The American “curator” is variously called, in Germany, Ausstellungsmaker (“exhibition maker,” a rather hands-on definition); in France, commissaire, a term that acknowledges the institutional frame of the curator’s activities; and, in England, “keeper” and “conservator,” both placing an emphasis on the curator’s caregiver role, writes Carin Kuoni in an introduction to a volume of essays published on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Independent Curators International (ICI), New York.
The volume of essays addresses the role of the curator of contemporary art, in its diversity, from academically trained to self-taught. It highlights the difference between forms of curating and the contemporary shift to Curatorial Studies as academic discipline. Students who once would have pursued degrees in Cultural Studies or Critical Theory, which in recent years were considered chic, writes Lawrence Rinder, Director of Berkeley Art Museum, now lean toward the new academic field of Curatorial Studies.
“I have even heard one aspiring curator speak of her desire to ‘curate’ a particular work, as if curating were some kind of singular benediction conferred by this recently academicized priestly caste upon a select coterie of worthy objects,” writes Rinder. It relates to the recurring absurdity when an artist requests that one of his or her pieces be curated – as if a label attached to the artwork transforms it into an object of value – and ultimately, to compliment the self-styled status of the artist. To the contrary, the essayists in this volume agree, focus is on curation as verb, as action, interaction, performance and reception – it is not a label, nor is it a gold star for achievement.
Any meaningful discussion of the curatorial calling today must begin by observing that there is a distinction between the curator whose traditional job is to mind a collection, be it of art, clerical objects, or zoological specimens, and the exhibition organizer or commissaire, whose principle preoccupation is to assemble exhibitions. Lately it has become customary, especially in the English-speaking world, to refer to the latter as a curator, but it is a serious misnomer. Although responsibilities may overlap on occasion between these two categories of cultural practitioners, there are nevertheless significant differences between them, writes Olu Oguibe, who received his PhD in art history from University of London and former co-curator at Tate Modern.
For the independent curator Robert Fleck there are two kinds of curators. Organisers, who see artwork as pure visual facts, and writers who curate through language, text, and theory, creating points of view in visual form. By contrast, Bartomeu Mari, director at Rotterdam Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, sees the curator as self-taught activity. Whether intuitively and empirically, this populist approach focuses on artists instead of artwork and reception. Mari, at odds with most essayists, claims art will always remain incomprehensible. This self-taught approach results in the predominance of ethical posture over aesthetic values.
Installing an exhibition is a job for exhibition designers, not curators, writes Victor Misiano, former curator of contemporary art collections at State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Exhibition designers, like interior designers, use a visual method of pairing and common devices such as concentrated and expanded sequences of presentation, eye levels, wall colour, lighting, and pedestal dimensions. Similarly, the tradition of the salon exhibition exemplifies.
As for the exhibition by artists, often organised by what is known as the curator-artist and consisting of a pragmatic list of artist names, “these don’t need a curator,” writes Bart de Baere, former co-curator IX, Kassel, “they can do with a critic.” It is not for the curator to critique the artist’s work.
Moreover, the French literary theorist Gerard Genette (The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence) writes the pitfall of the artist-centred exhibition is that it “weds the destiny of works to the ephemeral existence of the artist, denying them any real capacity for intersubjective communication.” What he means is that the exhibition of artworks ought to be read like a text – the exhibition is a text, and with difference to other texts. The exhibition, or text, has supplements such as subtext, pretext, paratext, and intratext. The artist, always positioned external the work, is such a supplement – the artist or author is an extratext.
Art education follows two distinct forms, technical and academic. The Teachers and Technicon art degrees prepare the artist for a practical profession in, amongst others, the design industry. The academic art degree allows for postgraduate studies in history of art and paves the way for empirical art criticism – not to be confused with critical theory nor with aesthetics. For Curatorial Studies, both empirical and theoretical studies are required. For contemporary art curation and its objective of aesthetic reception, the combined academic fields of sociology, literary theory and history of art are vital. Aesthetics is a theoretical and philosophical field for postgraduate study at university.
University art students engage in the discourses of subjectivity and theory-in-practice. The student learns to articulate ‘self’ by finding reflection in society of his or her individuality – age, sex, gender, social, mental, and health status, ethnicity, traumas, education, and so forth. Academic mediation opens relations to the discursive world and buffers the risk of the artist falling into the abyss of self. The postgraduate student acquires the ability to curate or produce work for intersubjective communication and intentional aesthetic function.
Curatorial studies enable the curator to take a theoretical position that serves as intermediary – serving as interpretative bridge between artwork and audience – between form and reception. The curatorial mediation is contextual – the curator offers interpretive contexts intended to activate and orientate aesthetic reception. Art cannot be understood without context and it is the work of the curator to make the viewer part of that context – to make the exhibition reception orientated.
“A work can only be seen and experienced in an actual context,” writes Slovenian Igor Zabel, former senior curator at Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, “its existence per se (i.e., outside any such particular context) is only an abstract idea. The curator can therefore essentially affect the reception of the work without actually becoming an artist.”
“An exhibition is a discursive space,” writes Donna De Salvo, senior curator at Tate Modern. “Each time an exhibition is staged, different narratives can be elicited, as in a play. At its best, an exhibition is a beginning, a catalyst for critical inquiry.”
Art is a centaur made half of words, half of artistic material, and words are the active element, noted the American art critic Harold Rosenberg.
“The curator’s allure today stems from his or her potential to actively mediate, broker, or translate the distance between public, private, corporate, and symbolic worlds – decodifying cultural and artistic values from one context to another,” writes Mari Carmen Ramirez former curator of Latin American Art at Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “What I am arguing for is the idea of a creative curator who produces theory through his or her praxis – a theory that is embodied, not illustrated, by the curatorial act itself. I believe that in our mediated society, it is time that we concretely envision the full potential of this type of immediate operation.”
“Curators need to be aware of a profound shift that has occurs in art since Minimalism,” writes Robert Hobbs former director at University of Iowa Museum of Art, “art’s move from ontology to epistemology … the trend of rejecting the idol of art for the envelope of residual reactions to it, placing theory and reception on par with their objects.”
In the future, writes Hobbs, curators will feel compelled to place more emphasis on the metahistory of curating.