Curators in Context Response        Artist/Curator          Andrew James Paterson



As definitions of art practice and exhibition have altered quite radically over the last forty years, and as notions of curator and curation have become both highlighted and problematized, the term artist/curator has entered into widespread parlance.


The idea of the artist who curates is hardly new or novel. For example, the artist-run centre movement was characterized by artists curating (or programming). However, curation, selection, and exhibition/organization by artists of course predate the ARC movement. Consider the famous Armory Show, organized in 1913 by painters Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies with significant curatorial input from none other than Marcel Duchamp. There have been numerous other examples of artists curating themselves outside of museums and institutions — one precedent is Freeze, curated in 1989 by Goldsmith College students including the subsequently famous and indeed notorious Damien Hirst. “What drove Freeze was the ambition to present art to a wider public without having to wait for a curator, a gallery owner or an institution to come along…” (Jens Hoffmann, The Art of Curating and the Curating of Art, The Utopian Display Platform, 2004.) Hoffman describes several other examples of artists assuming the curatorial reins here, ranging from Gustave Courbet to Group Material. In the latter case, Group Material‘s motive was political.  They were protesting the lack of art addressing the AIDS pandemic in the 1985 Whitney Biennale.


Also, the term artist/curator can and does refer to artists whose own exhibitions incorporate curatorial gestures and practices. These can include the inclusion of additional artists into the exhibition, the writing and display of didactic texts, and the production of one’s own contextualizing catalogue. A landmark exhibition frequently cited here is Marcel Broodthaers’ Musee d’Art Moderne, Department des Aigles (1968), which was mounted in the artist’s own Brussels house.


The artist/curator should not be confused with the curator-artist or auteur curator. The latter has often been used pejoratively, referring to curators who consider their exhibitions to be artistic masterpieces and the artists as mere propos or chess pieces. As the role of the curator has shifted from its previous custodial definition towards becoming a producer of meaning, the curator has been expected to display creativity and ingenuity. This in itself is healthy and productive and a far cry from the authoritarian behaviour of the uber-curator for whom the artists are vehicles or pawns. The super or ur-curator such as Harald Szeemann (Documenta 5 in 1972) has for some time now been considered a model not to be emulated by ambitious aspiring curators. The relative decline of the curator-artist has of course led to a rise of the artist-curator, who is not just an artist who curates but who is one who curates as an artist would or should.


Bureaucrats A and B have just returned from a rather liquid lunch.



A: So, B. The artist/curator is not the curator/artist.


B: And the curator/artist is not the artist/curator.


A: The artist/curator is a reaction against the curator/artist.


B: Or the curator who considers not only him but also herself to be the real artist.


A: Yes, the vision thing.


B: The agenda thing. Et cetera.


A: What I want to know is actually pretty straightforward.


B: What might that be, A?


A: How many hats can somebody be wearing at the same time?


B: Well…let’s see. The artist/curator may also be the artist…


A: Self-curation is another can of worms, B.


B: All too true, A. So ... are we looking at one, or two, or three hats?


A: Or just one. Interdisciplinary practices and all that.


B: But aren’t disciplines what they are because they retain their boundaries and their methodologies and their whatever.


A: So you’re saying that an artist might also curate, but when they’re curating, they have to take off the artist hat and concentrate on the curating?


B: Well, they do, don’t they? I don’t know, A. I think curators are like directors and artists are like actors.


A: I don’t know about film or theatrical analogies, B. Are you saying the curator is the auteur and the artists are actors whose job it is to follow the script? The curator or director’s script?


B: Well…that has been how many careers have been made, A. The curator has his or her favourite artists, and then they take their show on the road.


A: But back to the artist/curators, B. Not the curators or the artists but those hybrids.


B: I think there is a point when an artist who curates becomes more than just an artist who curates. I think there is a point when or where that artist who curates becomes an artist/curator, because he or she has learned how to curate like an artist.


A: And how do they accomplish that? Is there a rule book or something?


B: Do you mean a methodology? No, I doubt it. But there is some undefined but definite point where artists who curate learn the art of curating.


A: You think there’s some sort of singular art of curating, B.


B: No, A. I’m not that thick. Or drunk. There is a point — a different point for every artist who enters the field of curation … .


A: The field of curation?


B: Yes, damn it. Curating or curation is being taught in postsecondary educational facilities. There is a point where artists who attempt curation actually become successful at it. They’ve learned how to learn from the artists they’ve selected. They find out things about themselves they didn’t know before from working with the artists and everybody and everything else involved in the curatorial process.


A: Self-realization. That’s what I’ve heard this described as, B. Self-realization, as opposed to self-manifestation.


B: Well, I guess so, A. Although self-realization still sounds a bit too self-centred for my taste.


A: As well as New Age.


B: Whatever. The elephant in the room, I’m afraid, is the very idea of a curator curating from some sort of fixed position.


A: Yes, that seems antiquated. But is it really?


B: Well, no curator today would admit to curating from a fixed… or frozen…position. Being an artist/curator, as opposed to a curator who thinks that he or she is the actual artist, entails moving with the artist, going with the flow, et cetera.


A: Bending over for the artist.


B: Yes…bending over. That’s one way of putting it.


A: I think we could both use some water, B.


B: Agreed.



Tagny Duff posits the potential danger that artist/curators can become the (brand) name associated with their particular exhibitions, at the expense of the selected exhibiting artists. Actually, she is concerned with both the prominence of the curator/artists and the site institutions. Duff quotes Hal Foster, who is himself being quoted in Claire Bishop’s counter-argument essay against Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto Relational Aesthetics. “When the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights, it becomes a spectacle. It collects the cultural capital, and the director/curator becomes the star.” (Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer, from The Return of the Real, 1981. Quoted in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October 110, pg.52, 2004. Quoted in Tagny Duff, “Performing the Curator: Staging Unstable Relations“, AGYU, 2005).  I think there is a danger that exhibiting artists can get lost or disappear within the spectacle of star curators and triumphant institutions and general hype. But I agree with Duff that such need not be always the case. During the time frame of the AGYU segment of the CIC conference, the AGO was hosting Luis Jacob’s Habitat, curated by Michelle Jacques. Duff, I think quite rightly, points out that nobody did or would be likely to confuse Luis’ work with Michelle’s.  Michelle Jacques the curator facilitated and co-coordinated what is clearly Luis Jacob’s exhibition. Duff also makes it clear that there is an ongoing variety of exhibitions and curatorial approaches to working with different artists and also different institutions, remarking that “I think we need to remember that there are many different kinds of curators who have very different relationships to the institutions and the artists that they work with. There are many kinds and variations of relations that are overlooked due to a growing tendency by artists, curators and critics to refer to any kind of interactivity in performance as “relational aesthetics”.”(Duff, Toronto, 2005).


Hal Foster’s alarm about institutions and their curators overshadowing the artists in the exhibitions seems like an echo of earlier artistic concerns about star curators, who consider themselves to be the real artists and the exhibiting artists to be appendages or conveniences. Isn’t the idea of the curator learning to curate like an artist supposed to correct that legacy of abused and misrepresented artists? Or are the curator/artist and the artist/curator — despite the shift in emphasis — two sides of the same coin? Again, there are so many artists who have entered the wide wonderful world of curation that such generalizations are problematic, to put it mildly. But what about curators who are also artists (or artists who are also curators), who see their work at each discipline to ultimately be an interdisciplinary albeit singular unified practice?


Paul Couillard (then of FADO Performance Inc.) describes the starting point of his artist’s practice as “I create situations”.  He notes that British artist/curator Matthew Higgs (ICA) used the same short definition to explain his curatorial practice (on a panel titled “Metamorphosis: The Artist as Curator”, InFest, Vancouver, 2004).  Couillard goes on to state that “a curatorial project, like most performative work, sets up a situation of inter-relationships in time and space. Viewing artist/curator as a hybrid practice seems a natural extension of the rhetoric of artist-directed activity upon which the Canadian artist-run centre network was formed.” (Couillard, “Curating as Art Making“, AGYU, 2005) But what is meant by performative work? Does it refer to work that develops or accumulates during a designated temporal framework in a specific space, work which may or may not require an audience in order to complete its formation? Doesn’t all exhibited or presented work have to perform, assert its presence in front of audiences who are not unified and some of whom might be sceptical?  Couillard is a performance artist and curator who has his definitions of what constitutes performance art and what does not, and his definition stretches to include examples of what has been labelled by Nicolas Bourriaud and others as “relational aesthetics”.


I have attended countless FADO performance presentations and have witnessed Couillard in a facilitator/curatorial role. I have never confused the spotlighted artist’s work with Couillard’s own, although I appreciate the apparent work Couillard puts into getting the artists here and then presenting and contextualizing their work. This is a tall part of what I’ve always thought curators were supposed to do. It is possible that a performance might entail the curator (FADO permits others to curate — it is not a one-man or one-woman operation) and other volunteers to augment the visiting performance artist, and thus some audience members who don’t read programme notes might think they are watching another Couillard or Whomever performance piece. But audiences who don’t read signage and thus get details wrong are simply one of those timeless occupational hazards. And sometimes curatorial presence is much more apparent than at other times, or in other situations.


 I suppose the idea of a hybrid practice begs the question of whether or not such a practice is unified. Is a hybrid practice a union of different practices, or it is simply a term to (self) define artists and/or curators who perform different functions with regard to the same exhibition or performance and who need to juggle those functions?


The hybrid artist/curator practice might indeed be an extension of curatorial practices among artists on the boards or programming committees of artist-run centres, but many artist-run centres themselves are changing their selection practices. It is getting more and more difficult to tell who is a curator and who is a programming director who also does some curation, often because the individuals in question also have independent curatorial practices. Many artist-run centres have exhausted their previous practices of responding to open calls for submissions, viewing an enormous number of submissions from which only three of four will be selected for the next upcoming exhibition slots, and then often nominating an individual from the board or programming committee to be responsible for the artist or artists and the exhibition. While sometimes curatorial proposals were initiated by board or programming committee members of artist-run centres, often someone from the board or programming committee would take on responsibility for co-ordinating (not curating) the show. Sometimes, exhibitions seem to occur by default, or by messy compromises. All too frequently, artist-run centres would get caught in politically or legally tense situations (for example, the Eli Langer/censorship crisis at Mercer Union in 1993/4) and there would not be a specific individual let alone curator taking responsibility for the contested exhibition. I believe many artist-run centres and other institutions realized that such situations had to be prevented in the future, and that structural changes were necessary for their organizations. I also believe that the much of the programming in artist-run centres was not curated; rather it was selected and then coordinated but not initiated by anybody involved aside from the artist(s) with the original exhibition proposal. There were group shows which perhaps came to fruition by processes verging on curation rather than just compromised groupings of proposals. There have been individuals with artist-run centre backgrounds — including Paul Couillard and others present at the CIC panels — who have moved on to enjoy careers as both artists and curators, and of course their respective practices play off one another.


Ivan Jurakic outlines a scenario involving his dual existence as practicing artist and practicing curator. Jurakic refers to a moment that occurred when he was curating The Recycling Project in Hamilton (2003) when he felt that “this project ended up being a kind of switching point for me, where I almost… I cease to become perceived as the artist and become the curator on some level, and all of a sudden I’m playing on the other team. Right? I’m working within the institutions. Danger, right?” (Ivan Jurakic, “Navigating the Curator as Artist Divide, AGYU, 2005)  Jurakic’s switching point occurred while curating an exhibition during which he felt pressure from members of the local artists’ community to concentrate on including artists within the local or geographically immediate community and to exclude artists with national or even institutional profiles. These conundrums may well seem laughable or “local”, but they have been and still are very “real” in not only regional galleries. The idea that Ivan Jurakic or anybody else might cease to be an artist and become a curator because they are programming artists from outside a given region might seem absurd, but here the word “curator” is associated with the unaccountable powers of the institution. Therefore, if one becomes a curator, then one is inside the institution; whereas if one programmes according to the wishes of the local community, then one is still outside the institution and on the side of the community. “Community” is, of course, one of the most loaded words in the English language, largely because it is so damn easy for either an individual or a small clique to assume a right to speak on behalf of “the community”.


It is interesting that Jurakic uses “curator-as-artist” in his title, rather than “artist-as-curator“. Does this inversion of the inversion mean that he has become a curator first and an artist second? Does it mean that curation is the most visible discipline within his interdisciplinary practice? What indeed might this inversion, or reversal of the more

 au courant artist/curator, signify?