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Essays on Curating: Programming as Curating

The way a gallery sets out a sequence of exhibitions over the course of a year could be seen to be form of curating, or said to be a curatorial act. This can also apply, in varying degrees, to the sequence of projects created by freelance curators, and even to the manner in which an artist maps the terrain of their own exhibition history and trajectory. I’ve experienced it both as a conscious and non-conscious process in artist-run initiatives, commercial galleries and public galleries, and when you take a holistic overview of a gallery’s programs, especially when packaged into yearly or half-yearly schedules, a curatorial methodology or framework is apparent. The degree to which this is an explicit curatorial act varies with each gallery or organisation, and with its curators, artist committees and other influential stakeholders.

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Merryn Lloyd at Town Hall Gallery in 2015

A practical example of this curatorial character of programming is an annual community exhibition space at a public gallery. Recently I have managed an exhibition space provided by a public gallery for the citizens, students and workers of the local government area within which it is situated. Applications are accepted once a year and from those submissions to exhibit, a selection of 12 are made to fill a monthly cycle of shows over the course of a year. A panel makes the selection based on a set of criteria that, importantly, applies both  a conscious and non-conscious curatorial vision to the annual program as a holistic entity. This programmatic form is designed as a sort of organism, with consideration to its individual component parts, its flow, and its relationship to a plethora of externalities.

The specific criteria in the selection process accommodates considerations of artistic quality, mentor opportunities, demographic representation and distribution, a fair spread of solo and group shows, community group representation, and artistic development. It’s not always a matter of the 12 most artistically accomplished exhibition proposals being selected, it’s a matter of assembling a cohesive whole that represents a broad swathe of characteristics across its component parts.

Consideration is also given to the sequencing of the exhibitions. In the design of a singular exhibition a curator will consider the way in which an audience will move through the space of the show and how this might influence a particular reading or feeling of the experience. In the design of an exhibition program a curator will attend to the way in which an audience will experience the linear sequencing of exhibitions. Often there is an explicit consideration of the first show that begins a program and the last show that concludes it. Some galleries may plan a ‘soft’ launch of a program, especially in the southern hemisphere where holidays are taken in the summer, often resulting in low gallery attendance figures right through into February. Others, by contrast, may wish to lead with a strong hand to make a mark early on. Either consideration, or others entirely, will contribute to the overall character of the full programming by the tone they establish and the character they contribute to the whole.

A further consideration comes with relationships to externalities. By this I mean the way in which the program relates to the events and audiences around it, with particular focus on the timing of particular shows at particular times. Here one could include things like other proximate cultural events. An example would be a situation where a major cultural festival is staged in the same city every two years. A gallery in that city would be attentive to the benefits or disadvantages in presenting exhibitions that may align or jar with that event. In this way, the sequenced timing of its exhibition program would be influenced by an understanding of its relationship to an external influence.

Other externalities might include solid partnership opportunities where particular exhibitions are closely connected to other institutions. An example in this area would be an exhibition that is a touring exhibition on a circuit through multiple venues at multiple sites. The inclusion of such an exhibition into a program flavours that program with not only the characteristics of that particular exhibition but also to some degree with the characteristics  the other venues, especially the originating institution.

A third example of externalities is the exhibition venue category. Public galleries, commercial galleries and artist-run spaces will all be mindful of the offerings of other organisation within their own self-associated category. Of course, the extent of this mindfulness will vary greatly depending on the organisation and its personnel. Benchmarking is a standard multi-industry activity and in the arts you hear of ‘competing’ entertainment options, synergies of relation, and niche brand development, not unlike other sectors of the cultural and economic industries. Attentiveness to these sort of considerations again flavours the character of a program and, sometimes implicitly as much as explicitly, is a curatorial impetus or influence.

The last aspect of programming as curating I would like to touch on is the proposition that programming is a form of curating curating. What I mean by this is that some approaches to programming could be said to be a curation of a collection of curations. Where traditional curating is a ‘caring for the collection and display’ of artworks, programming can be a ‘caring for the collection and display’ of curated exhibitions. This would most evident at larger organisations such as public galleries and museums that would program a sequence of thematic exhibitions. If a program can be curatorial, and the component parts of a program are curated shows, then a program is a curatorial network of curatorial elements.

As I’ve alluded to I think that some of the curatorial framework I’ve afforded to programming is implicit. Decision making does not necessarily address the notions raised in this essay in any methodical or explicit way, in fact, much of it is expressed as a consequence of context.

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