With Practicality comes a Practice: the Artist as Curator
In France, 1648, a group of court artists sent a petition to King Louis XIV, who at the time was 10 years old, requesting the establishment of a Royal Academy of Painting, which would distinguish their work from the artisan trades. To make their case, they exhibited a grand display of works – all of which glorified the monarch and sought to demonstrate painting as a fine art solely dedicated to “the pursuit of virtue”.* After much opposition from guilds and corporations, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was secured alongside academies in Holland, England and Italy, and with it the status of the new academic artist as a professional distinct from the guilded tradesman.
This is the earliest example I can find of the artist as curator. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it announces a time when art and its accessory occupations of criticism and curation were undergoing intense professionalisation. Subsequent manifestations of the artist as curator, culled unsystematically from Europe and North America’s art historical annals, are equally connected to moments when artists took it upon themselves to reform officially and socially decreed policies regarding their profession, and thereby redefine the cultural status of works of art. And with the awakening of artist as curator come more intricate, intelligent, and complex understandings of the ways that exhibitions mediate the public and private sphere beyond the mere display of objects.
To fully address the public and private, commercial and critical ways in which art exhibitions are intertwined, interpreted, absorbed and denied vis-à-vis a consideration of the artist as curator might actually require a re-writing of art history as we know it – too great a task for me – a non-historian. What I can do is posit the relevance of the artist as curator in art practice, and to offer some examples of how artists imagine this role today.
When critics and members of the public in 1800s France were invited to view the new society exhibitions, they were entering a world dominated by artists – where artists selected the work on the walls and arranged every aspect of its presentation.
Consider for instance the Paris Salon – an annual exhibition juried by academy members to present the finest examples of classical French peinture. By 1830, fringe exhibitions known as Salons des Refusés – translated from French to mean “Salons of the Refused” – were being mounted by artists whose work the Paris Salon had refused official entry. Hosted in living rooms and small galleries, the artist as curator was an important component to these and other similar salon-style presentations, where groups of affiliated peers organised counter-exhibitions to the well-bridled Academy shows.
The most famous among the Paris Salons des Refusés occurred in 1863, when a group of artists interested in painting “every day life” were outraged by the unprecedented number of works (over 3,000) the jury rejected that year. As usual, they organised an exhibition of refused work, yet in a controversial move they sought permission from the government to go above the jury’s head and exhibit the Salon des Refusés in an annex alongside the regular Salon. In a decision that caused mayhem among Paris’s art constabulary, Emperor Napoléon III granted permission and the 1863 Salon des Refusés became the first to be officially sponsored by the French government. Among other works, it included one of the most significant paintings of modern life, Édouard Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe. The Impressionists continued to exhibit their works in successive Salons des Refusés, consistently dismantling the critical sway of the Paris Salon and allowing the public to judge their work. By 1881, the government had withdrawn official sponsorship of the Salon. In its place, a group of artists organised the Société des Artistes Français to take responsibility for the show. Soon after this another group that included Ernest Meissonier, Puvis de Chavannes, and Auguste Rodin seceded to form the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and in their newly founded association they organised their own exhibition, the Salon du Champs de Mars. Following in this vein, in 1903 a group of painters and sculptors led by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin organised the exhibition that would become the showpiece of 20th century European art, the Salon d’Automne. Jacques Villon, one of the artists who helped organise the drawing section of the first salon would later help the Puteaux Group gain recognition with showings at the Salon des Indépendants. Meanwhile, in North America the Association of American Painters and Sculptors organised the first Armory Show in New York in 1913, run by artists Arthur Davies and Walt Kuhn and critic Walter Pach. It displayed some 1,250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by over 300 European and American artists, including Marcel Duchamp who famously exhibited his Nude Descending on a Staircase No.2. The rest, as they say, is history.
The significance of the artist association in the development of the artist as curator persists today, for example in Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy annual exhibition, a relatively unchanged descendant of the society exhibitions held in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. As such they have done little to progress the role of the artist as curator beyond the salon-style show of a bygone era. While the context of these shows may be clear and the premise uncomplicated, at least on the surface, they exist primarily as an institutionalised reinforcement of values – to the exclusion of other ideas that might be present in the exhibition. Although more complex in origin and meaning, aspects of the end-of-year Fine Art degree shows or MA exhibitions also incorporate remote notions of the artist as curator. These shows are produced by and for the artists they represent, with the support of their ‘member’ organisation (school). A recognised lack of critical intent may be why many schools now commonly invite a guest-curator to oversee these shows.
Self-organising is vital to any consideration of the artist as curator, and the ways in which the artist as curator has evolved through a cast of artist-initiated and run associations illustrates that artists (as early as 1648 France) have been deeply and actively involved in self-organisation as a form of curating.
Today artists continue to curate in ways akin to the salon-style, perhaps as a type of refusé in response to an official exhibition, or as a means to simply prepare an exhibition of recent work for a new audience. With the advent of artist-run spaces in the 1970s and 80s a new type of artist as curator emerges. Project in Dublin, founded by artists in 1969, and its counterparts in the US and London, directly positioned artists at the centre of their exhibition programmes. Artists selected the work, and instead of long-term planning for 6-8 week shows, exhibitions were usually in short, 2-3 week rotations. Flexibility, experimentation and support of unestablished artists countered both the institutional framework the museum and the commercial agenda of the gallery. Known in general terms as ‘alternative’ venues, gradually these spaces have morphed into variations of the organisations they sought to oppose, to become new hybrids of the museum and the gallery. Today, Project et al represent a prototype of a particular kind of arts organisation, working to complement established spaces rather than counter them, and the artist as curator has been replaced by a new creed of professional programme directors and curators.
There are art spaces where closely affiliated peer groups – for example Catalyst Arts in Belfast, Transmission in Glasgow, and Orchard in New York (which ran for 3 years from 2005-2008) – radically assign the role of artist as curator at the core of their activities. Initiated as self-organised venues, the responsibilities for planning and curating exhibitions falls upon a committee of individual artists who work together on all aspects of the programme, including fund-raising, administration and governance, and future planning. Here, modes of self-organising depend on an infrastructure that includes a physical space. Self-organising can also involve the artist as curator as the generator of events that expand beyond the exhibition – and beyond the exhibition venue – to off-site events, public gatherings, one-night performances, screenings, etc.**
As artists tapped into and defined tasks now associated with curating, long before the role of the professional ‘curator’ was named or even imagined, the modern art exhibition also progressed from historic collections into the temporal, ahistoric and thematic events we know today. By the 1920s artists were fully conscious of the exhibition as a revolutionary figure in the story of art, such that El Lissitzky aimed to exhibit an exhibition and Dadaist and Surrealist activities explicitly re-imagined conventions in exhibiting. In a vivid description by curator Germano Celant…
“[Surrealist exhibitions] wanted to encourage all senses of the imagination, and they valued the interference of the outside world, whether it took the form of dirt, error, sex, disorder chance, disgust, fear, perversion[…]And so in their exhibitions, from 1938-1947, the space was inundated with pulsating sensations, involving the spectators” [emphasis mine].
It is precisely in the intensity of the viewer’s experience that the exhibition begins to work against conventional directives for experiencing individual works of art and towards entire, spatial arrangements. Environments were filled to capacity – the work occupied the walls, the floors, the ceilings. And visitors reacted, usually to some level of psychological shock, the Surrealists preferred brand of audience participation.
But beyond theatrics, the Surrealist exhibition understood art in relationship to other cultural and social systems. And with these developments we can begin to recognise dimensions of the artist as curator that lead into the artist-curator – an individual whose practice exists in an expanded field, where the radical reworkings of presentation, exhibition, display, and installation are fundamental to the practice of being an artist. By 1957, in an ambitious inhabitation of the artist-curator, Richard Hamilton made the now famous An Exhibit at the ICA in London. Hamilton’s amalgamation of images, artworks and display techniques arguably created a new standard in both artistic and curatorial practice. Marcel Broodthaers’ landmark 1968 project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles is another key example of this kind of work.
As we jump through the 20th century and into the 21st, taking into account the artist-curator as a principle player, we can locate examples as diverse as Fluxus and the Situationists, to Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD and Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro’s Womanhouse, to the current practices of Liam Gillick, General Idea, Bik van Der Pol, Group Material, Pil and Galia Kollectiv, Gavin Wade, Atelier Van Leishout, Kathy Slade, Paul O’Neill, Nayland Blake, and many, many others.***
While the political and interpretive agendas may diverge (to the extreme), each of these examples prepares the exhibition as a discursive site, inextricably tied to the artist-curator as a proponent of collective work. Without entering into a narration of particular projects, what is important here is how these developments extend art-making beyond conservative, traditional ideas of medium or ‘discipline’. These practices shift artistic practice and in doing so they move us, the audience, from a single understanding of ‘art’ towards a fuller terrain of creative practices in visual culture.
A Last Word about Professionalisation
Politics, criticism and representation intersect in the exhibition perhaps more concretely than in other social and cultural manifestations – and for this very reason, the artist as curator embodies a link to the impact of exhibitions on artistic production and reception. Indeed, the relatively modern awareness of ‘audience’ that is now integral to exhibition-making arises through the artist’s – or artist as curator’s – cognizance of how artworks circulate and are introduced to the public. Without a doubt, a notion of the artist as curator precedes even a remote understanding of a ‘curator’ as the person charged with the tasks associated with exhibiting art.
As artistic practice continues to expand through trans- and inter-disciplinary applications of the curatorial, it has become a worry (for some) to establish where artwork ends and curating begins. For the most part, I find these debates sorely limited. In thinking about situations or contexts where we find the artist as curator, it is important to remember that the curatorial evolves through artistic practice. The curator emerges in a history of art, bringing different sets of professional circumstances along the way. What it is to curate has shifted towards further participation in the production of meaning. These shifts have led to a blurring of the boundaries between the artist and the curator, thus the evolution of hybrid designations. How productive these designations are, who profits when we attempt to clearly define the artistic from the curatorial, and to what extent artistic production has internalized the criteria for ‘being an artist’ and ‘being a curator’, underlies the complexity of contemporary art. For certain, pinning down the artist as curator’s work as somehow different has led to incredible insights, but it has also led to disparaging and conservative dismissals of certain types of cultural work. We need to be aware, as we heed the differences, what it at stake in the spaces where this work takes place.
*Art and Theory 1648 – 1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Harrison, Wood, Gaiger, London: Wiley-Blackwell 1991, pp.13
** For a more expansive discussion of the potential for artists to self-organise and self-initiate projects, see Paul O’Neill’s “Self-Organisation as a Way of Being” in the Professional Pathways section on the Info~Pool.
*** While there are multiple examples of the artist as guest-curator, I’d like to make a quick distinction between artists who occasionally curate once-off pursuits and those for whom the curatorial is integral to an art practice. In the present discussion, I am only interested in the latter.
By Sarah Pierce
Sarah Pierce is an artist based in Dublin. She is currently working towards a PhD in Curatorial/Knowledge at Goldsmiths College in the Visual Cultures Department.