Curators in Context Response               Practice               Andrew James Paterson



The word “practice” recurs throughout the CIC conferences primarily as a noun, even though this noun derives from the verb practice. This noun has long been associated with professions or the professional classes — one thinks of doctors or lawyers having practices. Having a practice also connotes having a career — he or she can sustain themselves by means of their practice. Do educators have a practice? Do musicians? How about actors? The word seems to imply a methodology denied to jobbers assumed to be lacking vision. Those with practices are driven — they have missions and agendas. Practices are particular and they are not general.


It is within the last forty to fifty years that the noun “practice” has become commonplace in reference to artists and curators. (Did Michelangelo have a “practice”?) The noun “practice” has itself become hyphenated, as it is associated with specific, often material, practices. This or that artist has an object-based practice; this or that artist has an installation-practice. Ironically, many artists now are not tied down or particularly associated with specific materials and or disciplines. Many artists use painting, sculpture, or video, for instance, as an exhibition component without positioning themselves as practitioners of the medium or materials being utilized.


The idea of a curator having a practice is also a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course, this movement is contingent with a shift in the public perception of curators from hermetic custodians to public figures whose recognizable names are highlighted in the promotional material for their exhibitions and who are often considered to be the real authors or auteur. The idea of a curator having a practice in addition to a job (do librarians have practices?) has become prevalent along with the raised profile of individual curators — the stars of the profession with their idiosyncratic practices and subsequent auteur statuses.


Melanie O’Brian of Artspeak, in her presentation “Art Speaking: Towards an Understanding of the Language of Curating, suggests that the increased prominence of the curator in art exhibition and discourse has created a need to reinterpret and redescribe the curatorial and artistic professions. “Finding a language to discuss a visual practice prompts a reinterpretation of art into text, something that is also increasingly being taught.” (O’Brian, CIC, Banff, 2005). As the curator’s responsibilities shift from preserving and occasionally showcasing a collection to becoming involved in the processes of art production in addition to exhibition,  a language had to evolve or be instituted that would reflect this shift. Curators might once have sat discreetly in the corner expecting audiences to either understand the exhibition or walk around shaking their heads, but that was at least a generation ago. (More likely, they were hidden or invisible.) O’Brian draws a parallel between curating and editing — text-editing if not film or video-editing. “The shared activities of selecting, assembling, arranging, and overseeing ideas bring the two roles into close proximity…. As editors of ideas, curators bring forward art and cultural practices to make the ideas available to audiences, not only through exhibitions, but also through publications, talks such as these, websites, forums, and other events. The curator is arguably the filter through which the work becomes known.” (O’Brian, CIC, Banff, 2005).


If the curator is indeed a filter through which the art and the accompanying ideas become disseminated, then the curator is the go-between or negotiator between the artist(s), the institution, the audience(s), and more. So, if artists do indeed have practices, then it would seem that curators also have practices. But do all curators? What about those who work for an institution that keeps them on a tight leash with regards to quotas and quorums and other responsibilities? What about curators who might technically enjoy an arm’s length relationship from their board of directors and their executive directors, but who nevertheless work under strained conditions? Do artists who sit on boards of ARCs and take on some curatorial responsibilities or assignments have curatorial practices?


If one has an aesthetic, therefore one has a practice. True or false?


Curation must be a practice, or else there wouldn’t be university courses in Curating. A practice invokes methodologies, involving ways of doing things and ways of not doing things. It involves both the mechanics of the profession and also the vision thing. It involves dialogue and cooperation between the practical and the model. Curation ideally involves ethics — responsibilities to all involved as well as to oneself. A practice is a discipline, and curation has become that, and not only according to university curricula.


It is interesting to note another word somewhat bandied about at the CIC conferences, and that word is “laboratory”. Melanie O’Brian describes how “museums and large public galleries are now supporting laboratory practices. The Vancouver Art Gallery now has a Next programme, in which new works are commissioned and the space of the museum is reconsidered and challenged. “ O’Brian refers to a history of laboratory programming — of spaces being reconfigured for research process as a component of exhibitions themselves  _ among artist-run centres, although they are also institutionalizing with increasing bureaucratization. “Laboratory” may imply a discovery — an object of sorts — but it also speaks to ongoing durational process or performativity. If objects are involved, then they are objects subject to creative (and often relentless) mutation. What is on the wall and the floor and even the screen is not all that saleable. Here, an exhibition, and the individual works (objects?) that comprise that exhibition are free from any need to perform in the market, although paradoxically, commercial galleries have also been encouraging some of their star artists to reconfigure or disguise their galleries.


A laboratory implies a site where experimentation is not only encouraged but also expected — it implies the presence of scientists and other exploratory professionals. Does a scientist have a practice? I would definitely say yes. A scientist has a mission, an experimental purpose, an alchemical mind. Scientists are in many ways not unlike editors — editors not only of text but also pictures and music. A scientist’s job is to find what is present and then expose it — to put it on display, to prove its existence, and to contextualize his or her discovery. The wonderful world of science has of course often been accused of lacking ethics, as have curators.


In her paper Towards More Ethical Curatorial Practices, Anne-Marie Ninacs examines curatorial practices and ethics. In that paper, Ninacs notes the gradual evolution of curator from keeper of a collection to being an instigator or catalyst for exhibition and she observes an at least twenty-year gap between this evolution in Europe and in North America. She notes the emergence of curator-artists such as ur-curator Harald Szeemann, the curator of the 1972 Documenta 5. Auteur or star-curators like Szeemann have stood accused by artists of belittling or simply ignoring their concerns, of treating the artists like conveniences subordinate to their grand curatorial vision. Ninacs distinguishes between curatorial self-manifestation (self-promotion) and self-realization. Self-realization refers to the curators ultimately learning more about themselves as a result of listening to and observing the artists with whom they have entered into collaboration. This is not just about the curator or the artist — it is about the collaborative relationships between the curator and the artist as well as the other players in the artistic equations. Ethical curators balance the objective (or scientific) and the subjective, observing not only the artists but the form and formalities of the institutions or sites of exhibition, “as curatorial work is grounded in knowledge while following intuition, in an attempt to shed light on underlying connexions between worlds that may, at first glance, appear foreign to one another.” (Anne-Marie Ninacs, Towards More Ethical Curatorial Practices, Abstract, CIC. 2005). A curator, whether an etc.-curator, an artist-curator, a curator-artist, or whatever hybrid, must have a solid knowledge of the artists and the work being exhibited — this knowledge can provide the foundation for intuitive associations and other curatorial conceits and premises. Yes, perhaps ethical curators do share much in common with their scientific counterparts.


Rosemary Donegan questions the idea of a post-disciplinary curatorial practice, in reference to the brief for the Thematic Role Call: (re)Placing Curating AGYU conference of December 2005. In this brief, contemporary art is described as being a possibly post-disciplinary environment, as reflected by its evolution “beyond its visual and plastic object-based underpinnings to embrace experiential , kinaesthetic, time-based, conceptual, relationist, and activist concerns” (Rosemary Donegan, quoting from conference orientation brief, Toronto, 2005). It may well be true that many exhibitions are post-disciplinary, in that what is on display is not easily identified as restricted to particular disciplines or materials. However, Donegan questions the idea of a post-disciplinary practice, because curating has never been defined as a discipline, positing that      “Disciplines are actually formal academic divisions of knowledge, which are defined and debated through their methodologies. However, I would argue that curating in its many contemporary forms is actually a cross-disciplinary or multidisciplinary series of practices. It brings together history, theory, a variety of visual media, popular culture, audiences, education …” (Donegan, CIC, Toronto, 2005).


So if curation involves a series of disciplines, then how indeed can it be considered a singular practice? Donegan comments on how little of the writing she has encountered about curators and curating refers to methodology and/or methodologies. “One of the only places that I found the title “Methodology” was an article I actually wrote, which was published in Naming a Practice.” A basic curatorial methodology does not yet exist, at least on paper and/or verbally. Donegan argues that “it would be cross-disciplinary or multidisciplinary. It is a complex practice of ideas, observation, and synthesis based on visual imagery and visual actions. It is really a multiplicity of practices that one works through, with, and around.” (Donegan, 2005).


So if curation involves a multiplicity of practices, all working in constant dialogue and never from any rigidly fixed position, then why might one talk about practice in the singular? Why would somebody have a practice and somebody else not have one? Is this a matter of either having an aesthetic or else being a hack?


Bureaucrats A and B have decided that fresh air is a priority.



A: I don’t know, B.


B: You don’t know what, A?


A: Well…it seems obvious that curation has to involve a multiplicity of practices, as curation itself is interdisciplinary.


B: Hmmm….Tentatively agreed.


A: Well…it is. So why are so many people anxious to refer to a practice? Not many, but one singular practice.


B: Because the sub practices — the sub methodologies — all add up to overall practice?


A: But do they? I mean, let’s see now. There is the practice of selection, of contextualization, or installation…


B: Of playing give-and-take with artists who themselves arguably can’t be restricted to one overall practice.


A: Exactly. I find myself thinking that practice is preferable as a verb, B. One practices something. One doesn’t have a practice.


B: Except one does, A. People with reputations have practices.


A: But... if one looks closer at those curators who are renowned for a particular mode or methodology of practice, one will see different varieties of practice.


B: Oh, for sure. But people still describe an occupation or a vocation or whatever as a “practice”.


A: But a singular practice, a grand narrative practice, implies a singular methodology and a rigid ideology.


B: That’s like how some people misunderstand the idea of auteur. They think of sameness or uniformity. But... let’s look at how the word “auteur” at least once upon a time was used in film criticism.


A: A director could work in this form or genre, and then this form or genre, and so on and so on.


B: And it would still always end up as the same movie.


A: Because their obsessions and fetishes and whatever would always be recognizable.


B: Of course. And there are curators whose touch is always identifiable.


A: But they still deploy different practices to get there.


B: If you say so, A. Hey, guess who I ran into the other night at the AGO? At the Surreal Thing thing?


A: I haven’t the faintest idea. Who?


B: Andrew James Paterson.


A: Oh, I think I know who that is. Video artist, performance artist, writer, musician, curator.


B: Editor. We went to high school together. So we chatted for a while. And he was thinking of going away somewhere random for a while. Like, getting out of Toronto and possibly relocating. And I told him he shouldn’t do that.


A: Why not?


B: Well, he’s done okay for himself here. I mean, he has a practice. Right? And Andrew looked at me and then shook his head and said “Yes, I guess so.”


A: Well, I guess his response begs questions as to whatever a practice might entail. Maybe he didn’t want to tell you about having a second source of income. Or maybe he thinks his practice would benefit from relocation?


B: Maybe yes and maybe no.



Does the idea of a practice — a singular practice — sound strangely modernist given the multidisciplinary nature of contemporary exhibition? Paul Couillard, in his abstract for “Curating as Art Making”, positions himself as an artist (a performance artist) who has taken on curation and states that he is one of many artists who also curate. This initiation came of out of his and others’ backgrounds in artist-run centres and culture, as both members of programming committees and administrators. Couillard observes that many individuals move back and forth between art-making and curating as if they are separate disciplines, but his “own experience, however, has led me to take on these two roles as inseparable elements of a hybrid or interdisciplinary practice, that of the artist/curator” (Couillard, abstract, Toronto, 2005). Couillard’s modus operandi, unlike those who make a point of changing their hats in relation to their activities, seems the same for both his art-making and his curating. As an artist, his initial response is that he creates “situations”. He adds that “a curatorial project, like most performative work, sets up a situation of inter-relationships in time and space” (Couillard, abstract). While he is acutely aware of the potential for conflict between the artist-as-author and the curator-as-artist, he is comfortable describing his artistic and curatorial philosophies as being unified in a personal inter-disciplinary practice. So “practice for Couillard seems to be post disciplinary, since it is not restricted to specific activities and his approach, if not the methodology, is equally applicable to different personal activities, and he therefore considers artist/curator to be a hybrid practice. It is notable that Couillard is an independent curator (and an unaffiliated artist) who works both off and on-site and at arm’s length from institutions and the founder of FADO Performance Inc. (which some might claim to be his own institution).


Art Gallery of York University curator Philip Monk counters those who maintain that “curation” or “curating “ or for that matter “curator” have never been officially or properly defined. Monk puts forth an actually rather good definition of committed curation, which he insists has been the definition from the get-go (but is not about preservation and maintenance of collections and/or archives). Monk’s definition of curating (and curator?) is: “responding — in and through the invention of our own discipline _ to what artists propose. When has the role of curator ever been fixed?” (Monk, Toronto, 2005). Well, any worthwhile curator worth his or her salt responds to what the artist proposes, although curators have also been known to propose artists. Artists and curators both respond to space or location or institution and many more not-constricting-but-engaging factors, so, yes; a curator’s position cannot be fixed. Is Monk referring to each individual curator’s idiosyncratic discipline with the possessive “our” — meaning that to be a curator is to have a personal discipline or, dare we say, practice? Or is he referring to a discipline that all curators must have in common if they are committed to the profession — dare we say a methodology?


The December 2005 conference at Toronto’s Art Gallery of York University was titled Thematic Role Call: (re)Placing Curating (not curators or the curator, but how they practice?). Monk reiterates discomfort with the overall theme and general movement of the conference, starting off with Couillard’s definition of his own interdisciplinary practice. “A curatorial project, like most performative work, sets up a situation of inter-relationships in time and space”. (Couillard, ibid.) Does Couillard’s mission statement assume that all curatorial projects are performative, in addition to other projects and activities that are also “performative“? Of course there is performance involved — all curatorial projects certainly involve presentation or exhibition, but “performative” is not an interchangeable adjective for the noun “performance”. A curator may indeed be an instigator or facilitator of some performative transformation which itself constitutes an exhibition, but is this now a demanded or expected role for the curator in this twenty-first century of “relational aesthetics”? Is the curator indeed to be displaced by the etc.-curator who just might be primarily an artist who curates? Or are there disciplines which may certainly co-exist within a particular exhibition or performance (artist’s performance? curator’s performance?) but which are not interstitial or even particularly symbiotic? According to Monk, “That’s my job, to be supplanted by artists. That’s a curator’s function. But a function is different than a practice. You’re demanding a transformation of my practice as a curator from the point of view of an artist, not from the point of view of a curator where it takes place. The two are different”. (Monk, Toronto, 2005)


So, how can transformation of a particular curator’s practice take place from any other point of view than that of him or her self?  Or is it now the curator’s duty to rise above being just a curator — to metamorphose into a hybrid artist-curator or curator-artist (and I believe the two are different). How can curators be repositioned or transformed or displaced (let alone replaced) when, despite Philip Monk’s very good description of curatorial practice and (possibly) methodology, the word “curator” itself is subject to some wildly contradictory and oppositional definitions? Can a curator be a servant as well as a visionary? Functions are elements of a practice. Are disciplines practices or are they not? Rosemary Donegan expressed curiosity about reading individual curators’ methodologies — their lists of things to do as they go about their jobs. Does she mean lists of functions, or something far broader and greater? I believe the lists would match or coincide up to a certain point — checklists tend to do this. However, many of the other curatorial notes would branch out into some wild and even rhizomatic directions. That’s because individual practices tend to be all over the map, whether or not the practitioners actually refer to their activities as “practices”.