In recent years the definition of the role of the curator has undergone a dramatic change, and continues still to be refined and challenged. With this change there is also the associated re-definition of the relationship between the artist and curator. This implies a direct impact on the relationship between artist and audience. In this text we will look at some broad definitions of curator, and look at the benefits of the relationship between artist and curator.
What is a Curator?
The term curator comes from the traditional museum background. The role of curator/keeper was once seen as “One who manages or oversees, as the administrative director of a museum collection or a library”* derived from the Latin curator, overseer, from curatus, past participle of curare, to take care of.
To quote from FÁS on the key aspects of the curatorial role, ‘To arrange an exhibition, curators choose which objects to display and organise the loan of exhibits from other collections if they need to. They also organise the transportation, insurance and storage of objects. Curators make sure that objects are displayed in a clear and attractive way. They also co-ordinate, and in many cases, write and compile exhibition catalogues and the texts that accompany exhibits. Large museums or galleries often employ education officers to involve schools or promote tourism. Curators may liaise with them to produce slides, work sheets and demonstrations.’
Today we see curator in a much broader context. The presence of the ‘curator’ within visual arts both in Ireland and more expansively in the International context has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. The roles, the functions, the positions, and the influence that they exert has changed both their own careers and also has created a new form of relationship between the general audience, the artist and art institution. Art critic and curator, Michael Brenson best reflects these changes in an interesting observation. He posits the following as potential key characteristics of contemporary curators: ‘aesthetician, diplomat, economist, critic, historian, politician, audience developer, and promoter.’ **
Also, the independent curator is often the generator of projects that are interrelated to other projects originated by that same curator. They may be working without a clear programming policy or strategy in institutional terms but are also capable of interfacing with authorities and organisations in the development and realisation of projects.
The goal of curatorial practice is the best representation of contemporary visual art to an identified audience. In this there is a mutual symbiotic relationship between the artist, the curator and the audience. Through policy and research, institutions, biennials, and independent projects start with a concept of what is to be proposed by any programme of exhibitions and supporting events. It is fundamental that such research is an on-going requirement for curators. They may specialise in specific areas, and some may follow a number of artists, updating themselves on progress in specific practices.
To some artists, curators may offer advice on direction, and become a confidante to whom the artist may turn when in need of advice, support and even challenges to particular ideas or directions. This allows them to consciously reflect current artistic practice, theory, presentation and care in preparation for future exhibitions, whilst they at the same time deliver on the expectations of the target audience.
For biennials, interested parties may include government ministries, national institutions, local authorities as well as international event organisers. At the more local and/or independent level the curator may be working with an artistic director, or artist lead initiatives of a few people. From this we can see that different forms of presentation will have their own criteria for selection, be it political, thematic, social, financial, or historical.
The Artist / Curator Relationship
It is important for artists to have their work seen by curators. Outside of the given potential for public presentation of the artist’s work, there is also a valuable opportunity to engage in a critical discussion of their practice. Against the background of presentation, distribution and contextualization, the curator can offer direction based within a ‘world view’.
This form of discussion includes looking at the artists oeuvre in term of ‘aboutness’ with consideration given to the conceptual and practical layers. The artist’s own feelings about their work provide a starting point. From this deeper investigations into placement form a persuasive argument. It is not necessarily the case that the discussions and interpretations constitute an ‘absolute’ right, but may contribute towards a convincing, enlightening, and informative stance from which the artist may progress. At times these discussions also open up the potentiality that the artist’s work, when viewed with the eyes of the potential audience, may be open to more or different interpretation.
This form of ‘critique’ is a useful platform for further development of practice, and may lead the curator to introduce the artist to other avenues of thought, and on a more practical level to specialists both within and outside the arts with a view to furthering knowledge and opening opportunities of experimentation.
Developing Exhibitions and Projects
The development of exhibitions is also a critical aspect of the artist/curator relationship. The many forms of exhibition have the ability to present, challenge, provoke, and, at times, even prompt actions. This is an active facilitation and offers more than just guidance. The curator becomes an editor of what will be displayed, and how it will be shown to its best advantage within the context of the work and the theme to be portrayed. The decisiveness of this moment can become key in the success of the representation of the artist’s work to the wider audience, and may provide opportunity of assessment or extension of awareness of the ways the audience understand the artist’s works, and through that the world around them.
The curator also provides an overview of all of the factors that must be taken into consideration when planning. Looking at contingencies, understanding the potential for underlying power plays, and a knowledge of practicalities; the curator becomes a key decision maker and facilitator who leads and mediates across agencies responsible for the delivery of the project. Whether commissioning of new work or exhibition of existing work the curator is the central point around which contractors, technicians, and other cultural workers collaboratively gather to achieve their goal of presentation.
The curator also becomes a key voice in the presentation of the work to press and media. The preparation of media material is formed from a background of placement as well as the provision of the most basic details of what, when and where. Through networks of contacts with critics, journalists and fellow directors and curators, the curator can raise the profile of artists and provide opportunities for further presentation and development.
The curator may also agree with the artist on a strategy of documentation. Catalogues, monographs, or placement within a wider critical publication provide the artist with the means to place their work within a larger context. At the same time such publications become important research documents. It is crucial that the curator ensures that the publication is undertaken with a specific reason that stands on merit. Through the discussion the curator may dissuade the artist from entering into a publication cycle. As it is a costly and time consuming exercise it may be found that the financial aspect of the project could be better placed elsewhere, and publications deferred until a more important juncture in the artist’s practice. From experience curators will be able to identify the reasons for publication and to offer advice on circulation and targeted marketing.
We have now seen the curator and confidante, advisor and facilitator. We have also seen the curator constantly researching and providing opportunities both in and out of established consensus. Curators may choose to work with artists and audiences in a provocative and courageous manner. But there are pitfalls along the way. More and more we see evidence of heavy handed curatorial practice. Although denied, this form of practice places key importance on high level concept and the artist becomes subservient. This has led to the cult of the ‘super star’ curator and has caused much misunderstanding and distrust. It is therefore important that both artist and curator develop a common language and open dialogue. The artist and curator must communicate both openly and frankly, taking criticism and suggestions seriously. Through this, both gain the opportunity to identify demands, advantages, and opportunities.
The job of being a curator is privileged and not merely an assigned right. Therefore power games and posturing have no place within any professional definition of the role. It is also a position of trust. This trust is built upon experience and requires both artist and curator to work together, rather than in opposition. At times the artist may not be present during an exhibition and the levels of professional confidence displayed by a curator then becomes the comfort zone upon which the artist can rely when releasing their work for exhibition.
The mobility and reach of curators provides them with the potential for great influence. But, as time passes curators need to re-assess their positions. Areas of interest need to be addressed in terms of intellectual worth and value. Moving with trends, or purposely taking a stance against establish fashions may be equally difficult. Therefore the curator must be able to express and defend responses and opinions while at the same time recognizing personal preconceived notions. Heading down a focused path may have a short term advantage, however working with a forward view provides more open and sympathetic opportunities for the curator and artists that they choose to work with.
Curator Career Details – Career Directions
**Art Journal, Vol. 57, 1998
By Noel Kelly
Noel Kelly is the Director of Visual Artists Ireland. He is a member of the Irish branch of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), IKT the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art. For the duration of the Irish Presidency of the European Union 2004, Noel was appointed Program Director with The Slovenian Embassy in Dublin.