Essays on Curating: Patron as Curator

There are a whole variety of ways to think about curating, of approaches and styles and methods and processes. Over a series of essays I will look at ways in which to consider curatorial practice, driven by my own experiences as a curator and consumer of exhibitions, as well as self-directed research into the field. These articles are informal musings, the sketching out of thoughts in a preliminary exploration of positions I hope to firm into something more solidified – more defensible, more critically grounded. But for now, they are mirages forming on a hazy horizon. 


Painting to be stepped on (1960), Yoko Ono

Art is rich with ideas and in some instances ideas are a form of material. Sometimes, in circumstances like the conceptual art epoch of the 1960s and 1970s, an idea might even be the driving force of the work at the expense of actual physical materials. Often this is in service of staking a philosophical position against, or at least in relation to, marketability and the commercial nature of art’s distribution.

If ideas can be driving forces in art creation, where instructions are considered an art medium, like a type of language sculpture or guided performance, perhaps those with the means to instruct are like artists. Their medium is the resources they own or control, and the relationships they establish with artists. This could manifest itself as ownership of a building for display and familial connections to a cousin whose neighbour knows how to apply colours to a wall to create the illusion of spatial reality. This is a form of curating. The patron as curator.

Let’s jump back a little to Renaissance Firenze. The Medici family, acquiring art and commissioning artists, were curating. If they had the means to instruct an artist to paint a picture of a Greek god condemning a human to suffering because they wanted to share that story with their community then they are conducting a form of curatorial practice. They are working with artists, putting ensembles of artwork together through their own decision making about choices of subject, media and intent.


Posthumous portrait of Cosimo de Medici

The very process of coordinating artworks into collections in this way is curating. The same can be said of programming as a form of curating. The linear alignment of particular artworks, or groupings of artworks, with consideration of its receipt by an audience is a form of curating. But that’s a whole other essay, programming as curating.

So, the Medicis curated. The first recognisable family curatorial enterprise. Although they could be said to be more of an institution than a family. In which case we could extend the premise out to institutional behaviours of curatorial practice. Preceding the Medicis is any individual, group or institution with the means to collaborate, collate and communicate. It’s more than likely that family power groups in Rome and Greece were curating art – its commissioning, collection and communication – centuries before the Medicis. And stepping away from the western historical lineage we could assume the same must have been happening in most societies around the world, from the Egyptian empire to the Han dynasty, from the Aztecs to the Australian first peoples.

Almost any religion could be cited here too. Church as curator. In the western tradition and so closely following on the heels of a Medici example, it’s clear the christian church was curating. Its collections and its buildings of display were all expressions of ideas that it had the power and the authority to wield as thematic arguments or narratives. The artwork it commissioned was driven by the ideas of those with the power to execute it. This was facilitated through instruction, and often in collaboration, with artists who had the capacity to materialise them.

If we jump forward we arrive at governments and states, New York millionaires, Russian oligarchs, post office workers, mothers, universities and multinational corporations. It’s by no means the totality of curating. But it is a form of curating. And it inexorably leads us into the realm of curating as a reasonably accessible practice where the term gets applied to music set lists, interior design, flower arrangements, menus and other forms of organisation and arrangement. But again, that’s another character of the practice for another essay. Assembling as curating.

It’s too simplistic to say that art is the material manifestation of an idea. It’s interesting to think of art as a form of physical philosophy but it misses certain elements of art and narrows the definition. But on some level, it could be said that art is about ideas and their aesthetic or physical expression. Certainly some forms of art make this as the central tenet of their intention. If this is the case, then it’s reasonable to posit that the generation of the idea and the generation of the material expression can be separated. Duchamp gave us that bifurcation through the readymade. So if those with the means to commission the material expression of their ideas – the patrons – are the Duchampian initiators of artistic output then it’s reasonable to posit that this is akin to a curatorial practice. It is the commissioning, collecting and communication of artworks. It is the patron as curator.

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