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.
One of the most contested aspects of curating is the perceived hierarchy of roles for artist and curator. Books and articles are devoted to discussion about whether a good curator should be afforded the ‘status’ that good artists command. Large group exhibitions come with an implication that someone or some people have organised a substantive logistical project, engaged the talents of interesting artists, and developed an overarching concept that will be communicated across a spectrum of mass and independent media. This structural project appears from the outside to be under the ‘guidance’ or ‘management’ of the curator(s). This then implies certain dated notions about hierarchy to an audience, and even the participants.
Addressing this concern over hierarchy could be guided by your positioning on the idea of facilitator or producer. Are curators facilitators of the meaning and value of artworks, facilitators for artists to conduct their work, or producers of meaning in their own right? Or are they some mix of these (and other things) that varies from person to person and situation to situation?
Questions about whether exhibitions are a medium or whether curating is akin to art-making might benefit from looking at the phenomenon of the artist who curates. By looking at this I suspect we may discover something to contribute to the debate around the division of the two roles – art-making and curating. Curators who maintain an arts practice are part of the same peer group from whose productive output they curate. They have come to see the art world structure from the perspective of an artist, through their education and their experiences exhibiting their own artwork. They come to understand the system of the art world through their engagements with gallerists, curators, and audiences from an artist’s side of the relationship.
There’s a whole variety of characteristics that one might attribute to curators who are artists, and to their growth in the sector. One of these relates to methods of critical analysis taught at art schools. Another relates to the structure of the art world, particularly in relation to gallery infrastructure and funding a practice.
One of the early touchstones of curating is Marcel Duchamp. He was a pioneer curator. His gestures redefined the definition of curating – much in the same way he redefined the definition of art. Curating went from being mostly associated with the notion of ‘caring’ for art to the notion of ‘propelling’ art.
Importantly, Duchamp’s curation, which featured sculpture as a sort of framing device for the exhibition’s physical space, was tethered to the nature of the exhibition it featured in. The ‘artwork’ that made up the show by the other artists is not tethered in the same way. The other work is free to be reshown in a solo show, in a lounge room or in another thematic group show with a different set of ideas all together.
So, art school. Well, it’s not just art school but the culturally accepted way artists go about critically analysing art. At the coal face of the material productivity, in the studio, classes are called ‘crits’ – which are allocated times when people gather around an artwork, often with the artist there, and analyse the work. In a whole variety of intellectual endeavours we analyse the material present and we analyse relationships. And we do so at micro and macro levels. We do the same in art. We ask ‘why has the artist chosen white? What does white infer? What does it remind us of?’. Then we ask, ‘why is it hung on the wall at a horizon line of 1550mm? Why is it on this wall and not that wall? Why is this painting not even hanging on the wall but rather leaning on it and balanced on elephant shit? Is the power point next to the work a real power point or did the artist cast one and install it? If it is real how is it impacting the visual field of the viewer?’.
Years of looking in this way (coupled with our understanding of ecology, cybernetics, sociology, psychology, economics, physics and any number of intellectual studies that emphasise how things are connected together and related) some artists become attuned to the structural nature of the art world. The artist, their history, their choices, the things they chose to make, which galleries their work shows up in, the placement of those artworks in the idiosyncratic architectures they are housed, the audiences who come to particular exhibitions, the governments that own the galleries, the people who own galleries, the people who buy artwork, the writers who write about the art, what they say, how they say it, through what types of media they communicate it … and on and on until every decision, at least in part, considers the broad web of connections that rush out from every singular art object or idea.
Perhaps these artists participate in the production of exhibitions because they come to see that the gallery, the audience and the media are all just more materials of the interconnected extension of the art. They become adept at seeing how to construct sets of relations that produce improved exposure and cultural validation of artworks and artists.
It’s this same focus on critical analysis that has driven installation practice in art, where artists have become more attentive to the full experiential atmosphere and connectivity implicit in the consumption of art that some artist then direct energy to addressing a more connected set of relations for their work with greater manipulation of lighting, space, sound and audience. It is the same way of looking at things that reveals that an artwork’s meaning and value lies with the audience who consume it and keep it alive through text, images and discussion. This frees the artwork from the artist, untethering it and allowing it to float free for use by others. In a simplistic nutshell, it is the way in which artists train to be artists, particularly through methods of critical analysis, that propels a drive to installation and to curation.
Secondly, the structural nature of the art world provides conditions that invite the inclusion of artist-curators into the framework. There’s a variety of conditions at play here but let’s focus on two: the ecology of galleries, and funding. The landscape of galleries is an ecological system of commercial enterprises, public institutions, university venues, artist-run initiatives and an evolving array of niche positions filling fertile zones between the cracks. It is the artist-run initiatives (ARIs) that have proven to be a breeding ground for the artist-curator. ARIs manifest curatorial practice institutionally and foster its development among its participants. ARIs like Westspace or Rubicon or Blindside could be said to curate –. the institution as curator. But ARIs also encourage and support group exhibitions, often through the facilitation of thematic shows. Together with university venues, ARIs tend to draw their personnel from the academic territories, with a high proportion of recent art school graduates, postgrads and teaching staff.
Funding is another influence on the increased prevalence of the artist-curator. By this I mean the sourcing of financial support to (a) survive in the world, and (b) to invest in materials and studio facilities to continue artistic productivity. Art sales are an unreliable and a rarely substantive source of income. So most artists work part-time to fund their art practice. There’s a few schools of thought around whether it’s better to work part-time in a different industry or whether you use your (often extensive tertiary) education in the arts sector. The latter speaks for the flow of teachers. The former sees many work in hospitality because of the flexibility and the opportunity to see other human beings in a social environment and feel a part of it.
The turn to curating could be perhaps then be explained by the amount of postgrad artists looking for sources of income. Trained with the capacity to communicate about art to a variety of audiences, the experience in physically constructing exhibitions and armed with a network of artist connections willing to participate in projects, some artists turn to curating. In this way they maintain a supportive income, contribute to the industry they want to participate in and are able to facilitate the exhibition of art. The last point touches on issues that this essay opened on – the curator position itself and whether it is facilitator, translator, author or tour guide. For some artists, if you can’t financially survive working on your art in a studio and you have to go out into the world to get money for rent, for heating, for shoes, school fees, books and coffees, then you may as may as well try and wield some influence to get good art shown. Curating in this regard could be considered a sharing activity, where the intention to curate comes from wanting to show art that can offer a service to the community. This can be a simple aesthetic service as much as a socio-political service, health service or educational service.
This sharing characteristic extends to concerns around funding too. The distribution of money in the art world is by no means fluid, transparent or egalitarian. For some artists, access into the system affords them an opportunity to redistribute meagre funding flows toward art that better reflects or engages with the culture, away from the historically sanctioned or the biased.
Many artists who curate do so in the form of ad hoc projects, usually inside the artist-run initiatives in which they participate; some of them go to work at public galleries or university galleries; and some set up their own studio/gallery facilities. And while looking into the nature of the curator from the point of the view of those curators who are artists with their own practice, it’s important to clarify that while we may extrapolate some characteristics to attribute to a group, we have to remember that they are extrapolations and that the motivations driving the individuals within that group are as varied as their own individual art practices.
 On the flip side of course, is the reality of wielding influence unevenly – intentionally or unintentionally.