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The main objective of this essay is to investigate the issues relating to the concept of the "Contemporary Idea of the Curator" and examine what really happened over the last ten years so that curating became such a prominent and pervasive force in the art world.
In order to answer the question, In 1st part of this essay, I will be exploring the topic in 10 year chapters and identifying key changes through a pivotal figure for each corresponding decade. In order to identify the reasons behind this trend I will be briefly covering the concept of "Independent exhibition makers" of the 1960s to 1970s into and via experimental exhibition programmes and international biennales, the shift towards the 1980s and 1990s through pivotal figures and the "Super-Curators" of their times.
The aim of the 2nd Part of the essay is to bring the reader up to date with the "Noughties" where the concept and the definition of the Curator has become ever more diverse, confusing and in some cases dumbed-down to be popular. In doing so, I want to discover the major influences behind the increasing popularity of the term "curator" in particular over the past decade.
As Christopher Cherix points out "If the modern figure of the art critic has been well recognised since Diderot and Baudelaire, the Curator's true raison d'être remains largely undefined" (Obrist, 2008: 5) The purpose of this essay is to reveal the cultural formations which led to such confusion and perhaps to identify future trends.
The period of my research is limited to 1999-2009. However, in order to give full background information, I will be referring to historic information with particular focus on the 1960's onwards.
For the purpose of this essay my research material is limited to the boundaries of Western Europe and North America.
In terms of methodology I have followed a research-based study including curatorial history books written on this topic, relevant magazines and periodicals and finally interview notes published online and print by other researchers.
1. Overview of the term "the Curator"
The Oxford Dictionary describes the term Curator as a form of a keeper of a museum or collections and confirms that the word originates from the Latin word of curare 'take care of'. (Sykes, 1986: 232) In ecclesiastical law, a curator is an appointed warden or guardian who acts on behalf of the mentally ill. In German Ecclesiastical legal terminology the "Kuratus" is the chaplain of the area belonging to a parish's association. It has been suggested that Curators have always been an amalgamation of bureaucrat and priest (Huber in Tischler and Tannert, 2004: 125). In short the term defines a role that reflects an enlarged field of responsibility with a
never ending push and pull effect of the control of public assets and providing services against providing a deeper meaning to a much wider community. (Allen in Rakier and Schavemaker, (2007): 146)
Whatever the core meaning of the title may suggest, the idea of a Curator has always played an important role in presenting and preserving the articles of museums or the private collections of wealthy individuals. From the Cabinet of curiosities to the Enlightenment and beyond, and as the direct result of the changing nature of expectation of how art is to be displayed, the Curator became a key figure in the representation of art to the public.
Almost 200 years later, the public understanding and perception of the term curate and the idea of the "Curator" has moved on to something that would have been completely alien to Victorian custodians of arts and culture. Even if it is written as a slight parody on contemporary usage of the English language, a recent article published in The New York Times highlights the current misperception of what "curate" really means to the wider public. "The word "curate," lofty and once rarely spoken outside exhibition corridors or British parishes, has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, which seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting. In more print-centric times, the term of art was "edit" - as in a boutique edits its dress collections carefully. But now, among designers, disc jockeys, club promoters, bloggers and thrift-store owners, curate is code for "I have a discerning eye and great taste." (Williams, 2.10.2009, On the Tip of Creative Tongues:)
Aside from the term being applied far more creatively than the Latin roots perhaps suggest, the real seismic change has also shifted the meaning of Curator as it was known before. According to David Levi Strauss of the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, in the past decade or so the Curators of Contemporary Art have become mediating figures in highlighting the relationship between the role of Art and Artist in society and by doing so they themselves were burdened and are often forced to take "a curving and indirect course" between arts and public. (Strauss, 22.1.2007, The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps).
As put by the graduates of the final year students on the MA Curating Contemporary Art of Royal College of Art, in 2003, implicit in this change is the recognition of the new and radical shifts surrounding the boundaries of the Title "Curator" and perhaps allowing new values free from the expectation of the past. "The curator's role has in fact furtively shifted onto higher ground. His or her competence is relocated from a direct relation with selection and display to an ability to generate narrative and direct a sequence of experiences". (The Straight or Crooked Way, (2003): 12)
2. Changing Nature of the Curatorship since the 60's
2.1 Contemporary Idea of the Curator: Makers of Exhibitions
One of the defining characteristics of the 1960s is that the idea of an independent curator came to the fore. Perhaps this is not surprising given that the 1960s was a period of liberalisation of the cultural and political agenda and furthermore culture became a vehicle for protesting against the establishment. In the 1960s the curators also began to question their role within the art establishment and started to emerge as a more distinct profession in their own right. According to Susan Crean " (it is in the 60s) The independent curators have separated the work of preparing exhibitions from the task of keeping collections (Rakier, Schavemaker, 2007: p148) With this in mind, the role of the curator moved away indefinitely from just a caretaker position. An influential Swiss Curator Harald Szeemann led the way and he is referred to as the pioneering figure that is often credited with the concept of an independent curator.
Szeemann defined himself as the "Ausstellungsmacher" a maker of Exhibitions (Obrist, 2008: 79) and Jennifer Allen, in her talk titled "Care for Hire" refers to Szeemann as a legendary figure who has heroically broken away from his institutional expectations. After he was rejected by the commission of Kunsthalle Bern, with regard to the Joseph Beuys exhibition, he resigned and on that same year he formed his infamous Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit - the Agency for Intellectual Foreign Labour "By casting the freelance curator as a temporary foreign guest, Szeemann mapped out a resolutely international freelance curatorial territory." (Rakier, Schavemaker, 2007: p148)
His signature exhibition "When Attitude Becomes Form: Live in your head", combining works of 70 artists including Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman, became the first exhibition of its kind which redefined the role of the Curator. "By taking risks, being entrepreneurial, creative, risk taking, making things happen and keeping it going. Szeemann stated that every project was an adventure, but starting again with every project" (Irving, 4.8.2009, Independent Contemporary Art Curating: - HaroldÂ Szeemann)
In his interview with Obrist in 1996, he defines the role of a curator as; 'The curator has to be flexible, sometimes he is the servant, sometimes the assistant, sometimes he gives artists ideas of how to present their work; in group shows he's the coordinator, in thematic shows, the inventor.." (Obrist, 2008: 100)
The fundamental value for Szeemann, which also a summary of why he is a defining character for the changing nature of Curating, is accurately captured by David Levi Strauss, in an article titled The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps" - an understanding of the importance of remaining independent of institutional prejudices and arbitrary power arrangements; a keen sense of history; the willingness to continually take risks intellectually, aesthetically, and conceptually; and an inexhaustible curiosity about and respect for the way artists work". (Strauss, 22.1.2007, The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps).
2.2. Breaking free from "Old Museums": Marcia Tucker
"Today it's different. Museums listen". (Townsend , 2003: 101)
The contemporary idea of museums is a topic for another essay, but constant changes in society and the communities which museums serve also brought significant changes in the curator's role. One of the pioneering figures of this change is Marcia Tucker. She was a former Whitney Museum Curator and in 1975, following the severe criticism she received for exhibiting the works of Richard Tuttle, she moved on to set up her own museum entitled the New Museum of Contemporary Art, dedicated to contemporary art, in downtown Manhattan. (www.marciatucker.com, accessed 21.12.2009)
What made her stand above the rest of her peer group was her ability to understand the curator's responsibility to the communities in which they worked. She also wanted museums "to welcome art that was excluded elsewhere because it was difficult, out of fashion, unsalable or made by artists who were not white or male or straight." (Smith, 19.10.2006, Marcia Tucker, 66, Founder of a Radical Art Museum, Dies). She once said "Loving the margins is risky, because you're not only in unfamiliar territory, but often in hostile terrain as well". (Tucker, 2008: 2).
I believe the most intriguing legacy of the 70s era, thanks to likes of Tucker, is the rising role of the independent curator and specialist audience in the light of the newly acquired role of museums. This continued the trend from the 1960s, where museums and other displays of artistic culture were seen as a positive force for social cohesion and a stand against an increasingly commercialised consumerist society.
2.3. Making of "Interdisciplinary" practice: Pontus Hulten
One of the main characteristics of the contemporary curator is his/her changing relationship with the artists and institutions they are expected to work with. Although not a curator, Pontus Hultén was an influential Museum Director who helped to redefine the profession in this sense. "He wanted museums to be user-friendly meeting places that challenged all kinds of accepted ideas and preferred exhibitions that embraced a range of artistic mediums and periods. He is often credited with inventing the interdisciplinary exhibition and the idea of organizing shows working with teams of curators". (NY Times, 30.10.2006, Pontus Hulten, 82, curator)
As the Director of the Moderna Museet for 15 years, Hultén defined the Museum as an elastic and open space, hosting a plethora of activities within the walls: lectures, film series, concerts and debates. (Obrist, 2008 :32).
In his interview with Obrist, Hultén defines a museum director's first task as "to create a public - not just to do great shows, but to create an audience that trusts the institution" (Obrist, 2008 : 36). Although his work at Moderna Museet in Sweden has been regarded as the very early example of how museum space can be used as a "meeting ground for an entire generation", by the mid 1980s he was successfully applying this to the Centre Pompidou through direct and intense hands-on applications. (Obrist, 2008 : 36).
This reflected a move away from the "protest tradition" of the 1960s and 1970s in favour of creating an experience that was less overtly political and more about creating a sellable product for the audience as a consumer of culture.
2.4. Introduction of "In-Between": Hans Ulrich Obrist
It is argued that one of the most characteristic features of the curating scene in the 1990s is the proliferation of "exhibition making" practices. Following the slow brewing effects of changes over the previous decade, much more flexible models of exhibiting started to take place and, most importantly of all, new curatorial ideas and experiments and multi disciplinary co-operations sprang up. Over the plethora of biennials, experimental exhibitions and international programmes, alongside freelancers, the "Super Curators" or star exhibition makers started to make headlines.
The most prominent example of this new breed of curators is the Swiss National and current co-director of exhibitions and programmes at London's Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist. He was described as "one of the most active and well-networked figures the contemporary art world has seen. It has been reported that since the beginning of the 90s he has curated more than 150 shows around the globe. He is also the first curator to top Art Review magazine's "power 100" list for 2009 - who's who to contemporary art. (Evening Standard, 22.10.09, Hans Ulrich Obrist - the God of planet art)
In his book he describes the function of the Curator as: "The curator should be like a dervish who circles around the artworks, there has to be a complete certainty on the part of the dancer for it all to begin, but once the dance has started it has nothing to do with power or control.. I also like the idea of the curator or critic as a supplicant. It's about forgetting everything you think that you know and even allowing yourself to get lost". (Obrist, 2008: 235). For him the aim of the profession is "not to follow the anti-museum activity of the 60s or 70s, but more or less welcoming an era for "in between spaces". He goes on to describe the curating in the mid nineties as "IN - BETWEEN displaying and concealing, near and far, concentration and distraction, fragment and connection, original and copy, affirmation and negation, horizontal expansion and vertical depth. From maximum exposure to exhibitions on the verse of invisibility: back and forth". (Obrist, 1997, In the Midst of Things, At the Centre of Nothing, A&D Vol 12: 86)
At the same period, despite the fervent activities of curators around the globe, and energy within there was much criticism levelled at curators as well. In an article entitled Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur, Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollack argue that this further "crisis" of the profession of curator was due to a number of factors, such as the rapid increase in the number of posts, widening recruitment criteria, and the opening up of entry routes into the profession, increasing the diversification of institutions as well as increasing specialisation among curators. (Greenberg, Ferguson, and Nairne, 1996: 232)
Melanie Townsend in her book Beyond the Box, argues that in the 1990s "The idea of curator as "auteur" stamping their mark on the exhibition has become a flashpoint in the "crisis of authority," wherein the notion of the curator as author is placed under interrogation. Who is speaking for whom? Where are the artists and the audience presentation and interpretation of contemporary art?". (Townsend , 2003: 18)
3. External Influences
As we entered the first decade of 21st century with the historical background I have briefly covered in the previous section, there were also important outside influences waiting to shape the new character of the profession of curating,. As in any other profession, while the internal shifts of emphasis and new influences are undeniably prominent, external influences on the arts and culture scene, as well as others, were equally important. In particular there were 3 major influences which have defined the decade ahead:
1. Changes patterns of communication
2. Influences over the psyche of audiences
3. Noughties Political discourse - (UK in particular)
4. Lifestyle Changes
3.1 Communication Revolution
"Today, 10 years into the new century, theatre workers, like the rest of us, sit staring at computer screens all day, and sometimes all night. Hardly surprising, then, that this has been the decade of Looking away" (Hare, 17.10.2009; It all started 96 hours after 9/11)
Although the internet was available to selected academia as early as the 1960s, it was not until the late 1990s that it started to revolutionise communications profoundly as high-speed connections became more commonplace both in work and at home and the Internet became a household name.
With a corporate mission "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," the "re-launching" of Google in 2002 kick-started the internet after the gloomy days of the "dot com" boom and bust . With services which include Google Earth, Gmail and Android phones, the term Google is firmly now part of the English Language and entered in to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. (SearchEngineHistory, accessed 21.12.2009)
Following the advent of accessibility and ease of use, social media sites and all other forms of "entertainment" made people's attitude to technology and privacy change. Facebook was formed in the dorm room of Harvard University as way of keeping university students in touch. That was in 2004, today it has allegedly 350 million active subscribers. (facebook.com, accessed on 17.12.2009) Youtube, which was formed only in 2005 boasts a usage figure of 100 million and many other social media sites such as Twitter continue to impress people by their constant innovative attitude to communication and ever increasing number of active users. Although it should be noted that all these sites currently operate with significant financial losses - Youtube, for example, is currently estimated to lose its owners, Google, around $500m each year. (comscore.com, accessed on 17.12.2009)
3.2 Outside influences on psyche of audiences
Alongside the backdrop of alarmingly fast changes in the technological and communication scene, the noughties will also be remembered for the outside influences which inevitably had an impact on the psyche of all cultural audiences. The "politics of fear" is best described by Mick Hume of Spiked: "The decade that began with a global panic over how the 'millennium bug' Y2K was going to bring down Western civilisation is ending with a global mega-panic about how climate change is going to bring down civilisation, life and the planet. In between we have witnessed panics about the threat posed to our society by everything from terrorism to obesity." (Hume, 22.12.2009, The decade that politicsÂ forgot)
Terrorism is one of the key words that focused the minds of ordinary people on the street. The attacks on New York on September 11, 2001 and 8 years of war against a very specific kind of enemy made the public, in particular the western
audience, more susceptible to cultural overtones, religious differences and geographical divisions.
3.3 Impact of Noughties political discourse
The Noughties political discourse, in particular in England, had a direct impact on the numbers visiting galleries over the past decade. The Labour government elected in 1997 had an agenda to promote social inclusion as a means to fixing what they regarded as a society whose communal bonds had been destroyed by 18 years of market-led politics under previous Conservative administrations. (DCMS, 2004, Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st Century Life)
The abolition of entrance fees to museums and galleries was one of many ways of making "culture accessible" and thereby improving social inclusion. The government renamed the Department of National Heritage as the "Department for Culture, Media and Sport". The prime minister led the way in the rebranding of British culture. (Burton, 1999: 244). The government announced the gradual implementation of free entrance to museums by 2001.
Public Service Agreements (PSAs) set out each Government Department's aims, objectives and key outcome-based targets. According to the UK Public Service Agreements targets set out by the UK Government and monitored since 2002, in terms of Museums and Galleries the UK Government aims to:
- Continuing to deliver Renaissance to the Hub museums and so increase the number of visits from priority groups
- Continuing to encourage sponsored museums and galleries to pursue particular programmes aimed at priority groups
- Promoting partnerships between museums and galleries aimed at encouraging participation from priority groups. (DCMS, accessed on 21.12.2009)
3.4 Lifestyle Changes
More broadly, the Noughties will be remembered, apart from the rapid rise of social networking sites and reality television which allowed many more individuals to finally enjoy Warhol's fifteen minutes of "fame", for the rise and fall of cheap money and easy credit. Before it all came to sudden halt in mid 2007, with the first run on a British bank for over a century, the availability of easy credit and the proliferation of cheap consumer goods based on technological advancements and mass production from the East, made rampant consumerism the most noticeable characteristic of the decade.
In this decade consumers were asked to be more personal in their choice and to personalise the commodities that they owned:
" (now) We have i-phones, i-pods, YouTube, Myspace, TiVo, as well as every single business that is focused on the unique, individual consumer, rather than aggregates. Amazon.com makes note of what you've purchased in the past, and will recommend products based on those purchases. Nike will allow you to design your own shoes, based on varieties of models, materials, and colors - topped off with the option of having your own embossed initials decorated onto the shoes." (Anspaugh, accessed 21.12.2009 From the 60's to the 90's and Beyond)
The coincidence of cheap credit, communications and technology revolution, heavy-handed political patronage and audiences seeking the "heart of a heartless world" (Marx, 1843) reflected profoundly on how culture was perceived, consumed and bought.
4 Internal Influences:
4.1 Changing Structure of Museums and Blockbuster Shows
In the early 20th Century, John Cotton Dana proposed that museums should be a collection of people not of objects, overcoming the idea of museums as a distant institution, and envisioning a museum that is much more relevant and closer to the citizens (The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 8 (Aug., 1929), pp. 215). By the time we get to the early days of the 21st century, the aim of getting close has become a given right. In April 2000 the Chairman of the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries Matthew Evans suggested that museum collections should get out more - to schools, shops and pubs - and that national museums are isolationist". (Kendall, 2009, Review of the Decade, Museums Journal, December 20).
It is seldom disputed that the past 10 years will be remembered as the decade that the Museums and Galleries, thanks to the Heritage Lottery Funding and free public access, have gone through a major transformation. " (in the past decade) Museums have got better at: reaching audiences they don't normally reach; telling stories, including difficult ones; physical and intellectual access; and thinking about collections, including trick decisions about getting rid of stuff". (Heal, 2009, "A decade in the sun comes to an end, Museums Journal, December: 4).
However as government granted museums are encouraged and judged by the footfall, or the competition from the proliferation of exhibition formats outside the walls of the museums started to affect attendance figures (and by return ticket sales), museums, particularly large ones with government subsidies had to push the boundaries even more. Although it is a relatively new form of exhibiting, the concept of large temporary exhibitions or in other words blockbuster art shows, started to appear in the most prominent museums of the Western World. It is said that in 1976, the King Tut exhibition was the first of its kind and was seen by more than 8 million people. Thomas Hoving, the Met's museum director at the time, is credited for this innovation.
(Layako, 2009, Thomas Hoving: The Man Who Made the Modern Met)
In an article entitled The object of Art Museum, the Former Director of the Courtauld Institute and Harvard Art Museums, Jane Cuno writes, "Thomas Krens, the director of Guggenheim Museum, has codified the successful twenty century museum experience as "great collections, great architecture, great special exhibition, a great second exhibition, two shopping opportunities, a high tech interface via the internet and economies of scale via global network" I offer an alternative museum experience: the permanent collection and opportunity it affords for sustained and repeated engagements with individual works of art, presented without the hyperbolic promotional apparatus of the temporary exhibition" (Cuno, 2006: 55)
Although any curator who has been employed by such large institutions or temporarily hired to create one of these shows enjoyed the fame and the professional recognition. Its impact on smaller museums and galleries as well as less well-known art has been arguably less favourable and there were many criticism of such large museums and blockbusters of this decade for dumbing -down the "art". On the eve of a launch of 2009 Blockbuster show Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler at the British Museum,
Jonathan Jones, Guardian art critic accused blockbusters for creating art with "hassle and hysteria" at the expense of "real art": "It happens every autumn. And the centre of this phenomenon is the capital. Every September, culminating in October, the London art calendar kicks into a merciless machinery of openings, events and parties...But does all the noise really have much to do with great art? I'm not sure. Perhaps the popularity of "art autumn" is precisely that it spares us the difficulty of really engaging with a work of art and thinking about it in a personal way. (Jones, 11.09 2009, Escape autumn's blockbuster art shows)
4.2 Rise in Audience numbers
There is an undisputable increase in the number of visitors to galleries and museums over the past decade. According to UK Government statistics all through the decade the trend is clear that since the introduction of free access to galleries and museums there is a nationwide increase in attendance figures. Data for 2008/09 as published by Department for Culture, Media and Sport is a good example of this trend::
"Total visits: There were 40.3 million visits to 17 of the Department's sponsored museums. The following chart show how this is broken down by museum."
4.3 Blurring relationship between the Artist - Critique and Curator
One of the significant changes that occurred over the past decade is the erosion, which was started by Szeemann, of the boundary between curators, artists, and critics. In some quarters, the traditional role of the curator as someone who takes cares of things started to be replaced by a new kind of practice where groups of artists or curators started to do their "own" exhibitions, often as a part of group work or extension of studio studies. Although it may be a much less academic approach than the traditional job title entails, this started to become a more involving and team-based activity.
Ivan Jurakic, a visual artist and curator from Canada, explains her role as: "I see that I don't wear two hats. I've just got one very big hat that allows me to do all of these different things. Essentially, whether I'm curating or whether I'm making artwork, I consider my practice to be generative. Whether as an artist or as a curator, I consider myself a problem-solver. For me, one activity always informs the other". (Jurakic, 02.11 2005, Art Curators talk about curating)
4.4 Changing Nature of Workplace and job description
In 2003, the former Chief Curator of the Museum of Modern Art described the mood amongst his colleagues as "the embodiment of demoralisation, resentment, anxiety, stress and alienation over what was happening in his or her museum" (Wallach, 2003, "demoralisation, resentment, anxiety, stress" Art News January: 112 ). By the mid noughties it was clear that the rapid growth of institutions and the changing role of museums, created a feeling of uncertainty among senior curators . Stephanie Baron, the Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art was also pointing at the "drastically changing relationship between the ecosystem of our institutions, with directors, trustees, other departments and "education" expectation of the shows and museums, With so many institution putting so much increased emphasis on education, whose voice interprets the programme? â€¦we have been behind the eight ball getting together to share concerns". (Wallach, 2003, "demoralisation, resentment, anxiety, stress" Art News January: 112
As a result of this in 2003 the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) was formed. In their website they outline their mission as to support and promote the work of museum curators by creating opportunities for networking, collaboration, professional development and advancement. (artcurators.org (accessed on 12.12.2009)
In a November 2007 survey, the American Association of Museums asked its members "What do you think is the single most significant challenge facing the museum profession over the next several years?" The top four challenges they identified were: Funding, Technology, Leadership development and maintaining the public relevance of museums in a time of rapid social and cultural change. (futureofmuseums. (2007))
While Museum Curators were focusing on their changing job description and trying to adapt to what is exactly expected of them in their institution, in the outside world independent curators also started to display a different approach. Since the mid nineties freelance curators provided the energy and enthusiasm of ever changing alternative exhibition models, or "in-betweens". "However, since the 1990s, an exclusive group of star curators who travel around the world organising large scale international exhibitions that no longer challenge existing exhibition models but rather integrate contemporary art into mainstream culture". ((Rakier, Schavemaker 2007: p145)) Star or Super Curators are an "independent" breed of curators who may not belong to any institution but are employed not just to curate in the traditional style but to collaborate, network and fundraise. According to 2005, Contemporary Special Issue on Curators, some of the super curators of this decade are: Daniel Birnbaum, Adam Szymczyk, Laura Hoptman, Jens Hoffmann, Beatrx Ruf and Hans Ulrich Obrist.( (Rakier, Schavemaker 2007: p150) .
However the story is also a Tale of 2 Cities: there is a large discrepancy between the perception of "Super Curators" and what is really happening at the grass roots level, particularly with regard to pay. According to a survey which was conducted by PayScale between Aug 10, 2009 and Oct. 1, 2009, curating was number 12 in the most stressful jobs that pay badly chart. According to this research, starting from a database of over 2000 jobs, Payscale used data from over 36,000 respondents who ranked their jobs for quality of life factors, and chose those requiring a bachelor's degree or higher where the national median pay is less than $65,000pa. (Dickler, 16.12 2009, Stressful Jobs That Pay Badly)
Here I return to the first part of my essay title, the development of the contemporary idea of the curator since the 1960s:
The UK's official graduate career site describes the profession of curating as: "A museum or art gallery curator acquires, cares for, develops, displays and interprets a collection of artefacts or works of art in order to inform, educate and entertain the public." It goes on to say "There is growing pressure for museums, galleries and other heritage and tourism attractions to work together to share expertise. When organising exhibitions, therefore, curators need to publicise and market them appropriately to ensure they appeal to a wide cross-section of the general public, including overseas tourists" (prospects.ac.uk)
Although it is adequate in its simple aim, once the main component of the description which is "the museum", "collection" and "public as audience" is removed, the solid foundations of this description start to fall apart. In other words the description above works only if it is assumed that a curator is a salaried employee of a museum with a clear brief, collection or audience. Perhaps this was true in the past. "Between World War II and the mid-1960s, this was usually a (white) woman from a 'good' background, often underpaid (men, 'naturally' were the directors), who functioned as a bridge between the power of the rich collector (via the museum) and the rest of the art world." (Siegelaub, 2001 p. 156. cited in Antmen, Critict's Role in the Age of the Curator, accessed 19.12.).
In this essay I have tried to explore how the transformation took place over the past half century via pivotal characters. Since the mid 60's and 70s people wanted to break free, Szeemann and Tucker showed how to do that spectacularly. In he 80s and beyond institutions had to respond and Pontus Hultén paved the way for interdisciplinary work. And with their new found state patronage and easily available money, from the 90s onwards Curators like Obrist found a new way of Exhibition making.
Therefore the term no longer implies this isolated intellectual figure who works safely behind the walls of the institution which hired him but rather someone who has moved in to the full glare of direct exposure to the public in the form of a "mediator" as well as "gate keeper". This also perhaps provides a degree of answer as to why Curators have become more visible characters during the same period. In the age of alternative celebrity culture, Curators perhaps filled a hole which only a few were aware of in the 1960s.
The second part of this essay asked whether these developments came about as a result of the demand/need of the audience. The historical evidence shows that broadly they did in the sense that curators have attempted to respond to the changes in broader society. However, many of the changes made over the last decade were potentially unsustainable because they were based on a specific set of circumstances, particularly the rapid expansion of political patronage and cheap money which in turn drove huge changes in the character of museums and artistic exhibitions.
As we approach the second decade of 21st century, "a decade in the sun comes to an end".(Museums Journal, (2009): 1) Although curators as Makers of Exhibition are still making the headlines in an ever bolder and louder fashion and art exhibitions, biennales, blockbuster openings are still taking place, it will be a challenge to see if the record rises in the audience figures will be sustained during the near future, where a severe contraction of public money is inevitable in Europe and the USA.
At the same time, I believe the professional dynamics of the profession of Curating will continue to change and dazzle people as their new role of "mediation" will continue to search for its real meaning in society. It may also bring a degree of nostalgia to some in quarters, particularly to those who will be adversely affected by the changing socio economical circumstances in the outside the Art world. Daniel Birnbaum's prediction for the future is "when new cultural formations appear they tend to use fragments from already obsolete forms.. the future of exhibition making will deploy devices we once knew but had forgotten about it" (Obrist, 2008: 239)
Whatever is around the corner Curators will be at the heart of the changes ahead and their continued prominence and pervasive presence in the art world will depend on them responding, as they have over the past 50 years, to a new period of cultural change with a new perspective for the profession they are in.