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The Curator has been the driving force behind art exhibitions for the past several decades and has been the major factor behind these shows throughout the world in the past two decades. This is the age of the mega curator, travelling most of the year, curating blockbuster shows around the world and generally creating an unprecedented amount of buzz in public life through the media. In this essay we will attempt to track the development of the vocation of curation historically and also discuss how the practice has changed (whether for good or bad is a matter for the conclusion) through the years. We will take a look at the epochs that changed the discipline and also find out how these changes have affected the arts. We will take a short diversion and look at the lives of two epoch making curators and also discuss the change in the nature of exhibition making precipitated by not only the changing nature of the curator but also the changing nature of the market economy.
The word 'curator' comes from the Latin 'cura' or 'curare' which means caretaker. The title was given to heads of public service works during the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, the meaning changed as much as to be assigned to priests and thus was meant as a cure for the disturbed souls of lunatics and children. However, the most recent meaning of the term as we know it i.e. that of an "officer in charge of a museum, library, etc" comes from the late 1600s. This change in meaning of a single word to be used by so many different professions is somewhat reflected in the modern curator of arts who has to be masterful of several disciplines to be able to do what he does. The final change in the meaning of the word has been reflective of the rise of two dynamic young individuals who forever changed how curators approached their profession. We will discuss more about Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps in the ensuing paragraphs but first we shall look into how Art curators can be subdivided into further narrow subcategories.
The curator can be narrowly subdivided into three categories taking into account where and how they work i.e. what is the mode that they apply to their practice. We can thus divide curators into the following, 'embedded', 'adjunct', and 'independent'.
The embedded curator is one who works for a museum or an arts organization. Thus he usually oversees collection, acquisition, conservation and display of objects. So, the curators practice revolves exclusively around the institution and thus is often constricted by the structure and limitations there. For instance, in a museum where there is art from several genre and media, a curator has to have extensive knowledge about the collection including the art history of the objects so that he may suitably interpret it for the visiting public. Thus he has to take into account the existing collection not only while putting up a new show (since it affects the way in which the objects are interpreted) and but also when acquiring objects for the museum. The curator here is limited in terms of engaging the audiences with the art works on display since his interpretations are predetermined by factors beyond his control and thus the exhibitions are usually inward looking or they look beyond the art works to put them in context of the museum.
The Adjunct curator is one who is independent of the museum in that he is not an employee of the museum or arts organization but a freelance curator who works in conjunction with these institutions. This happens usually when such institutions are looking to create a particular type of exhibition for which they lack the expertise and look for a freelance curator who they believe can deliver their vision his way. Such curators usually work on a project-by-project basis with different institutions around the world. In their case the exhibitions are less didactic and the curators sometime commission new work to support their projects. Compared to the role of the embedded curator, adjunct curators have more freedom and the financial backing and leverage of big institutions behind them to take the projects forward. Thus, adjunct curators can take their own practice forward in side of an institution and are able to take more risks in pushing forward with contemporary art projects.
According to Jean-Hubert Martin, "The Main task of the independent curator is to conceive and organize exhibitions, which includes also the editing of catalogs. He is the go between among the different worlds of the artists, the exhibition spaces and the public." Thus the independent curator is one who can express to the audience new considerations and interpretations of the art that he is displaying through the use of visual pedagogy and not discursive pedagogy.
Thus the curator is the state of the being in so far as the nature of his occupation is concerned. However, as we have seen from the root of the word, it also means 'to care' apart from meaning an 'overseer', thus care and control have an inherent relationship in this profession. Art Museums have historically been associated with the administering and governing of culture through preservation and presentation and its use as a pedagogical tool. These institutions like all other such structures were mainly funded by the government and the pedagogical (but with connotations of control over social behavior) intention becomes clear when in 1892 during the opening of a public museum at Walsall (1892) the mayor remarked on how such an institution would make the public less uncouth and softer in manners and would be lifted to higher levels as they stood before art. Thus a charitable sense of control was around from the very beginning and the power structure described by Foucault was self evident. This can be further illustrated by quoting Carol Duncan. According to her, "The Art Museum gives citizenship and civic virtue a content without having to redistribute real power". She goes on to say further that, "the work of artâ€¦displayed as public property, becomes the means through which the relationship between the individual as citizen and the state as benefactor is enacted". The political use of art has been illustrated in the most obvious way when the Nazis mounted the show 'Entartete Kunst' (degenerate art) in Munich (1937) using over 600 objects confiscated from various state run museums to 'educate' the public about the virtues of racial purity. Their intended goal failed but they managed to produce the first blockbuster show of the century.
According to Foucault's theory the role of a curator is extended beyond administering or overseeing to "the cultivation of the self". He exemplifies the role by taking into consideration the ancient Greeks who believed in the principle of taking care of oneself and practiced it between small social groups who were the bearers of culture. This social practice thus, is not only valid for relations between individuals but can also be extended to institutions. Several modern museums were developed under these conditions "as a socialized process of self fulfillment for those who brought it into existence". The curators during this time were exclusively attached to institutions such as the ones described above and although they were affected by the makers of art, they still valued their own opinions above that of the artists. A gradual shift in this power structure started in Europe and the United States and there was a rise in artist led initiatives in the early 1950s. These activities turned the art scene into a more dynamic field where the artist and the audience became more and more important figures and the curator had to no longer keep on a charitable interface or maintain the power structure that has been discussed previously. The role was now much more flexible and open to interpretations.
Against the context outlined above it will be fruitful to take a look back in time and start from the point which is an epoch in the timeline of the history of the modern curator. In the early 1960s, Harald Szeemann was a young man of twenty eight and was named the head of Kunsthalle Bern; he was the youngest at the time in Europe to be appointed for such a post. Szeeman started his career solidly as the embedded curator at the Kunsthalle Bern but he was already being noticed for his work in the show "Dichtende Maler/Malende Dichter" (Painters-poets/poets-painters) at the Museum in St. Gallen. It was the year 1957 and he was only twenty four. While at the Bern he transformed the institution during his eight year tenure and mounted nearly twelve shows a year. His dynamic leadership saw the Bern transform into a meeting ground for emerging European and American artists. His tenure ended after his ground breaking show "Live in your head: When Attitudes Become Form" (1969) at the Bern. The show included arists like Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner etc. Bruce Altschuler describes it as, "the rise of the curator as creator" where the realm of the critical was applied to the art of exhibition making leading it up to be more informal and experimental. While the show was a landmark, historical one he resigned following differences with the board of Directors. He was the first "independent curator" and set up "Agency For Spiritual Guestwork". He also co founded the "Association of Curators of Contemporary Art" in 1969 and the next year curated "Happenings & Fluxus" at Kunstverein in Cologne. He was the curator of Documenta 5 and transformed it by conceiving it as a 100 day event rather than it taking the form of a museum. Szeemann almost singlehandedly gave birth to the genre of the 'travelling curator' as he traversed most of Europe creating legendary Shows. He died in the year 2005 while still working on "Visionary Belgium" at Palais Des Beux-Art in Brussels.
Walter Hopps started out as the same time as Szeemann. Their careers were strangely similar initially, as, Hopps acceded to the post of the director at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1964 at the age of thirty one he too was the youngest art museum director in the United States. Yet by this period he had already mounted a show of paintings on a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier when he was twenty two containing paintings by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and others, had started and run two galleries (Syndell Studios and the seminal Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz); had curated the first museum shows of Frank Stella's painting and Joseph Cornell's boxes, the first US retrospective of Kurt Schwitters, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art, and the first solo exhibition of Marcel Duchamp, in Pasadena in 1963.
While producing critically acclaimed and historically important exhibitions Hopps came into conflict with his institution and after four years at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps was asked to resign. He was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1970, then fired two years later. For Hopps, yet to come were exhibitions of Diane Arbus in the American pavilion at the Venice Bienniale in 1972; the Robert Rauschenberg midcareer survey in 1976; retrospectives at the Menil Collection of Yves Keiln, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst; and exhibitions of Jay DeFeo (1990), Ed Kienholz (1996 at Whitney), Rauschenberg again (1998), and James Rosenquist (2003 at the Guggenheim). Hopps estimated that he had organized 250 exhibitions in his 50 year career, and still had an exhibition, George Herms retrospective at the Santa Monice Museum running at the time of his death. Asked about his predecessors by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hopps named Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, "for his unrelenting rigor." " fine curating of an artist's work," he continued "that is, presenting it in an exhibition - requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist's work as a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibitionâ€¦ To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand. It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always try to get as peaceful and calm as possible." But around this calm and peaceful persona raged the "controlled chaos" of exhibition making. Hopps' real skills included an encyclopedic visual memory, the ability to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that made them sing, the personal charm to get people to do things for him, and an extraordinary ability to look at a work of art and then account for his experience of it, and articulate this account to others in a compelling and convincing way.
Szeemann and Hopps changed the role of the curator almost permanently and both although starting out with careers in didactic institutions ended up rejecting them to the extent as to question the form of the exhibitions and the bureaucracy surrounding them.
The death of these legendary curators in close intervals in 2005 marked the end of an era, but contemporary Curating has taken off from where Szeemann and Hopps left it. In fact, large curated shows had been around from before their time, Roger Fry had curated a show of the then contemporaries for the audience in England in the year 1910 and the Armory show (1913) in the USA was one of the largest of its time. The purpose of these shows was mainly to educate the public and also to bring new ideas home from the international scene. Today, however due to globalization and the proliferation of information via the Internet, the museum/gallery going public is aware of the art scene throughout the world. The market of exhibition making is now largely consolidated between the Biennials/Triennials, Art Fairs (private & public) and large exhibitions like the Documenta. The first Biennial was the one in Venice started in the year 1895 after the model of the World Art Fairs. The real reason behind starting the biennial was more economic than art historical. The wave of industrialization in Italy had failed to reach Venice on account of its location and unique town planning. However it was as popular a tourist destination then as it is today and this biennial was thought of as a welcome boost to the tourism industry. The Sao Paolo biennial was inaugurated more than fifty years later in 1951 but under similar conditions. The economy needed a boost and the newly opened museum of modern art of Sao Paolo brought exactly the Venetian model forward. Their intention was to transform the art scene into a global one thus at once pushing cultural tourism and internationalizing the local artist community. Almost 60 years later, today Sao Paolo is a thriving business city and not the originally envisaged cultural one. The biennial has continued to run and provide with an important platform for the Brazilian artists to interact and showcase in a truly international setting.
The Biennial model has its inherent drawbacks as it pits artist against artist and country against country in a bid to give them a chance for the assertion of self identity. Yet more and more cities have wanted the fruits of globalization and have set up events following this model to establish themselves on the map of the very competitive cultural tourism industry. Thus, even now this model seems to validate the economic reasons rather than artistic. All the players involved including artists, curators, critics, managers etc. seem to be the modes of production of the burgeoning cultural industry. Art is a spectacle now and attracts huge investments, having become a catalyst for globalized culture the rush to be a part of it is unprecedented. Despite having had setbacks in the recent economic slump the art market is showing signs of recovery, the recent art market confidence index by www.artprice.com is showing a positive confidence index of 42.7 points.
However, Critical thinking about this phenomenon has produced two non interacting discourses. While one continues to advocate the use of the biennial model, the other, postmodern scholarly discourse proposes to view artworks as self legitimizing annotations thus allowing the production of artworks to be illustrative of theoretical principals posed before the art work is even created. Ivo Mesquita believes that "Ironically, these latter discourses often count on the collaboration of artists and curators who want to maintain the status quo of the biennial model, along with its cult of celebrity". Thus, instead of following the biennial model which is more in line with the Olympics rather than art theoretical discourse it will be beneficial for both artists and curators to concentrate on interdisciplinary, intercultural shows where politics is part of the cultural discourse rather than institutional and where unresolved contradictions provide a boost to dynamic creativity.
The curator today is also a traveler, he traverses the globe following the exhibition circuit, keeping himself in the loop of the international art market, making sure he is not forgotten by the forces that be and as the opportunity presents itself partaking in their curatorial practice while presenting to the world an array of discourse within which his vision. As has the number of large art events increased so has the amount of traveling for the curator. When an art fair or a biennial ends the curator continues his pilgrimage through the art circuit and for the next large exhibition. Under these circumstances there are several questions that arise concerning the new age jet setting independent curator. The first and foremost question arises out of the sheer number of large scale art exhibitions that are open at any point of time. Who are these events for? Does it impact anyone outside of the art world after the show is over? What is the role of the independent curator involved in managing such an exhibition given the self conflicting nature of the various other powers active in putting up such a show? How does it affect a curator's practice while he tries to fit it around that of those of the other concerned parties? Is the impact positive or negative on the curator as well as the artists who participate? What about the audience? How far is traveling curators able to affect and participate in the critical discourse around the practice and will such activity remain in the domain of the academic? The answers to these questions are not immediate. However there remains a paradox within the format of the large Art Exhibitions. Such shows have not only increased in numbers but have also expanded geographically. This expansion conceptually certainly embraces artistic practices of parts of the world that have been formerly relegated to the periphery by the dominant internationalism of the European and American block of countries. These shows have no doubt created a continuous forum of dialogue . But, is one able to attend all such shows? How many for instance will take the trouble of going to the Dakar Biennial? Has the dialogue also expanded to the exchange of the aesthetic values and artistic creations? David Barrie in a recent article urges the curator to travel more and travel outside the sphere of the center. His concern is mainly with the lack of truly international art (in terms of diversity) in the collections of the contemporary museums, but will not the curator have to still answer the questions just previously asked? Will not the curator still judge the works of art from the periphery on the basis of the dominant centralized Americanized aesthetic sensibility? Barrie calls for a newer breed of the curator. It remains to be seen if his good intentions materialize.
Throughout the above discussion while the contemporary art curator has been discussed, one particular area of contemporary art has been completely neglected. We have mostly been concerned with what is traditionally been known as art and to a certain extent mixed media art through the forms of exhibitions and the role of the curator thereof. However a discussion on contemporary issue of curating art will be incomplete without the inclusion of the phenomenon described popularly as New Media Art.
So, what is New Media Art? It is beneficial to at this point keep the definition of New Media Art (NMA) to be as broad as "Works of Art created using new technologies such as computers". However, some have wanted to expand this to works of art created by all such media that are not traditionally utilized for the creation of art. Thus the challenges faced by curators of such art are also new and numerous. We will in the following few paragraphs take a look at the various modes of practice that the curators use and the different models of exhibitions and that are in context with the contemporary times.
Before we move on to the curatorial aspects, a short introduction to the genre by the way of a short history is necessary. The history of new media art can be traced back to the pioneering works of the Futurists, the Surrealists, Dada, Naum Gabo,, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and explicitly to the technological art which developed during the time of the second world war through the proliferation of technologies such as digital computing and radar, giving rise to discourses such as cybernetics, information theory and general systems theory. The modern and contemporary art galleries/museums have always more or less ignored the history of new media art and when at all representing it they generally treat it as a new phenomenon. Yet artistic response to these technological development and ideas had started to proliferate from the end of the Second World War. By the mid - 1960s, the increasing sophistication and availability of technology such as video and the ideas of theorists such as Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan gave further impetus to the development of art practices involving both new technologies themselves and related concepts. One of the most important developments of this period was that of the large scale multimedia works. This type of work intersected with developments in psychedelic rock music and underground environment, where, many later conceptual artists worked. Thus artists began to look at the possibilities of computing for making art and the relationship between the art and computer technology mostly became conceptual and although many of them were keen to exploit potential technology such as cybernetics, few actually used computers. The utopian beliefs embodying these exhibitions are hard to recapture and yet these thoroughly utopian projects also represented the beginning of its demise, the replacement of its idealism and techno-futurism with the irony and critique of conceptual art. Thus in the early 1970s art involving new technologies seemed to be superseded by other approaches. The growing disappointment with the counterculture in the early 1970s and the economic crisis of the same period did little to encourage technologically based utopianism. Nevertheless, the years from 1965 to the early 1970s were a high point for the exhibition and public visibility of art made using new technologies.
The curator's output is usually that of the exhibition but that might not be the case always. Exhibitions might take different forms viz. thematic group shows, mono graphic solo shows, blockbusters and even exhibitions with their own narratives and forms. However the exhibitions that are based in museums are legitimized exactly because they are based in museums and such institutions tend to consolidate history rather than support new art forms. Since the characteristic of the genre and thus its aesthetic is completely different, new models of exhibition making have to be taken into account. There are three distinctive models of exhibition making that can be applied to the new media arts. The first model is known as the Iterative model of exhibition making and is based on the work of Kathleen Pirrie Adams (2000). It is built around the embedded curator and describes how an exhibition might change as it is installed in different venues. New works may grow around the existing successful one and the work remains in progress. The second model, is known as the modular model is based on the works of freelance and adjunct curators (Czegledy,2002). It describes the exhibition as being part of a multilevel interpretative event with project managers in each location. With this kind of an approach elements of the overall structure could be scaled back or even increased without much effect to the overall coherence of the project. The third and final model is known as the distributive model which is based on Internet based art practices where formal exhibitions will not be the output, rather the curator creates his own infrastructure in the cloud of servers which is the Internet. These models are reflective of the changing dimension of the nature of curating in the new age and open up the discourse on the path contemporary curating is taking thus making it more receptive to new ideas and technologies and as such provide a lively boost to the arts.
Throughout the essay we have tried to show the various topical issues that have been affecting the curatorial world and have also shown the evolution of the profession throughout the past 5 decades. During this time the nature of the curator has undergone a sea change and thus the curatorial practice has also been affected deeply. Sociological changes and the rapid change in the nature of how information is dispersed have also affected the change in the curator. The use of technology in art and the rise of the independent curator have all affected the art world positively although critical examination reveals several unanswered questions. These questions need to be answered before a new wave of critical curating hits the art world. There is no question that the curator as an exhibition maker is quite successful and will remain so in the coming years unless the nature of the discourse changes drastically.