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 today’s curator.
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 paintings, sculptures and architectural interventions during the day and music, painting and choreographed gestures during the evening performances.
Curating such 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 curator.
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
I 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 argument.
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.
In summary, 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 versa.
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 gallery.
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
Anon (2005), The Role of the Curator. Tate Gallery, available online at: http://www2.tate.org.uk/nauman/themes_4.htm# Accessed 12th January, 2019.
Balzer, D., 2014. Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. London: Pluto Press.
BBC World Service, 2016, The New Curators, Who decides what’s culturally important, available online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04cy8zz . Accessed 12th January, 2019
Brown, A. and Tepper, S., 2012, Placing the Arts at the Heart of the Creative Campus,
Gaskell, I., 2000, Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums, London, Reakton
Groys, Boris., 2008, On the Curatorship. Art Power, p50.
Hanley, K., and Walton, J. K.,2010, Constructing Cultural Tourism: John Ruskin and the Tourist Gaze, Bristol, Buffalo and Toronto: Channel View Publications.
Imhof, A, 2019, BMW Tate Live Exhibition, available online at https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anne-imhof, Accessed 12th January, 2019.
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
Rosenbaum, S., 2014, The 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
Storr, R., “The Exhibitionists,” Frieze No. 94 (2005)
Storr, R, 2000, “How do we do what we do. And how we don’t” In Curating Now: Imaginative practice/ Public Responsibility. Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage
Ventislavov, R., 2014, Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 72:1 Winter 2014