Curators in Context Responses          Institution              Andrew James Paterson



Among the speakers at the Curators in Context conferences and among curators generally, the word “institution” is deployed dually — in its practical description of a bricks-and-mortar structure and in its signification of conceptual frameworks. So the term “institution” can and does refer to the organization as it is inscribed by structures of power.


Many of the curators speaking at the conference are employees of particular institutions. Some have moved from one institution to another. Many curators are independents — at arm’s length from institutions but still responsible to them. Independent or non-aligned curators tend to pitch their exhibition or performance abstracts to sponsoring or host institutions, and proceed at arm’s length but still under contract. Some unaligned curators may initiate exhibitions or performances off-site from galleries, but I would argue that they are still beholden to institutions such as funding sponsors and other either supportive or interfering bureaucracies. Audiences, and audience expectations, are also part of institutional structures and frameworks.


Institutions would not be institutions if they did not have mandates or mission statements or guidelines. Curators would not be employed by institutions if they did not have both job descriptions and boundaries. Institutional structures and strictures are of course complex, complicated, and contradictory. Curators are encouraged to be imaginative in their choices, to be responsible for respecting the gallery’s geographical and other communities and to heed the gallery or museum’s need to bring in paying customers who will enjoy the show and then want to return for more enjoyable shows. Curators are expected to attract, cultivate, and maintain audiences. Within institutions, curators are engaged in a tug of war between risk and security. Many curators find means and methods of working against the institution while remaining thoroughly within its mandates and its margins.


Since institutions themselves tend to have their contradictory intentions and purposes, they cannot benefit by inflexibility. Their need to demonstrate evidence of audience can and does clash with needs to preserve and collect. Conservative or conservationist impulses are frequently countered by institutional desire to be “new” or cutting-edge or modern or whatever. These contradictory requirements of public galleries and museums create space for inventive curatorial enterprises or initiatives, and for exhibitions themselves to become their own micro-institutions.


There have traditionally been schools of thought and activist art which completely scorn institutions, seeing them as control mechanisms and guarantors of conservative tastes or whatever. This attitude has been present in “alternative” galleries and some of the artist-run centres in their initial and transitory phases, and common among people who may indeed make art but consider themselves to be outside any art systems. This anti-institutionalism has been articulated by Pierre Bourdieu, for whom galleries and art systems are forms of domination and hegemony. Although institutions and galleries may indeed exhibit art with oppositional politics or other radical impulses, these impulses become neutralized by the authority of the institution. Rosemary Donegan, in her paper “Developing a Discourse of Curatorial Practices, takes issue with Bourdieu’s stance that “the gallery, the museum, and therefore curating, serves these larger instruments of domination and the manner in which cultural capital operates. To me, Bourdieu’s views are very deterministic and define a power structure that doesn’t allow any space for change or movement”. I generally agree with Donegan’s criticism here — I feel that the contradictions within institutions and institutional structures do allow for some interesting curatorial initiatives, even though there are always strings attached. I also believe that Bourdieu’s absolutist position regarding art institutions denies agency to audiences — it is parallel to a hard modernism in which “audience” is some unified and undefined Other.


Career Bureaucrats A and B sit in the audience and nod their heads sagely. They do find themselves ruminating about artists or other individuals who just might take Bourdieu‘s anti-institutional determinism to its logical conclusions.


And to what degree do artists ever work and live completely outside of art systems and institutions? By exhibiting exclusively in restaurants and bars? By posting their work strictly in cyberspace? By producing or performing only live art in public locations or situations? Or by ceasing to make art altogether?


François Dion presents himself as an independent curator, or an “art operator”. He has a long and distinguished history in the artist-run-centres (ARCs) and feels that the ARC network has allowed him a flexibility not available within the more bureaucratized institutions (despite the fact that the ARCs themselves have come to resemble the public galleries and other institutions which they originally critiqued.) Within the ARCs, there has traditionally been confusion as to whether focal employees are curators or programming co-ordinators, or directors of programming. Now Dion works at the Centre d’information Artexte, where he spends more time and effort dealing with administrative and other bureaucratic concerns. Dion describes formulating proposals and having them appraised by artists, other curators, members of the public, and other contemporaries. This is rather akin to the process of presenting an exhibition proposal to a board of directors, debating it, and then presenting it to audiences. Dion feels that the larger institutions in Montreal do not want to deal with representing the Montreal artists’ community that he knows and is himself a part of, and he posits that this community does not take charge of representing itself. Exhibitions of this sort do indeed take place, but elsewhere. Dion specifically refers to two exhibitions curated by Philip Monk at Toronto’s Power Plant in the 1990s — Rococo Tattoo (1995) and Picturing Toronto: The Queen Street Years (1998). The first of these two exhibitions surveyed a particular ornamental strain running through recent works by many contemporary Toronto-based artists; the second exhibition celebrated a particularly social and performative moment within Toronto’s relatively recent art history. These exhibitions predictably enough were accused of being exclusionary with their focus on tightly defined communities. I personally avoid using the definite article before the word “community”, because I don’t believe the word should ever be definitive. Are artists whose work is not performative or “social” not part of “the community”?


 In his abstract for “The independent curator: the art of posture and flexion“, Dion refers to the responsibility Montreal’s art institutions have to the city’s art community. Here again, I worry that a curator is falling into the trap of believing in homogenous communities or audiences. I think institutions must remain aware of the plurality of possible artists to exhibit, and of the plurality of possible audience reactions to each and every exhibition. Different galleries and institutions have different mandates — if a particular gallery is mandated to serve a local artists’ community then of course that should be reflected in the curating or programming. But there will be tensions when there is a perception that a specific gallery should be a service organization for a community when that dictum is not part of the gallery’s mandate.



Career Bureaucrats A and B decide they need smoke and caffeine breaks.


A: So, B. We have a curator working in one of the world’s truly international cities bemoaning the lack of local community representation within that city’s art institutions.


B: Yes, A. But you know that there have always been curators and other pundits who argue that, for a city to have an international profile, then it must showcase its flagship artists.


A: But of course not everybody agrees as to just who those flagship artists are.


B: Oh yes. I mean, look at Vancouver. Sure you have the Vancouver School et cetera, but then you have someone like Paul Wong, with an entirely different trajectory.


A: Yes. So why is one artist, or one group of artists, flagship material and another not?


B: Well, A, I would guess it’s the curatorial responsibility to bring that out. Why are certain artists representative of a city’s art community and others not?


A: You mean, why are other artists second-or-third-tier, making work that’s neither characteristic of their home town nor belonging to some official hometown community?


B: Yes, A. The “Who is essential to some idealized community?” conundrum. Ideas about flagship artists and community trajectories make me shudder, to tell you the truth.


A: Because they’re all about who’s in a power position to make such distinctions.


B: Well, A, that’s what curators tend to do. They’re also staking out an international profile, in case you’ve forgotten.


A: For themselves, but also for their institution.


B: Yes, of course for the institutions. Institutions are all about their profiles.



There are curators speaking at the CIC conference for whom there is a clear-cut demarcation between what art is exhibitable inside the institutions they are employed by and what art is best exhibited off-site, or in more immediate or public locations. Leanne L’Hirondelle and Dermot Wilson both speak eloquently as to why this is so. Both curators wish to present performative and site-specific work geared as much to non-art as to art audiences and they prefer to be dealing as little as possible with the nuts and bolts of their own organizations when it comes to making and executing quick decisions. Both L’Hirondelle and Wilson are employees of art organizations with either specific clear-cut mandates or entrenched obligations of loyalty to an immediate community. Here we of course run into conflicting definitions of that loaded word “community”. Does that word refer to a group of people inside a gallery’s membership or core audience, or to people outside of that gallery and outside of art systems in general or to whom?  Does the word “community” refer to society-at-large? Ingrid Chu, of RED-I Projects (an organization assisting artists in the development of new public work) also problematizes the word “public”. If off-site is public, then is in-site private? Chu states in her abstract that the word “public” is not referent to location but rather to context, “and how this really is a catchphrase for where and how art translates into its reception” (Ingrid Chu, abstract for “Coming to Terms: Curating and Possibilities for the New Exhibition“, CIC). Marie Fraser is another curator who specializes in addressing public space. Fraser has worked and collaborated with institutions — she stresses that she is not in opposition to them — but she is attracted to the blending of art and the “real”, and of art and non-art audiences. Fraser’s concentration on public space implies that galleries and institutions are private spaces — even when they may be funded by public or governmental money.


Curators such as L’Hirondelle and Wilson, who feel they have to curate specific projects outside of their employer institutions, stand in contrast to the team of Jeff Thomas and Anna Hudson, who work within institutional histories and collections. Thomas has performed corrective interventions into the collections of the National Archives, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and others. He collaborated with Anna Hudson on an exhibition at the AGO titled No Escapin’. Both Thomas and Hudson, in their CIC dialogue presentation “Bridging art and audience: Storytelling in the presence of historical Canadian art, are compelled to address the extreme paucity of Aboriginal images within these canonical Canadian collections, and they set about to creatively use the stratagems and conveniences of exhibition within large institutions in order to draw attention to this entrenched exclusionary history and its protective structures. Thomas and Hudson are very concerned about audiences — they want the gallery visitors who have not been attending museums but who should feel welcome or at home in them to enter the buildings and then recognize themselves and their histories on the walls. Both Thomas, as an artist, and Hudson, with a background in art history, are seriously concerned with the question of who they are curating for, and they are committed to addressing these institutional imbalances within the institutions themselves (institutions in the dual senses of the word). They feel a personal mandate to connect dots between history and present, and to wreak havoc with those time-zones. And they choose to work within institutions which have so often been considered inflexible and inaccessible _ institutions which have collaborated in historical whitewashing. It is within those very institutions that recovered and reconfigured artworks can be most visible and thus most effective. The collaboration between Thomas and Hudson is itself highly significant — an artist who has felt himself and his community excluded from official art institutions meets somebody working inside these institutions who agrees that there have been serious omissions and structural problems.


Emelie Chhanghur, in her presentation “Social Intervention and Pedagogical Practice as a Way of Curating, refers to institutions and then etc.-institutions (She also deploys etc.with respect to artists, curators, and educators). Taking her cues from the Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum’s contribution to Jens Hoffmann’s The Next Biennial Should be Curated by an Artist and also from the institutional practices of the Rio de Janeiro gallery A Gentil Carioca, Chhanghur refers to etc.-art players as those who question the nature and function of their respective roles, and who persistently challenge assumed expectations. She and AGYU director/curator Philip Monk are committed to redefining the nature of a public art gallery affiliated with a university with the AGYU’s ongoing “Out There” campaign. The main York University campus hosting the AGYU is of course way up in the northwest corner of Metropolitan Toronto — it is a pain in the ass to get to for non-driving downtown artistic types like myself. But the AGYU does get people out there to their openings and events. Their Performance Bus makes the transportation an event in itself, in addition to the social event that is the opening. The AGYU’s Out There campaign is about redefining a centre and also redefining the centre. Out There certainly does refer to outside of any mainstream. Taking the stance that a university gallery certainly can be a leading player in an international art scene or milieu, Chhanghur states that:


We were creatively transforming ourselves by questioning the very nature of the role and function of the public art gallery: what does it do, how does it serve its public? And then, what is a public gallery at a university? Could it automatically serve a pedagogical function, and could it automatically be outside of any tradition or format? Could it, for instance, have a multifaceted mandate that is about many different publics, including students, faculty, but also the surrounding environment? — Social Intervention and Pedagogical Practice as a Way of Curating, Brazilian Seminar Study Group, April 9, 2008



Chhanghur and Monk visualize the AGYU as being an etc.-institution, or a performing institution. They stand against the static nature of most institutions, both the assumed inflexibility and the (literal) lack of mobility. The AGYU inverts its inconvenient location by means of satellite programming and its alliance with the Drake, a boutique hotel in downtown west Toronto, in addition to its educational initiatives in the “troubled” Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Local is global, and vice versa. Etc.-institutions, parallel to etc.-artists and etc.-curators, not only play against role expectations but also across the different disciplines. Can the institution be a performer, or an activist? Institutions are certainly capable of reflexivity — institutional critique has for some time been a highly accepted realm of artistic, curatorial, and institutional practice. If the foundations are strong, then the walls and floor can stand a few minor and even stronger tremors.


Jenifer Papararo’s presentation, “The Art of Stepping Aside, discusses how artistic practices of Institutional Critique — defined by writers such as Lucy Lippard and Benjamin Buchloh — have now come to include The Curator as The Institution. (The term “institutional critique was formalized by Buchloh in the 1980s with his essay “Conceptual Art: 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions“, October, 1990).  As institutional critique draws attention to the structures of institutions, it has thus highlighted the role of the curator within institutional systems. Is the curator the true star, the true artist for whom the curated artists are mere props, and so on and on? Papararo uses examples of curated projects that themselves both fetishize and mock curatorial power and authority — its ultimately arbitrary character. One could ask if making curatorial process itself the subject of an exhibition makes a point to audiences regarding institutional structures, or does it simply reinforce an inaccessibility that is already perceived by audiences?


Papararo cites Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (originally a series of four essays in Art Forum between 1976-81 — later published in an expanded edition with this same title by the University of California Press, 2000) as another formative text for the artistic practices filed under the rubric of “institutional critique”. Four or more decades later, I know there are still people who believe in the neutrality of the white wall (they tend to share “classical tastes.) but I doubt that anybody speaking at the CIC conference would be among that number. However, Rosemary Donegan states that she had to reconsider her entrenched critique of the white wall when confronted with an exhibition prerequisite at the Galt Museum in Lethbridge in 2004. “I had to install my historical photograph exhibition Mining Stories in a total black cube — black walls, black ceiling, black floor. I now have renewed interest and sympathy for the white cube. It has flexibility and can shift and change depending on the intervention it encompasses, something a black cube can’t do. A black cube is a fairly rigid format.” Donegan, “Developing a Discourse of Curatorial Practices“, CIC, Toronto, 2005).


This citation of “flexibility” is in line with Donegan’s rejection of Pierre Bourdieu’s dogmatic critique of institutions as purveyors of repressive dominant power dynamics and ideologies. There can be room for imaginative curators and programmers to operate within institutions, and surely there is nothing wrong with ensuring that the selected work in an exhibition is installed to its best possible effect. As Donegan puts it:


I would suggest that we need to see the institutions of culture and museums, galleries, educational institutions, and alternative spaces, as a series of fields of contestation that are not immune to change and pressure. Their existence does not predetermine other uses and possibility, although the new demands have to coexist with more traditional mandates within the various spaces of traditional visual culture.