sculpture - 42.1 x 27.6 x 9.8 inch


Print, Sursaturation, Bernar Venet


Bernar Venet

Print - 23.7 x 17 cm Print - 9.3 x 6.7 inch


Print, Sans Titre, Josef Albers

Sans Titre

Josef Albers

Print - 43 x 43 cm Print - 16.9 x 16.9 inch


Print, Peintre agenouillé avec des spectateurs, Pablo Picasso

Peintre agenouillé avec des spectateurs

Pablo Picasso

Print - 50 x 65 cm Print - 19.7 x 25.6 inch