Book review: Companion to Curation
by Bruce Barber, Halifax University
If there was ever a book that should be top of the reading list for students studying art institutions and curatorial practice(s) of the past, present and future – curators in training – this is it.: A Companion to Curation edited by well-known Australian artist academics Brad Buckley and John Conomos.
The editors acknowledge the challenges of providing a companion to curating, one of the most overused terms in the contemporary art world. Similar to the terms ‘creative’, ‘art’ and ‘performance’ the verb ‘curate’ derived from cura, meaning “to take care” which, defined conservatively, represents the roles of manager or overseer, but now covering and conveying multiple meanings associated with degrees (no pun intended) of art education and practice. And the associated nouns, ‘curator’, ‘curation’ and adverb ‘curatorial’ are readily available as descriptors – euphemisms – for organisations and activities anywhere. including travel, food and drink, furniture, clothing, fashion activities of various kinds and so on. This reviewer was amused recently when he read a report in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper on the specific roles of the 35 curators work for the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) and the new curatorship they had established for Climate Curation. Perhaps the individual who applies for this position should have a degree in Climate Change Meteorology. What Sean Lowry intimates in his chapter should be a warning and possibly a comforter during this COVID19 pandemic. “To be sure, in at least a basic sense, everyone who uses a smartphone or personal computer is now a curator and archivist … of sorts.”
The one major issue that determines the difference between artists and curators is money.
As has been noted in dozens of recent books and articles, including the critic William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, artists are members of the ‘precariat’ and typically receive little if any compensation from the presentation of their work in exhibitions. The curators receive a salary or honoraria for professionally organizing museum and gallery exhibitions, biennales, art fairs etc., and yet artists may even have to pay for the privilege of having their work exhibited.
The editors of the Companion to Curation are acutely aware of the political economy of the art world, having recently published an anthology of Who Runs the Art World: Money, Power and Ethics (Libri Publishing 2017). In the curatorial anthology they have divided the essays from 19 international contributors into four parts, representing what the editors describe as the four broad conceptual sections that govern the wide net of curatorship today. Perhaps the postmodern plural “nets” would be a more appropriate description for this companion study of curatorship which covers a vast array of research.
In Part I topics regarding the origin of the curator, curating, curatorial practice, history theory and practice and politics are intelligently explored by the writers David Carrier, Adam Geczy, Andrew McClellan and Carole Paul; even the ‘death of the curator’ is usefully introduced in these chapters that together would provide an excellent pedagogical introduction to a university course. Carrier provides a very well researched A Select History of Curating in Pittsburgh: The Recent Story of the Carnegie International an engaging critique of the Carnegie International that was first established in Pittsburgh in 1896. As this reviewer’s mother’s family’s origins are in Dunfermline Scotland, the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie, I found this historical overview of his capitalist enterprises, philanthropy and the founding of the Carnegie international art fair very interesting. Geczy, artist and author of Art: Histories, Theories and Exceptions (Berg, 2008) who teaches at the University of Sydney, provides in his chapter Curating Curiosity: Imperialism, Materialism, Humanism, and the Wunderkammer an intriguing history and meaning of the canonical construct of art historical research – the cabinet of curiosities Wunderkammer as a basis for curatorial enterprise. Andrew McClellan’s. Professionalizing the Field: The Case of the United States is somewhat Americophile but his essay reveals the powerful influence on professional curating of Paul Sachs (of Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs) noting that his students obtained positions as directors of many of the galleries and museums throughout America and a few even in Canada. Like the death of painting, the death of the artist, the death of the curator is surely exaggerated, but curators of the future will certainly need a broader skill set and more flexible profile than Paul Sachs would have envisaged or thought desirable. In The Emergence of the Professional Curator Carole Paul, Director of Museum Studies in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California further usefully explores the professionalizing of the roles of the curator in galleries and museums from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century.
In Part II, the editors provide an excellent introduction to each of the author’s essays, advancing the notion that ‘curators, have shaped our understanding of contemporary art since the 1960s and the context in which they worked. It begins with the various liberation movements in the 1960s, such as civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, and, particularly, the women’s movement, and examines the influence these had on the politics of the art world.’
In respect of these necessarily contemporary themes Juli Carson, Professor of Art at UC Irvine, in Curating as a Verb: 100 Years of Nation States presents her thesis that curation has moved from being a profession to being an action for agents of intervention and real change in the theatre of art praxis. Elke Krasny Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna provides another important contribution to this section Curating without Borders: Transnational Feminist and Queer Feminist Practices for the Twenty‐first Century. And Maria Lind’s Displacements and Sites: Notes on a Curatorial Method is an arresting account of two art exhibitions in Stockholm: one‐day performance T.451 by artist Dominique Gonzalez‐Foerster and composer and musician Ari Benjamin Myers. Chris Spring’s chapter, Africa, Art and Knowing Nothing: Some Thoughts on Curating at the British Museum, brings to mind the importance of post colonialism, indigeneity and outsider artists who challenge the Europhile imperialism of many curatorial endeavours of the early 19th and 20th centuries. Martha Wilson’s chapter on New York’s iconic centre Franklin Furnace brought back many memories for this reviewer, as it reflected upon her relationship with NSCAD where I taught for 38 years and Franklin Furnace where I had my first New York exhibit in 1977. Wilson’s Curatorial Crisis is the author’s historical and personal overview of the origin of the non-profit arts organization in her loft in Lower Manhattan. Her chapter documents the important curatorial role Lucy Lippard, Jacki Apple, and other feminist artists and curators played in the development of Franklin Furnace, now in its 4th decade of operation.
Part III opens with Thomas Berghuis a curator and art historian, based in Leiden, the Netherlands and author of the monograph Performance Art in China in 2006. The author’s We Care as Much as You Pay – Curating Asian Art is an account of curating Asian art and its complexities over the last three decades. Biljana Ćirić an independent curator based in Shanghai and Belgrade provides some other vectors on curatorial practice in China during the 1980s, and how they affected knowledge production and public discourse. Gregory Galligan is an independent curator and art historian and director/co‐founder of the non-profit research platform Thai Art Archive in Bangkok. His Curating the Contemporary in Decolonial Spaces: Observations from Thailand on Curatorial Practice in Southeast Asia provides more insights into political art practice beyond the traditional centres of cultural power. Alex Gawronski an artist, writer, gallerist, and academic based in Sydney is also a founding member of KNULP whose chapter Curated from Within: The Artist as Curator proposes curating more specifically as an interventionist activity in the art world and in culture in general. “It is a little‐recognized fact that artists curated many of modernity’s most iconic and influential exhibitions.” (p232)
Curiously, the history of artist‐run spaces, also known as artist‐run initiatives, has been read in the same terms as the emergence of the new field of independent professional curating in the 1960s: as a continuation of the avant‐garde. He suggests that the one of the distinguishing characteristics of curatorial activities of artists in their own establishments is their independence from institutional constriction.(p248)
Canadian indigenous CRC and Professor at OCAD U Gerald McMaster has contributed much to the Decolonizing the Ethnographic Museum in Canada and his chapter provides insights into the recent history of this project which has begun to challenge the hegemony of colonialist narratives in the constitution and interpretation of Canadian art history which for too long was perceived as centred around The Group of Seven. McMaster’s chapter is well balanced by Djon Mundine’s intriguingly titled The Creature from the Id: Adventures in Aboriginal Art Curating, which is a useful historical account of Aboriginal curating in Australia, review of the history of Aboriginal art, curating, colonialism, and dispossession in six phases of historical development. Fatoş Üstek’s The Impact of Context Specificity in Curating amidst the Forces at Play in a Globalized World of Realms examines the curatorial politics of display in several key exhibitions in Turkey, South Korea, and the U.K. Finally, in this section Lee Weng‐Choy’s The Neglected Object of Curation, provides inside information to discussions on the role of the Biennale in the international contemporary art world, specifically in Southeast Asia – Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. The editors write that ‘It mainly focuses on Peter Osborne’s theory that the biennale is symptomatic of neoliberal ideology and the geopolitical totalization of the globe.’
Part IV is oddly prescient, a situation which the editors describe as ‘looking at how best to curate, present, distribute, and know new media art and related onlinemodes of art.’ It is crucial to know their concepts, characteristics, and behaviors rather than to impose a top/down theory of art.’ The chapter written by Sara Diamond President of OCAD University in Toronto, Parallel Processing: Public Art and New Media is described as a timely cartography of the subject. As she writes ‘New media public art curation occurs through the work of artists, art consultants and commissioners, and curators, through festivals, platforms, agencies, and collaborations with institutions such as universities, galleries, museums, and new media art centers. Processes include creating and understanding the context for the artwork, establishing the slate of artists or choosing artists, defining and understanding audiences, and planning audience outreach and education. Curators and consultants manage the highly regulated nature of public space, establishing access to private spaces for the public.’ (p325)
Arnau Gifreu‐Castells, research affiliate at the Open Documentary Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and part of the i‐Docs group (University of the West of England) provides a detailed Approach to the Curatorship of Virtual Reality Exhibitions focusing on VR exhibitions specific to curating issues and concerns. This chapter provides an interesting overview of VR technology and its entrance into the worlds of museums and galleries but with its voluminous listing and multi bulleted items this reads like an application for funding from a Federal agency. Eric Kluitenberg’s Tracing the Ephemeral and ntestational: Aesthetics and Politics of The Living Archive explores practice‐oriented research conducted in the collaborative research project The Living Archive, a joint project of De Balie, center for culture and politics in Amsterdam, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, and University of Portsmouth. ‘The project was initiated by artist and researcher David Garcia and me to address the apparent condition of selective amnesia that seemed to afflict the diverse coalition of experimental media artists, political activists, dissident lifestylers, radical theorist, and community media makers that met up in the Next 5 Minutes festival series (Amsterdam and Rotterdam, 1993–2003), which gave Tactical Media its name.’ (p382) What is most interesting in this essay is the progressive political praxis of artists in oligarchic countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia Lebanon.
Melentie Pandilovski’s Arts and Science: The Intersection (Re)engineered is another detailed discussion of the intersection of the arts, science and technology, and philosophy from a contemporary curating perspective, where professional curatorial training seems somewhat redundant. Sean Lowry’s Curating with the Internet discusses the emerging Internet‐based and Internet‐activated approaches to curating art. ‘For more than half the world’s population, the Internet is a definitive shaping condition of everyday life. Yet despite its ubiquitous and still growing influence across virtually every sphere of activity in developed societies, its magnitude is still being processed by artists and curators. To be sure, in at least a basic sense, everyone who uses a smartphone or personal computer is now a curator and archivist – of sorts.”Tthe truth of this statement is being compounded.
Companion to Curation (eds.) Brad Buckley and John Conomos – Wiley Blackwell Companion series in Art History, 2020. Bruce Barber (NSCAD University, Halifax, Canada)