The Rise and Fall(?) of the Independent Curator
So I'll start with some basic thoughts and try to flesh them out
in an ongoing series.
If you check the "about" section of my gallery's website, you'll see me listed as a former independent curator. While technically that's true (I was curating independently), that label is used in the art world to describe a pool of people with an incredibly broad spectrum of experience and expertise. I was most certainly at the shallow end of that pool before I opened my space, but what I was doing was getting good press and with that came remarkable opportunities. Even back then, though, I realized what critics were saying was true: far too many independent curators (especially those working with emerging artists) were upstaging their artists. Independent curators were becoming the stars (think Okwui Enwezor [and in particular, think of how many artists in Documenta 11 you associate with that exhibition MORE than you associate him with it] and you'll get what this means).
Don't get me wrong though, independent curators work their asses off and are out there "in the trenches" so to speak. Like no one else in the industry, they are in the studios, in the classrooms, even in the libraries piecing it all together. Here's a pretty good article discussing what independent curators do and why galleries, museums and international institutions are hiring these independent experts:
When Peter Doroshenko became the founding director of the Institute of Visual Arts in Milwaukee, working with independent curators was a matter of necessity. How else could he attract--- or afford ---to bring in curators with their fingers on the pulse of the global contemporary art scene?
These reasons and more ---including, not insignificantly, that this expertise comes at fairly low rates---have whittled away at the notion that curators fit within museums as cozily as tenured professors fit into universities. In fact, Paul Schimmel, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said at a symposium that recent developments had "blown apart" the standard American definition of what a curator is.
"The most important change in curatorial practice today," he said, is "the role of the independent curator---a kind of journeyman curator or wandering global nomad" who does not have the shell of a museum for protection.
According to Amada Cruz, the director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, curators often function like producers these days. As the mix of talents that are required to make a successful show have changed, curators are no longer judged solely by their scholarly background. Possibilities have opened for movement between fields.
The problem with this rise in prominence, as will happen in any field, is that increasingly many of the exhibitions independent curators offer are more about illustrating their own vision than that of the artists they include. This is not a new critique, and, well, like most things these days, it's already been absorbed and turned around within the very field it's critiquing. Note this statement from 2007 Venice Biennale curator Robert Storr in an Australian newspaper recently. He's describing how he's working toward that exhibition:
"And at this stage I don't know what I'll find. I'm interested in the visual arts, I'm interested in what artists do, and I'm interested in how they arrive at their ideas rather than how they illustrate mine."Twenty-five years ago that statement would have seemed so obvious as to make Storr seem a bit dim for offering it. Today, however, it's cutting edge.
But does this represent the end of the curator-as-rock-star, or is it simply a refocusing on what curators were supposed to be doing all along? Is even that true? Is there a certain task independent curators are supposed to be doing, or is it for each curator to define?
As I noted above, this topic is rather complex, but it's one close to my heart, so expect to find more about this as time goes on. For now, let me applaud Storr for the statement he made.
The image I'll use to identify this series (the field of eyes above) is from the Independent Curators International website. UPDATE: Dennis Christie (of Chelsea's DCKT and the awesome blog I Get My Show on the Road) identified the image as "a work by Nicholas Kersulis that is included in the ICI exhibition "100 Artists See God". Thanks Dennis!.