I finally managed to get through this essay though, as I mentioned earlier, I found it a bit of a chore or, more accurately, found it a bit of a distraction from the main body of the module. Having said that, I realise why it’s necessary – it just seemed as though it didn’t fit within the structure of the module.
I’ve removed the interviews from this post as they were included in an earlier post and I’ve anonymised the interviewees since, again, I did not want to put their names here on the Internet without their permission
Curator noun /kjʊˈreɪ.tər/
– a person in charge of a museum, library, etc.
Art noun /ɑːt/
an activity through which people express particular ideas:
The above definitions from the Cambridge dictionary
introduce the idea, discussed within this paper, that the role of a curator has
evolved such that they can also be viewed as artists, producing their own
artwork, publicising their own ideas.
This view arose after interviews with two curators in
Windsor, one of whom was based in a commercial gallery whereas the other was in
a community arts centre. Together with my experience of self-curating my own
exhibition these caused me to reflect on the changing role of the curator.
A cursory study of the subject on the Internet was enough
for me to realise that this was a contentious issue with numerous views
available, many of which reflect on the flexible, multi-dimensional role of
This flexibility has even led to the creation of new professions
such as “Experience Designers” and “Content Farmers” (Balzer, 2014) which
utilise this multi-dimensionality to create a wider experience beyond the
single-view experiences of early exhibitions.
However, the role of the original photography curators such
as John Ruskin was very different, he “was dedicated to widening social access
to cultural experience” (Hanley & Walton, 2010, p19) and was aware that not
everybody would be able to travel and experience these cultures at first hand.
Instead he brought the culture to his workers in the shape of artefacts at his
Walkley museum, near Sheffield, curating a cultural experience for those unable
to visit the source themselves.
Despite the primary role of the museum being education Hanley
and Walton go on to suggest (p55) that Ruskin’s art critic background was
integral to his approach, the ‘visual’ creating a link between “sensation and
idea, the material and the intellectual”. Thus, even then there was an argument
to consider the curator as an artist.
However, the more typical or traditional view of the
curator’s role can be seen in the Tate’s rather bland definition of the role
(Anon, 2005): “The curator selects a work for exhibition
and makes decisions about the context within which it will be displayed. This
requires sensitivity to the interests and intentions of the artist. The curator
also needs to ensure that the work is displayed in such a way that it is
accessible and meaningful to the public. “
This definition does appear to be based on the historic role
of the curator despite many of the Tate’s own exhibitions demonstrating how the
role of the curator has evolved. The forthcoming Anne Imhof exhibition combines
sculptures and architectural interventions during the day and music,
painting and choreographed gestures during the evening performances.
an exhibition goes beyond the Tate’s definition and Obrist’s view (Obrist,
2019) that “It means to preserve, in the sense of
safeguarding the heritage of art. It means to be the selector of new work. It
means to connect to art history, and it means displaying or arranging the
work.” seems more pertinent to the modern day curator but even this does not
address all the complexities of a multi-dimensional event such as Imhof’s.
Steve Rosenbaum (Rosenbaum, 2014) takes this further and suggests
that “curators are mixologists”
using a DJ as an analogy. Good DJs won’t necessarily use tracks from the same
artist or even the same genre but will mix to create a new experience much as
today’s curators often do. He also suggests that curators must now be “makers”
with a leadership role, defining the conversation or agenda, in effect a
creator rather than a traditional curator, a stance that could almost be said
to define an artist.
Interestingly, Bridget Kendal (BBC World Service, 2016), while
chairing a discussion where Obrist repeated his definition as described above
asked the question “has curation displaced creation?” reflecting on the
creative role of curation rather than the custodial aspects.
Brown and Tepper (2012)
take this still further and look at the role of the modern curator in the
community. Whilst acknowledging that some, particularly with reference to
crowdfunded art, believe that the role of the curator is being dumbed down, or
even being made redundant, they argue that the opposite is true. The curator
must now understand the needs of the community as well as be a “researcher of artistic
possibility”. To combine the two the curator must now utilise their own
artistic vision rather than simply use the vision of any participating artist.
Ventizlavov (2014) discusses this changing role of the
curator in depth and suggests that the curator creates artistic value merely
through the process of selection, an argument that is difficult to counter when
the appropriation work of Sherrie Levine and others is so highly sought after
as art. Ventizlavov further suggests that over the last hundred years or so,
our understanding of what it means to be an artist has changed to include
practices and approaches that are safely attributable to the contemporary
This latter argument is strengthened by the fact that much
of an artist’s work has developed to include curational activities which is
regarded as being totally acceptable. Many of those who argue that the role of
the curator cannot be considered artistic ignore this fact that artists
themselves regard it as an extension of their own role. Again, returning to
appropriation, is their any difference between displaying another person’s work
in a different context and displaying a collection of artworks in a different
environment or context?
The hanging of Matisse’s The
Dance at MOMA, New York is a good example of the artistic nature of the
curator’s work. The image was hung in a stairwell, away from the Matisse
gallery, and this was considered irreverent at first. However, the painting
itself had been commissioned by Sergei Shchukin to hang in a stairwell in his
residence and its placement in MOMA’s stairwell introduces an additional
element into the viewer’s appreciation, this element solely the creation of the
curator. In effect the curator was expressing a particular idea or concept
which would otherwise have been missed.
There have been many who have dismissed the idea that a
curator could be considered to be an artist and one of the most prominent has
been Robert Storr, himself both a curator and an artist. His, often stated
view, is that the curator is more akin to an editor
do think that curators have a medium … like that of a good editor to a good
novelist. Although it’s not the same thing as being a novelist, being an editor
involves a deep identification with a living aesthetic. That aesthetic vantage
point is as important or, in many respects, more important than what we usually
call “ideas” about art. As a curator, you can work through problems by working
with materials … instead of approaching things as if a curator was primarily an
explainer or educator. (Storr, 2000)
However, many of the points
that he raises to contradict that view can themselves be used to support that
view if one now considers the multi-dimensional productions such as Imhof’s
that was mentioned earlier. Indeed, in
the above quote Storr himself defines the role as being beyond an explainer and
an educator which were the traditional forms of curation and talks about the
aesthetic vantage point working with materials – strikingly similar to the
definition of “Art” at the beginning of this essay.
Furthermore, Ivan Gaskell
(Gaskell, 2000) suggests that the juxtaposition of works of art can generate
additional meaning, in effect create new art by the arrangement of the original
elements or “working with materials”, much as Storr describes in his contrary
Contrarily, this additional
meaning could be contrary to the wishes or intentions of the artist suggesting
that the curator could be a barrier to the aim of the artist in publishing
their view. In many ways this is dependant on whether the exhibition is a
single-artist or multi-artist exhibition. One would hope that in the former
case the curator and artist would collaborate to ensure that the intent is
satisfied whereas, in the latter case, the message is primarily within the
curator’s remait from the start.
Boris Groys suggests
When it comes down to it, the contemporary curator does
everything the contemporary artist does. The independent curator travels the
world and organizes exhibitions that are comparable to artistic installations –
comparable because they are the results of individual curatorial projects,
discussions, actions. (Groys, 2008)
Throughout this brief essay two
points keep recurring. The first is simply terminology. Whereas the denotative
meaning of “curator” or of “art” can be consistently defined in any dictionary
the connotative meaning can vary dependant on context or a person’s experience.
The second point follows from this in that, to some people at least, the roles
of curator and artist must be separate but there is no reason why this should
be the case. After all, an electrician and a plumber are very different but
there is no reason why a good electrician cannot be a good plumber and vice
To finalise I need to return to
the origins of this paper which were in the research and interviews that I did
in Windsor’s local art scene. These interviews were with two different “types”
of curator, one being in a community arts centre and the other in a commercial
If we return to Brown and Tepper (2012) they define a “curator” as referring to any artistic decision-maker within a nonprofit arts organization. This being a connotative definition to align with the purpose of their document. In a performing art presenting organization, this would typically refer to the executive director in an organisation such as the Old Court referred to in Appendix A where interview 1 fulfils this role.
However, a curator can also refer to a gallerist/curator such as the second interviewee whose interview is in Appendix B or Laura Noble of L. A. Noble Gallery.
Both the interviewees were asked the same question – namely “What are you looking for when you curate or host an exhibition here?”
In my view their respective answers, reflecting their roles,
provide a simple answer to the debate of the role of a curator as an artist.
Interviewee 1 had already spoken about the Old Court being a focus for art in the community, pulling together many forms in the same location, primarily for the benefit of the residents. His answer to the question continued in this vein “The purpose of the Old Court is primarily to be a commercial organisation, without the revenue from the theatre, cinema, classes and the bar we, obviously, couldn’t survive, we need them to subsidise the other areas. At the same time, we want to encourage the art scene in Windsor as we are, as I mentioned, in effect the Community Arts Centre, so we’re heavily associated with the Windsor Festival and with the Winsor Fringe. As part of that we try and have a permanent exhibition in this area to, in effect, advertise art. Mainly we’re looking for something that has a local interest and encourages people to take an interest, both in the art and in its subject. We’re looking for exhibitions that ‘talk’ to the visitors and interest them. Of course, if it increases the footfall into our commercial activities then we’re double happy!
Interviewee 2’s answer was much more direct: “We’re primarily a brand outlet so our usual, day-to-day, gallery exhibition simply contains a selection of the artists, works that might interest potential buyers. Obviously, we still try and present these in a complementary fashion. Our occasional, themed exhibitions continue this, and we might just have one artist or two or three covering the same subject. The main idea behind these is to act as an introduction, getting the artist known to the public, raising his or her profile, getting them to the market”.
The contrast between the two answers is clear and comes down to Brown and Tepper’s definition of a curator. If there is a commercial element, then this takes precedence over any artistic intentions of the curator. Conversely, in the absence of commerce then there is no reason why the curator cannot be regarded as an artist, contrary to Storr’s polarised view.
 “Community in the broadest sense whether it be a locality within a town or a global network
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Obrist, H. U., 2019, The Art of Curation, Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/hans-ulrich-obrist-art-curator, Accessed 12th January, 2019
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5 Key Roles of a Killer Curator, Available online at https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenrosenbaum/2014/11/06/the-5-key-roles-of-a-killer-curator/#90eb56430f88,
Accessed 13th January, 2019
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