Curators in Context Response:    Re: Placing the Curator    Andrew James Paterson



Well, what is a conference without a pun in the title? It seems not only that people want to discuss where to place the curator in this contemporary climate of relational art exhibitions and other equational shows requiring active (not passive) audiences to complete the implied equations. There are people who wish to replace the curator, but with what or whom?


Is the curator now expected to be an artist/curator rather than a by-now old school curator curator? The original meaning of the word “curator” — a custodian of a collection — is ancient history, it would seem. Is the auteur curator — one with a grand artistic vision (or a fixed position) in which the artists are conveniences or necessary appendages — a thing of the past? Is the gallery or institution or museum now a showroom for which a curator (or director or CEO?) is simply unnecessary? I highly doubt it, but curators have been just a wee bit under the gun lately.


Jenifer Papararo notes, in her CIC address “The Art of Stepping Aside“(Banff, 2005), that the rise of art practices grouped under the rubric of Institutional Critique led to an increased focus on the role of the curator. A paradox here is that critique of the

Museum — its discredited neutrality and its litany of hierarchies — aided the curator’s rise to a new prominence. “So institutional critique, for better or worse, helped to produce or give prominence to the curator or the curator as a discipline, while simultaneously making this discipline a central site for critical debate.” (Papararo, Banff, 2005).  Curators are now more prominent than ever before — they have become what Ben Portis refers to as “shifting experts” (Ben Portis, “Self-Triangulation: Public Positions Guided by Personal Dialectics, CIC, Banff, 2005). Curators are now artists, critics, editors (entrepreneurs?). Is this good? Why is it not good? Papararo herself has curated exhibitions simultaneously lampooning and demonstrating the unaccountable authority of star curators and in her Banff address cites some amusing examples of exhibitions at the expense of “the curator”. Vancouver artist Mark Soo produced Curating Curators, in which he asked two curators to name two curators and so on until a considerable list of curators accumulated and came to comprise an exhibition. This is indeed an inversion of how many artists perceive curators to operate — they accumulate names, they curate from databases. This is also an amusing spin on a subgenre of conceptual art — namely list art. But what might seem witty and observational to some might seem to be just another reaffirmation of suspicions about curatorial and art-world inaccessibility or unaccountability to others.


Jens Hoffmann’s The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist has been a highly influential piece of writing. Ivan Jurakic cites Hoffmann’s publication as “an interesting starting point for my own thoughts as to where I began as an artist with a talent for organizing exhibitions and writing on behalf of other artists (Jurakic, “Navigating the Curator-as-Artist Divide, CIC, AGYU, 2005).  Jurakic, now a curator at a public gallery, refers to persistent complaints voiced by Hoffmann and others about the most recent Documenta — that it had been too didactic and journalistic, having contained over six hundred hours of video. “Didactic” is one of those loaded words — it means educational, informative, and helpful but also means rigid, ideological, and overbearing. To criticize an art exhibition or artistic practice as being “didactic” implies that it allows no space for intelligent viewing — that is denies agency to audiences. “Didactic” so often translates as “preachy” and the preaching is generally done to the already-converted. Informative signage is one thing, and in fact quite helpful for those who attend exhibitions and cannot afford to purchase the catalogue, but excessive signage often distracts from the visuals. It is a relic of literal-minded identity politics — it is for people who may be able to read but have difficulty looking.


An extension of the critique of exhibitions as being too didactic is the critique that a curator’s fingerprints might be too obvious throughout the exhibition — that the curator has not installed and presented the individual works to be in dialogue with audiences and with each other. Work should be granted resonance, to use Jan Allen’s very helpful turn of phrase. This may indeed seem like common sense regarding the skills of installation but, when the hand of the curator is identifiable or detectable, it can seem like interference or at least of lack of trust in audiences. But this is surely not any advocacy of death of the curator “author“— it is a preference that curators deploy subtlety and respect the individual works that comprise the exhibition.


Career Bureaucrats A and B sip their lattés and shake their heads in a relentlessly slow but steady rhythm. They are not hearing answers, only questions begging further questions.



Re: (on the subject of) placing the curator? Or replacing (getting rid of) the curator? If the latter, then with what or who? Is anybody seriously entertaining the end of curators and curation? Are these hybrid artist/curators Jacks and Jills of all trades the wave of the future? Do only artists know how to install work to maximum effect? Can only artists speak to artists? Can an individual be an artist and a curator simultaneously? Is the curator/artist a thing of the past, or has the curator/artist morphed into the artist/curator? If curators are so “yesterday”, then why are so many artist-run centres shifting towards a curatorial programming model in their efforts not to be “yesterday”? Has the practice of star curators using artists as appendages or props disappeared, or has it mutated into artist/curators using additional artists as appendages or props in their own exhibitions? How do artists who make what might be constituted as object art forms feel about being discredited as being “pre-relational” artists? Don’t such artists benefit from associations with intelligent working curators who know how to install and contextualize their art objects without themselves claiming to be artists? If biennials and art fairs are becoming more and more indistinguishable, then what about alternative galleries or spaces which don’t simply mimic dominant public and private gallery aesthetics? If the curator is moved from his or her problematized location within contemporary art practices, then where on earth is the curator relocated to?


Jenifer Papararo’s paper is titled “The Art of Stepping Aside, which she does and then doesn’t in her own curatorial practice. But of course there is a pun in her title, namely on the word “art”. A curator’s job or function is to conceive an assemblage of art and then present it, with the focus on the art and the artist(s). Paul Couillard’s starting point for his interdisciplinary artist/curator’s practice involves setting up a situation in time and space. This implies a letting go of the situation, a surrendering of authority and/or authorship. Couillard is a performance artist who curates performance artists — is this letting go particularly applicable to object-art exhibitions or practices? When curating a performance artist, the performing curator passes on the performer baton to the spotlighted artist or artists. But the gallery curator of object and even “relational” art also performs. They speak, albeit (hopefully) not at the expense of the artists. They perform as representatives of their exhibitions, but not at the expense of the exhibitions.


It might be possible for the curator to be replaced by either a curator or by the practice-noun curation or by the verb and participle curating. The big capital C curator’s prominence may indeed be a distraction to his or her practice- the work she or he has selected and installed. When people ask what the (a) curator does, the answer is that they practice curation or that they curate. This can mean they select, install, contextualize by various methods, and also care for what they feel matters. Clive Robertson refers to an essay by Jennifer Fisher in the Banff Centre book Naming a Practice, which came out of a 1996 curatorial conference. In her essay Fisher looks at the etymology of the word “curate”, noting that it has its roots in the noun and the verb “care”. “And care, indicating what matters, and that in which curators can invest both themselves and their cultural capital.” (Clive Robertson, “The Artist-Curator: Struggles Over What Matters and For Whom It Matters, AGYU, 2005).  Robertson and Fisher are referring to ethical practices and to responsibilities to exhibit and make visual work that deserves to be seen and taken care of, meaning it should be most effectively presented, as well as preserved. There is circularity here with the original definition of curator as a custodian of a collection _ “collection” could be stretched to refer to what is accessible and/or available. A curator’s job is surely rhetorical and persuasive. She/he must present what she/he thinks matters and then make a case as to why it matters. A curator should be able to give audiences materials to work with in order to transform those audiences from passivity to activity, and curators should able to initiate such transformations without being didactic in the overwhelmingly negative sense of that adjective. Strong, intelligent curation has been known to persuade audience members that an exhibited artist, group of artists, or cohesive exhibition is up to something that I might not have initially suspected. That ability to persuade — to be educational without being negatively didactic — is a large part of a curator’s job.


An activist curator able to initiate associations and then link them in relation to specific locations or spaces is a curator who is practicing the sort of curating that is consistently necessary. That very serious but also humorous and, above all, articulate curator can in fact be deemed irreplaceable.