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Essays on Curating: Soft and Hard Approaches

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. 

dark matter

Sally Blenheim’s Fire in ‘dark matter_dark energy’ (2012), group exhibition, Stockroom Gallery

Soft and hard curating: fluidity and rigidity

In the selection of artworks for an exhibition one way of thinking about curating is to consider a classification of approaches along a spectrum from soft to hard. At the soft end of the spectrum is an openness to allow new works, collaborative approaches and fluidity of artwork and artist selection. While at the hard end of the spectrum is a more rigid designation of specifics and intentions. For example, a soft approach might engage an artist but not specify which particular artwork or artworks are to be included in an exhibition. Perhaps through a negotiation with, or even a completely open freedom afforded to, the artist to exhibit their choice of work would be the way of operating. Whereas, by contrast, a hard approach would be to select a specific artwork from an artist for inclusion.

In simple terms, one could say that one end of spectrum is fluid (soft) and the other rigid (hard). Fluid approaches allow for variance, negotiation and contingency. Rigid approaches are proscribed and fixed. Some situations call for one or other of these options, while others operate somewhere along the spectrum. For much of my work in a public gallery setting, I tend to operate in this middle ground. My standard approach is to invite an artist to exhibit by explaining that the reason for their invitation is because their produced body of work, or a specific artwork, shares a character with a theme I am researching. I offer to include that work, outlining which specific artwork I am interested in and how it expresses a certain character, but provide the option to the artist to produce new work for the exhibition. Generally, in a group show situation, half of the artists will take the opportunity to produce something new. But it’s also important to acknowledge that old work will take on a new flavour, or garner a refreshed orientation, when exhibited in a different context

This fluid|rigid dichotomy extend not only to artwork selection but also to thematics, artist collaboration and exhibition design. Let’s look firstly at theme. Commonly, a curated exhibition will consist of artworks that share a character, and for most group exhibition situations this character is the theme of the show. This can be medium specificity, like a ceramics exhibition, or it could be thematic, like dystopias. Other common tropes are timeframes, such as art of the twentieth century, or regionality, such as sculpture in central Tasmania. A rigid approach to curating thematically would be the proscribed assertion of a theme from which artworks would be made to adhere. The theme would completely govern the selection of works and in many ways the artwork would be subordinated to the theme. A fluid approach to curating thematically would be to posit a loose theme and then work in negotiation and collaboration with artists whose work could be said to relate to it. A freedom to adjust the theme to the coalescing connections that come out of those engagements would be permitted. This can result in the reworking of the title and/or refining the theme itself.

Let me draw from some examples in my own work to illustrate the basic principle. My first exhibition as Director at Stockroom Gallery was the end-of-year fundraising show which was called You Are Here (2011). There were 155 artworks by 105 artists that were entered into the show from participants who paid $40 per entry. The selection of the artworks was simply those works that were submitted in accordance with the guidelines (we had to omit one work which failed to meet the size restrictions). There was no judgement exercised by the gallery or curators, the artwork simply had to meet a set of criteria to be included.

lingua

lingua natura (2009) at c3 Contemporary Art Space

By contrast, the exhibition lingua nature (2009) which I curated at c3 Contemporary Art Space engaged a ‘softer’ curatorial approach in the selection of artwork. It featured nineteen creative practitioners (predominantly visual artists but also a Grade 9 art class, a jeweller, an architect and a scientist) who exhibited artworks that were, for the most part, created specifically for the show and often as a result of engaged conversations around the theme of the show. For example, an architect produced a series of digital prints that investigated the nature of the building site as it is positioned on the grounds of the Abbotsford Convent, following discussions around the nature of site-specificity and the visual language of graphics software increasingly used in his profession. Another artist grew native gardens in the grounds of the venue following discussions around invasive species and the threatening of native flora. The production of the work required facilitation with gardens staff and maintenance of the work during the course of the show.

Artist collaboration is a feature of a softer curatorial approach. Most commonly, in group show situations, curators will select a list of artists  and /or artworks they believe would be ideal to collectively express a theme. Or perhaps it’s better to say that by presenting a selection of artworks that share a similar characteristic, that characteristic is made more apparent and presents itself as the theme of the exhibition. A hard approach would tend to the position that the artworks illustrate the theme, whereas a soft approach would tend to the position that the artworks produce the theme. This inflection on illustration/production is a key definitional reflection of the hard/soft spectrum of approaches.

With regard to artist collaboration, soft curating allows for a flexibility of artwork inclusion in a given exhibition, through discussions with identified artists and others. Hard curating would nominate a specific list and adhere rigidly to it. In most curatorial projects, issues around timing and availability of artwork limit a strictly rigid approach. Curators accept that an initial list of identified artists/artworks will need some flexibility to edit out artists/artworks not able to participate and edit in new artists/artworks to fill those gaps – or in discovery of new artists and artworks that come up during the research and preparation of any exhibition.

An example to cite here would be the inclusion of new work and new artists following discussions with an original artist on my ‘wish-list’ for the exhibition Conflicted: Adversaries in Art, which I co-curated with the Senior Curator at Town Hall Gallery. I had seen artwork by Siri Hayes at Linden Contemporary Art Space – photographs she had taken of her son’s home-made weapons; and I had seen documentation of artwork produced by Juan Ford of similar weaponry that he used as props in his paintings for an exhibition in the Palimpsest art festival in Mildura (he also exhibited the props as sculptures in an installation). There were aesthetic similarities in Hayes’ and Ford’s works that I thought would sit well together in an exhibition. My early conversations with Ford revealed a thread of connection to Hayes’ work – he was inspired by her work to make his weapons – that also extended further to another artwork unknown to me. The son of artist Chaco Kato had been inspired by Ford’s artwork to make his own home-made weapons which were then co-opted into a collaborative installation with Kato’s project ‘The Slow Art Collective’, an artist-collaboration with Dylan Martorell. All of the artists had spoken about one day exhibiting all three versions of their art and now the opportunity organically presented itself in this project. Allowing a certain level of fluidity about the development of the exhibition enabled the show to evolve as discussions took place and new information came to light.

A further example of a ‘softer’ curatorial approach would be that undertaken with artist Steven Rendall in another Town Hall Gallery exhibition, Data Flow: Digital Influence. I emailed Rendall to see if he would like to exhibit and suggested that any of his paintings that used CCTV footage and gridded composition would be ideal, but I would be open to including new work in-keeping with the theme. Rendall produced new work, keen to explore an integrated connection to the gallery’s live surveillance system and other infrastructure. We sourced the necessary software and hardware to facilitate his new work, guided by assistance from the Arts Centre facility manager Phillip Dowling;  loaned him gallery infrastructure such as a couch, mop, broom, sandbags and cabling; and provided an on-site studio (of sorts, it was in the basement storage area) for the production of a painting that was included in his installation. The artwork produced was 100% the creative enterprise of the artist, but a fluid curatorial approach allowed for a supported and productive environment.

Stephen Rendall

Steven Rendall, PTG_2015 (2015) in ‘Data Flow: Digital Influence’ at Town Hall Gallery, (c) Courtesy of the artist. [Photography by Matthew Stanton]

The final area I’ll address is exhibition design. In general, one could position ‘standard museum hang’ on the hard end, and innovative design on the other. What constitutes ‘innovative design’ can itself vary a great deal but include things like unusual exhibition locations, novel display devices or techniques, as well as collaborative negotiations with artists to develop a particular manner of presentation.

‘Standard museum hang’ is the basic approach to presenting an exhibition. Paintings are hung on crisp white walls while sculptures are mounted on white plinths placed on the floor, or perhaps shelves adhered to the wall . Everything is lit brightly and evenly. In terms of design this is straight out ‘hard curating’. Paintings are hung to a horizon line of usually 1500 or 1550mm, and the spaces between paintings tend to be incrementally consistent throughout the gallery, often 300-600-900mm or 500-1000-1500mm.

At the other end of the spectrum there is an openness to experimentation and negotiation. Some artists have very hard and fast ideas about the manner in which their work is to be displayed. Some artists will specify an horizon-line setting different to the standard applied in the gallery, while artists will have specifications about the nature of the lighting. Soft curating means allowing flexibility in the standard protocol to facilitate these needs. If the curator is adaptable to the specifications of particular artworks (and artists) this is a softness of approach. If the curator enforces their own rules (or an established protocol from a venue) upon artwork and artists, we are in the realm of hard curating.

Commonly though, there will be a negotiation of needs. Some curators will have a vision for the design of an exhibition, such as painting walls a particular colour or pattern, placing sculptures directly on the floor or darkening the gallery and spotlighting individual works. A soft approach will entail discussions with the artists about the appropriateness of curatorial methods and look to work with artists to ensure that the individual strength of the artwork is not subsumed to the design. This may entail new works or works other than those originally identified, or it may simply require a clear communication about why such methods are beneficial for a particular exhibition occasion.

It is more common for artists to not have specific presentation needs for their work when working in the context of a group exhibition. At least nothing especially rigourous. This may vary for solo shows or works of an installation nature.

In situations in which both the artist and the curator are open to innovation and experimentation this can be an exciting and rewarding opportunity. In a negotiation with Nicholas Ives about the presentation of three paintings for a group exhibition at Stockroom Gallery titled dark matter_dark energy, we spoke about alternate hanging methods and then hung the works in a triangular formation. It worked to enhance the presence of the paintings in the group exhibition format, amplifying a certain psychological quality that already existed in the paintings.

Depending on setting, curators will have certain limitations on their capacity to exercise a soft approach. Public galleries can have certain protocols, such as OHS considerations with lighting and traffic flow, while commercial galleries will have marketability requirements on the works they exhibit. Some curators will have a clear vision that they hope to ‘illustrate’ through the accumulated presence of very particular artworks (hard), while others will prefer to work collaboratively and in negotiation with artists in the realisation of a curatorial project (soft). Hans Ulrich Obrist is very much in favour of the soft approach and advocates strongly for its use. Some galleries, however, will have pressures applied to them by various stakeholders, or by lack of resources and time, that will limit their capacity to entertain soft approaches. Indeed, pressures of budget and timeframe tend to push curators into hard approaches that require less variation from a standard process.

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(I’d like to thank Steven Rendall for offering some insightful editorial advice on the first draft; and for the generosity of the artists in permitting me discuss their work)

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2 thoughts on “Essays on Curating: Soft and Hard Approaches

  1. The ‘soft curatorial approach’ which is what I have employed in my thirty years of doing it, is more in line with that of an artist, start with one element – either an artists or a particular work, and build and layer kit organically like an artist might create an artwork. The exhibition themes, threads and complexities (and perhaps even meanings) are only revealed on installation of the show..One should not start out trying to illustrate some didactic political cliche..

  2. Pingback: Essays on Curating: the temporality of caring | the subMachine

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