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Essays on Curating: the temporality of caring

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. 

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‘Dialect’, Town Hall Gallery (2016), photo courtesy of Christian Capurro

Traditionally, the work of curating was skewed toward institutional collection management. The very name curator testifies to the implication of ‘caring’ – a curator cares for artwork. This played out mostly as the care of artwork already held in a collection. The curator would look after it, would protect it, would provide education around its significance and care for its ongoing significance in the changing cultural contexts within which it is held. But caring is not the exclusive domain of nostalgia. Nor of history. Indeed, caring for a collection of art necessarily entails thinking about its future. So while on the one hand your mind is set to positioning the works of a collection in their time, to understanding the context of the times from which the work has come, on the other hand your mind is set to concerns of keeping the work relevant to the future by ensuring its physical and cultural longevity, planning contexts within which it can sit and in which it can engage with the community.

Contemporary curators also set their mind to caring for the present by focusing on work that is of its time. Generally, this entails presenting work that has been created recently. Sometimes it entails revisiting historical works for their untapped or under-recognised cultural capital. It also explains a turn to commissioning artworks from artists and a focus on process. This characteristic is an expression of soft curating, and contemporary curators tend to the softer end of the spectrum.

The act of caring for an historical collection focuses more on the physical object of art. There is inventory control, with each work catalogued into a managed database; storage into secure, technologically controlled micro-climates; and conservation of the component materials for the purposes of ensuring not only their continued existence with minimal deterioration but, importantly, to extend the life of those materials so that they will exist beyond their naturally-inclined lifespans.

The act of caring for contemporary artwork, sometimes work that’s in the process of being made, forces a focus on the relationships with the living artists who have just created (or is creating) the work. This makes relationship management a key performance attribute of a contemporary curator. It also amplifies collaboration as a desirable process for curating. Fundamentally it means being attentive to the fluid network of present relationships. Whether in the logistical concern of getting artwork to and from the exhibition venue as opposed to wheeling it in and out of storage, or whether representing the public profile of a living artist to her peers and patrons during the course of the presentation of their work, contemporary curating entails balancing elements of immediacy.

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Renee Cosgrave in ‘Rhythm and Pulse’, group exhibition at Stockroom Gallery (2012)

This doesn’t mean a focus on the present at the neglect of the past or the future. While the nature of contemporary curating implicates a focus on the present (often recently produced work that engages with contemporary issues), the strength of an exhibition is not only enhanced by its immediate cultural impact, but is enhanced by its capacity to survive into the future. In order to facilitate that, the contemporary curator is mindful of history (in order to read the trajectory and developmental advances of art) and mindful of the future (usually through documentation that maintains the visibility and presence of exhibitions, and therefore the survival of the evidence of the work).

Nor does it mean collections-based curating neglects the present. Re-contextualising historical work requires an awareness of the new context (present) that houses the old content (artwork). Translation skills are important, communicating lines of relation between eras, and an attentiveness to the characteristics of one’s own time in order to relate back to characteristics of the artwork’s time.

Of course, an artwork’s temporality is not exclusively bound to the time if its creation. Its strength, and therefore its value, is determined by its capacity to remain relevant to the present. The curator is network weaver, constantly attending to a web of relationships that keep the works alive in the present moment. Some of this energy goes into quality documentation, accessible archival systems and researched knowledge management (backend). While some of it goes into bringing works out into the light for presentation and consideration (front end). The backend is even tempered and consistent, while the front end is sporadic and intense.

The temporality of the exhibition process itself makes time a fundamental consideration for curatorial activities. The ‘object’ that is the exhibition is durational by its very nature. And the activities that go to support it tend to be time-sensitive in the way that logistical exercises always are. To care about time means comprehending the temporality of caring.

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