A friend of mine admitted that he avoids using the title ‘Curator’ and felt ambivalent about its use, despite the fact that he frequently organizes exhibitions and works alongside artists. He is not alone in feeling this way. ‘Curator’ has become a dirty word and this is because its definition is being misappropriated. It is being hijacked by self-serving, publicity savvy upstarts who are spectacularly failing to promote the arts. This essay will broadly sketch the reasons for this and why the art-loving public needs to be far more interrogative of what constitutes good and bad curating.
I recently read Shaun Belcher’s post ‘Why I despise the New Curators’ (link below article) and felt inspired to write my own thoughts on what the label ‘curator’ stands for. Belcher disparages curators as ‘middle management’. Harshly put, but in part true. Curating involves a number of organizational tasks; engaging with artists, negotiating loans, budgeting, insurance evaluations, installation etc. If you work outside of an institutional or commercial context it will also involve fundraising and securing a venue.
These are all worthy and necessary skills. The difficultly arises due to the cultural cache and perceived desirability of the label ‘curator’. Curating is now conceived of as a creative role, akin to that of a theatre director or choreographer, whereas before the term conjured up an image of a purely academic individual whose role was to maintain and manage a museum’s collection. The term curator derives from the Latin word cura meaning ‘care’. Curators are no longer only expected to handle the objects entrusted to their care, but to devise ‘strategies’ with which to engage their audiences. We have become far more conscious of how art is displayed, not simply aesthetically but ideologically. Questions arise such ‘what do these works say when hung together in this way? Why have these works been selected and others omitted? Why does the catalogue put so much emphasis on x or y?’ Being an effective curator requires more than just technical skill. It demands rigorous intellectual purpose and expression.
The desirability of the role was most likely nurtured by the economic boom and celebrification of contemporary art during the 1990s, though it is probably more accurate to state that these developments can be traced to the 1980s, most palpably within the New York art scene (one thinks of Andy Warhol’s parties, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat mingling with actors and pop stars). Wealth and celebrity doesn’t necessarily account for the recent influx of curators, but it is reasonable to conclude that the increased visibility of contemporary art has drawn more people into professional arts careers. There are now a vast number of training courses available. In London alone there are curating MAs at institutions including The Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins (branded as ‘Exhibition Studies’), and The Courtauld Institute of Art. Aside from museum curators, we now have independent curators and even free lance curators.
During the 90s, the success of a new wave of British artists validated the creative aspect of the curatorial role. Damien Hirst achieved enormous success for both himself and his fellow colleagues at Freeze, the show he curated in July 1988 in an abandoned gym in London Docklands. Dealers who visited the exhibition signed on a number of its participants. Jay Jopling subsequently represented Hirst whilst Karsten Schubert went on to promote a number of the show’s participants, including Ian Davenport, Mat Collishaw and Angus Fairhurst.
The exhibition’s derelict and remote setting may have given the impression of a truly outsider art, free of the mechanics of bureaucracy and commerce, but the opposite was true. Hirst and his colleagues were actively courting support. As art historian Julian Stallabrass observed, the show’s audience was ‘a highly homogenous one – an invited elite-to-be’. The myth of Freeze cemented the identifying characteristics of the yBa’s (Young British Artists); a cool (but inherently false) detachment from the mainstream, the use of irony, irreverence and moral ambiguity as well as the repetition of content. In curating their own shows, the confrontational and controversial qualities of the artists’ works extended into their presentation, bleeding into a certain style of exhibitions.
Artist Martin Maloney, curator of shows such as Die Young Stay Pretty (ICA, 1998) and Die Yuppie Scum (Karsten Schubert, 1996) exemplified this trend. The cheap aesthetic required for the production of Freeze had by this point become painfully self-conscious, much like Maloney’s crude, childish and banal paintings.
Maloney’s introduction to the Die Yuppie Scum catalogue is fun but essentially insubstantial:
“Die Yuppie Scum gathers together 12 new contemporary artists to explore the conflict between the pastoral and the gothic. On show are works which glorify the dumb and the glum, throwaway pleasures and mindless fun. Watch the designer lifestyles of a previous era melt down under threatened menance [sic]”.
Part of the show’s appeal lay in being staged at a commercial gallery. The declarative rhetoric of statements such as ‘Die Yuppie Scum’ was intended to ring out with hollow irony. As Stallabrass observed, the tactic of putting on ‘alternative’, cheap shows was far from novel and not without art-historical antecedents. But such was the perceived success of this cheap aesthetic that by the end of the 90s a tendency for self-professed curators to mimic it was well established. The preference was for brash, loud, irreverent titles and artworks chiefly characterized by a self-aware irony. The fact that successful artists such as Hirst and Maloney were curating served to endorse the profession. Unfortunately, part of the yBa legacy was undoubtedly expressed by the glut of cheap, exclusive and vaporous exhibitions popping up around East London and beyond throughout the 00s.
At this point a crucial distinction must be made, for our understanding of the role of a curator is clearly context sensitive. Are curators highly qualified experts on particular artists, groups and trends or are they self-starters putting on a show for forty people in a derelict basement? Could they be both? If we imagine a large-scale museum show that conveys certain themes, arguments and contributes to art historical scholarship – then we are satisfied because the input of the curator is clearly manifest in the final product. The decisive issue is the level of creative agency involved. Museum shows involving a catalogue, lectures, wall texts, labels and event programmes provide the easiest context with which to legitimize curating because the effort involved is readily apparent. Likewise, exhibitions outside of an institutional context ought to demonstrate a similar level of creative agency, engagement and ingenuity. Crucially, any exhibition should be broadly accessible and coherent regardless of the specific audience it is intended for. I’m not being elitist in my comparison. My observation is that it is increasingly difficult to identify a ‘proper’ curator outside of an institutional context. There is nothing illegitimate about independent curators, regardless of their knowledge or experience, so long as they embody some of the qualities outlined above. The problem with many exhibitions, as Belcher states, is their composition of a ‘mish-mash of baloney, philosophical wank and bullshit erudition’. These all too familiar exhibitions ape professionalism, eschew basic coherency and fawn over half digested postmodern theory. This is a hangover from what was originally a bit of fun on the part of artists such as Hirst and Maloney, which has been continually rehashed and imitated.
Of course it is unfair to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of curators. The rise of ‘Artbollocks’ as Brian Ashbee famously coined it in Art Review, goes hand in hand with the rise of the PR and marketing industries that at best attract and welcome new audiences to art, or at worst reinforce an aura of exclusivity. ‘Curator’ has been hijacked as a marker of professionalism. The label is now so frequently used that it is risks becoming redundant. Numerous CVs are embellished with the title even if the individual simply helped hang a few canvases at a show. Commercial galleries are also muddying the waters by aspiring to function like museums. Increasingly, their shows are promoted as ‘curated by’, even when the effort or extent of the project is barely perceptible.
Since artists began to validate curating as a creative process, we have seen the rise of the super curator, figures that appear to share a level of fame previously enjoyed by a few select artists. Hans-Ulrich Obrist is a good example.
Currently, Obrist is Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London. He is also one of the few curators that the general public may have heard of. His publications (which are numerous) generally consist of interviews with artists. His name features as prominently on the covers of his ‘Conversation Series’ as the artist whom he is interviewing. This seems at odds with Obrist’s recent curatorial assertion in an interview that ‘the more I can disappear, the less my signature is there, the better it is’ (link below).
He also frequently coins his own artistic terms and definitions, though whether these gain academic traction remains to be seen (the latest being ‘Posthastism’). Regardless of Obrist’s skill as a curator, has he inadvertently set an example to a number of tirelessly self-promoting curators? Paradoxically, Obrist is probably better known for his publications than for his exhibitions. Writing is no doubt an extension of the curator’s project, but as Obrist’s fame demonstrates, there is a danger of one’s name obscuring the work for which it stands for (such is the character of modern day celebrity). This tension arises because of the transient nature of exhibitions. So much emphasis is placed on accompanying catalogues and publications precisely because they will serve as a surviving record of the curator’s project. Catalogues can also illuminate certain curatorial processes that are not readily apparent in the final exhibition. We can make judgements about the selection of works and how they are displayed, but our appreciation may be far greater if we understood the difficulty in acquiring certain works, the background politics and the rules governing certain curatorial decisions. As exhibition visitors we, quite rightly, proritise the art over the curation. But now that the status of the curator is competing with that of the artist, we need to re-examine the curatorial role.
There is a collective failure to critique the work of curators. Instead the label seems to function on a purely descriptive level. We do not often conceive of curators as either good or bad. This applies particularly to the New Curators who can then get away with justifying just about any theoretical piffle to a bemused audience. Keen to play down the managerial aspect of their professions and emphasize their creative role, many curators are driven to absurd levels of self-aggrandizement. The result of this need is a crude and skewed logic: anything that sounds vaguely intelligent must be, and anything that is expressed eloquently must be simple, and thus unintelligent. ‘Curator’ has become a dirty word because it is being used to legitimize the good, the bad and the ugly. It is a worthy and important profession frequently hijacked by those unworthy of it. Coherence, eloquence, substance and presentation need to extolled as the chief ambitions of any curator. Exhibitions can even be fun and irreverent when paired with imagination. Curators are increasingly plying for your attention. Give it to them, but pay them the ultimate compliment by critiquing their work.
Shaun Belcher, Contemporary Art Criticism, ‘Why I despise the New Curators’
Brian Ashbee, Art Bollocks (originally published in Art Review April 1999)
Coline Milliard, ARTINFO, Hans Ulrich Obrist on His New Art Movement, “Posthastism”