Curators in Context:       Notes on Exhibitions            Andrew James Paterson



It is a general truism (aren’t all truisms general?) that exhibition practices (formats, models, definitions) have altered and have been altering significantly in tandem with shifting definitions of what exactly constitutes art or art practice. As definitions of art move away from objects resulting from traditional practices (painting, photography, modernist sculpture) through disciplines such as video, performance, installation, and even “relational art”, definitions of “curator” and indeed recently evolved verbal variants such as “curation“ and “curate” and “curating” have also shifted. Melanie O’Brian (of Vancouver’s Artspeak) outlines this linguistic evolution quite admirably.


As curatorial and artist roles mutate, so do exhibition aesthetics. Although I highly doubt that the classical white wall is ever likely to become obsolete, exhibitions even within many traditional galleries now often have either no walls or obviously transparent walls —  portable walls. For some time now, distinctions between what is found in artist-run centres, public galleries, museums, and even private galleries have become fuzzy. This is due to a variety of factors, some of them contradictory or even oppositional. Artist-run centres (ARCs) have been becoming more and more “professional” in their exhibition and programming mandates for at least three decades now; boundaries between artist and curator have been slipping, relationships between curators, institutions, private dealers, and “star” artists just keep getting more and more complicated. Meanwhile, it is hardly unusual to witness exhibitions in private galleries that resemble those more often associated with public and artist-run galleries — exhibitions that could be described as being “environmental”, in that a curator has created an installation enveloping a selected group of artists whose works fit into the particular environment, visually if not necessarily thematically. (Is the entire installation for sale as well as its components?) Here the parts often tend to be subsumed by the whole — the entirety of the exhibition can be striking to such a degree that individual works no longer stand out. Exhibitions now so often resemble film or television sets, or even quasi-theatrical landscapes, or sculptures containing subsidiary sculptures. Questions arise as to who are the actors or performers? Audiences, artists, and of course the curators.


I think the words “performance” and “performative” are useful in describing and commenting on these art-world evolutions. Performance refers not only to performance art (which is still often at a distance from not only the larger art institutions but which has also been adapted by institutions by means of relational aesthetics) but to a visible performativity. This performativity is visible with regards to curatorial conceits — to strategic interventions into exhibition spaces, collections, expected and projected roles of audience(s) and more. This curator is acting performatively — the gallery itself is presenting a performance — this exhibition is a performance in which the artists (and audiences?) are players or extras. A trailer — an in-progress exhibition announcing a finished or complete show — has been an exhibition buzzword for some time now — trailers akin to those announcing movies or television programmes or performances. Exhibitions which appear to be composed of props for some planned performance are hardly unusual —these are a mirror image of exhibitions consisting of the detritus of a performance that nobody except the curator and the artist(s) witnessed.


I believe that an apparent loosening of curatorial aesthetics and strategies toward the mid-1990s was at least partially in reaction to the surfeit of “theme” curating prevalent not only in the ARCs but also in many of the public galleries throughout the later 1980s and early 1990s. Many exhibitions were programmed around a theme — usually something political — and individual artists and their works tended to become subsidiary to that theme. At best, these exhibitions were appreciated by and engaging to audiences from outside the “art community”. At worst, they were cluttered and poorly installed,  constructed around some theme that preached to the converted and prompted many to question where exactly the art was. Theme-based exhibitions could be socially reaffirming or they could be socially stifling. And critics who insisted on imaginative installation and some proper curation (selection) were not necessarily politically reactionary or even apolitical — they were not Greenbergian sycophants. Many critics and artists (and curators) felt stultified by theme-based restrictions, and also felt that radical politics and radical form were anything but incompatible. Exhibitions and institutions could become at least temporary social spaces when the exhibitions themselves were not heavy-handed and overpowering. What was missing in so many theme-based exhibitions was any concept of “play” — with the artworks and the artists themselves, and with the spaces and structures of the galleries and institutions.


Generally, I think it’s safe to say that there has been a steady movement towards making exhibitions more social in nature. Not only is much of the exhibited art social in nature (relational referring to Nicolas Bourriaud‘s highly influential volume Relational Aesthetics is a word that was quite prevalent at the Curators in Context conference), but the details accompanying exhibitions are social in their nature. And of course the curator bears social responsibilities, being expected to contextualize the exhibition not only by means of a quality catalogue but also by means of public speakers. These speakers are not imported experts with whom audiences cannot enter into dialogue as much as they are catalysts or instigators — not unlike what many curators have now become. Many of the curators at Curators in Context were justly proud of how they attracted non-art and different art audiences not only to their openings but to the exhibitions themselves, although with many performative and socially flavoured exhibitions the opening (the party) was the show (and one had to be there). Process-flavoured art is not uncommon within larger institutions — Michelle Jacques and Janna Graham presented a variety of non-art object artists and their exhibitions which they had curated or initiated within the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Such examples of this creative programming have tended to permit social spaces to occur within the more formal galleries — it is easier to discuss say, Luis Jacob, with strangers than your classical European masters whose paintings are permanently installed in the historical galleries. This is not because, say, Luis’s art is easier per se to access than paintings by revered masters; it is because Luis’s exhibition (or Swintak’s or Sally McKay’s AGO exhibitions) was installed in galleries within the greater gallery which were at least temporarily less formal than those hosting the collection — areas in which talk and banter and conjecture were subtly encouraged.


I myself attend such “social” or “relational” exhibitions and often their openings. Therefore, I tend to find what I am already suspecting is there. How do these exhibitions play among audiences who have not entered the gallery building specifically for these exhibitions? I would guess it varies from visitor to visitor. Some might be surprised and intrigued and some might wonder where exactly the art is. Some might perceive that there is an attendant community of which they are not part, and become confused or even resentful. It is important to remember that, once one has moved beyond the modernist conception of the homogenous audience other, audiences are therefore no longer homogenous (as if they ever were).


The nature of exhibitions does (and must) vary in accordance with the institution and its mandate, its assumed audience, its budget and collection, and its bureaucratic demands.

I note that, in “regional” galleries, there are assumed responsibilities to immediate or local “communities”, which include artists and members of the non-art public. Ivan Jurakic (from Hamilton Artists Inc. and Cambridge Galleries) outlines the tensions between responsibility to artists and to local community (including local artists) in enlightening detail. I don’t think these tensions are particular to regional centres, but they probably become more pronounced when it is harder for curators and gallery staff to hide within an established and impenetrable bureaucratic structure. Some curators at the conference (Leanne L’Hirondelle, Dermot Wilson) draw sharp demarcations between work they feel they must programme inside their institutions and works they programme off-site. Creative off-site programming gives the curators the option of addressing not only parallel artists but also members of the non-art public who are not visiting a gallery with their own expectations as to what should be exhibited in that gallery.


Sometimes an exhibition can become its own institution, so to speak, in that the exhibition involves essential components well beyond the exhibited works themselves. I’m referring not only to catalogues (which enjoy life spans well beyond the exhibition), but to events and even products generated by the particular exhibition. Such exhibitions are courting landmark status or reputation — they can be seen as flagship exhibitions for their host galleries, intended to put those institutions on the map (and possibly generate new audiences who are then at least theoretically interested in subsequent exhibitions). The numerous components of the exhibition — its presentation and contextualization in a variety of presentational formats — are the curator’s responsibility. The curator must deal with the artists, the management of the institution, its board of directors, its publishers, its publicists, its by-laws,  and, of course, its audience(s). These demands tend to have the effect of making the curator into a public figure, accountable to various and often conflicting strands of “the public” in a manner utterly oppositional to the now ancient stereotype of the tweedy and anti-socially cranky curator whose job it was to preserve and guard the precious collection.


Melanie O’Brian, in “Art Speaking: Towards an Understanding of the Language of Curating, cites the British artist/critic Mary Kelly’s definition of exhibition. “An exhibition is a discursive practice involving the selection, organization and evaluation of artistic texts that are ultimately preserved in exhibition catalogues.” (Mary Kelly quoted by O’Brian, no source credit) According to Kelly, the need for language to describe artistic practices dematerialized from the previous norms of “object-art” has prompted a reinterpretation of art into text, and this reinterpretative process is being increasingly taught to aspiring curators and artists alike. There are still, and there always will be, those who consider text a crutch for artists who can’t make pictures and are thus not really artists. But the nature of art exhibitions throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century guarantees a necessity for language accompanying the exhibitions in artist-run, public, and even many private galleries. Many audiences do indeed want to know what is happening or what they are supposed to be looking at, and curatorial practice demands that the curators take up the slack.


There are interesting parallels here between two specific case studies of individual exhibitions presented by two of the presenters at Unspoken Assumptions about Curatorial Practice at the Curators in Context conference. Both of these collections expose and (self) parody the perception of the omnipotent curator whose whims and conceits are ultimately accountable to nobody, since they have been granted institutional blessing and/or authority.


Anthony Kiendl wraps up his rather performative and somewhat provocative presentation by describing the 1999 Cuban Biennial, curated by Jens Hoffmann. The proper title was indeed Blown Away: The Sixth Caribbean Biennial, and it was co-curated and organized by Hoffmann and the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. (Hoffman’s polemic of 2003- that the next biennial should be curated by an artist — has enjoyed a more than substantial trickle-down effect among younger artists and curators and of course artist cum curators.) Actually, the two collaborators Hoffmann and Cattelan curated a biennial. They invented an organizational structure and a history of five previous biennials, but these were believably fictional. They invited ten artists — all biennial veterans. This was done in the context of persistent and omnipresent debates about the appropriateness of the Western First World biennial model in relation to countries with very different cultural and social conditions. There are, of course, some rather loaded issues here that the curators/artists/entrepreneurs might indeed seem to be perpetuating, and so on. I do wonder as to exactly which Caribbean island this constructed biennial was advertised as being about to occur. Was there absolutely nobody in the vicinity or in the loop who knew that there had never been a first, second, third, fourth,  and fifth Caribbean Biennial, and who therefore would detect a hoax? Was there no local “community” that just might insist on accountability?


For this impressive-sounding Sixth Caribbean Biennial, the artists were invited to a Caribbean island and then instructed not to do any work — not to make any work. In theory, they did present a sort of relational aesthetic situation — they sat around and chattered among themselves while being on semi-display. Kiendl also draws some interesting parallels to reality-television programmes like Survivor _ which have not all that bizarrely combined formative body performance and early video art with Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest situations. And one could obviously go on about colonialism and the importing of these star artists into the Caribbean landscape and economy and imperialism and Western hegemony et cetera. So…is this constructed exhibition or “biennial” about art world dynamics and structures, or is it a so-ironic-it-isn’t-ironic example of these dynamics and structures. Blown Away: The Sixth Caribbean Biennial is a meta-exhibition about exhibition and curatorial practices, and how arbitrary they might seem to many. And yet, curating from data bases or phone books is not particularly unusual — or unspoken.


Jenifer Papararo’s The Jennifer Show (Centennial Gallery, Oakville, 2004) has parallels to Hoffman and Cattelan’s exercise in nudge nudge wink wink. Papararo (whose spelling of her very common first name is slightly unique) picked a seemingly absurd premise for an exhibition and then literally followed through on it — parodying and paraphrasing the dynamics of public galleries and, I would argue, especially artist-run-centres. The curator put out a call for artists named Jennifer (or Jenifer?), and then made her selections. She was careful to include a couple of non-WASP Jennifers — just like they’re careful to do in public galleries and ARCs. And since Jennifer is a terribly common name, she was guaranteed responses from a wide variety of high-quality artists. When I heard of this exhibition, I groaned and thought this was one of those concepts that surely didn’t have to be assembled and then exhibited. I thought it was a pseudo-conceptualist one-liner — like a disco version of 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. I also wondered what if the curator/practical joker had been blessed with a non-WASPy first name, or a more old-fashioned name like, perhaps, Mary. (Or, even a gender-ambiguous name?) What, if anything, did the artists’ and curator’s shared first name have to do with any of their work? I mean, really! But Papararo did certainly mimic and draw attention to well-entrenched curatorial practices, or, I might argue, random selections masquerading as conceptual rigour and committed curating. The Jennifer Show was another example of meta-curating, or curating about curating, a sort of structuralist enterprise and with considerable humour to back it up.


Papararo also refers to an exhibition curated by Vancouver artist Mark Soo at an unspecified gallery in 2003 titled Curating Curators 2003, that consisted of a list of curators names he amassed by asking two curators to name two curators who he then asked to name two curators, and so on. Soo is here inverting a common (or stereotypical) curator’s research method — asking artists to name other artists, thereby compiling a list of artists to include in the show. There are, alas, many exhibitions in which the artists’ names do come first, as opposed to the work which then provides the artists’ names. Who made this? Yes, there is the artist’s name on the signage and in the catalogue et cetera. So, do exhibitions like The Jennifer Show, Curating Curators 2003, and fictional biennials such as the Caribbean extravaganza of 1999 seriously deconstruct in-house curatorial processes? Do they make the structures of these exhibiting institutions crystal clear to curious audiences?  It seems like these institutions’ in-house curators no longer curate by the old-school method of visiting studios and then juxtaposing selected works by selected artists? Or do such exhibitions merely reinforce the belief that curators have unchecked and unaccountable power and that a selected list of artists are in the loop and that a multitude of others are not? Do such exhibitions have the alternative effect on at least some audiences of making them wonder where exactly the art is?


Bureaucrats A and B emerge from another tea and/or washroom break.



A: So, B, we’ve been hearing all this talk about the changing faces of exhibitions. They’re like film or theatre sets, loosely assembled for the players to move the elements around and around.


B: Rather than having them set — as in, this goes here and this goes there.


A: Right. Nothing too set or finished looking. That would be too much like an art object.


B: Or, heaven forbid, an installation.


A: So, B, you think there is a sizable audience who looks at these very temporary, uh, installations and then wonders where the hell the art is?


B: Oh yes, A, I know people like that. And they’re neither uneducated nor stupid.


A: Oh, nobody is seriously saying anything like that, except to possibly be provocative. But don’t you think audience members — and let’s not conflate all different strands of audience into one false homogenous entity — don’t you think viewers who aren’t interested in Institutional Critique or Relational Aesthetics or Anything Not Obviously Art Object just simple avoid those and similar exhibitions?


B: Well…you’re lumping Institutional Critique and Relational Art and probably In Situ all into one bin. We have to remember that, God forbid, postmodernism discredited any concept of the homogenous neutral audience. I do think that there are many intelligent gallery attendees, as well as relatively unengaged tourists, who pay their admission fees and then want to see things that artists made.


A: Somebody achieved this; therefore, it is good and I’m getting my money’s worth. Right. So meritocratic.


B: I feel that way sometimes, A. Unfinished, process-oriented, relational works that require me and the rest of the audience to complete them according to our own specifications and criteria are anything but novel.


A: You’re being so old-school, B.


B: Yes, I suppose I am, A. I can be seduced by Aura. I can be seduced by Beauty. I can also be captivated by intelligently conceived and executed Institutional Critique, despite the fact that any half-intelligent artist or curator or combination of the two is expected to critique their host and other institutions.


A: Right. And the dead artists aren’t around to critique the institution, so they’re just left hanging up there on the white walls.


B: Yes, that is how museums work, A.



Whether or not an exhibition is structured around such an arbitrary curatorial conceit, the role of “curator” has shifted light years beyond the word’s original definition as keeper and custodian of a collection. And the curator’s responsibilities and duties have also expanded to a previously unimagined scale. Not only must a curator conceive the exhibition, she or he must also oversee its installation and design, contextualize it by means of overseeing a catalogue and presenting all these and more ingredients of exhibition. The curator must be as concerned with audience as with the participating artists and the exhibition space and all of the institutional elements. Many of the contemporary concerns of established and emerging curators are concerns of audience, and they shall be further addressed in the appropriate section.