Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More on Collaborating with Curators

I attended a thought-provoking panel discussion on curating last night in which I asked the panel about the meme that's seemingly gaining ground about a backlash against the "star curator" whose exhibitions are more about their own personal vision (read: their own "art") than the work of the artists they include to support that vision. Back several years ago when I was curating independently, I was aware of a growing resentment among artists against curators who were so in love with their own ideas/celebrity/mission that they'd undercut the vision of the artists they worked with in order to illustrate this or that point.

Then a few weeks ago,
Art Soldier pointed us to an interview by João Ribas' with Klaus Ottmann, who's curating the 6th Site Santa Fe Biennial (July 9, 2006 - January 7, 2007). Here's the relevant bit:

You’re curating Site Santa Fe without a curatorial theme. Why did you decide to keep the exhibition open and unmediated in that way?

I had concerns about doing another big, theme-driven group show because there have been so many. With all of these exhibitions—and I’ve done a number of them myself—they really end up being more about the curator and his ideas than about the art. I wanted to try to create an environment where the art can speak for itself as much as possible—where I would be more in the background. I’m still the curator, of course, but I thought that if you have the works without a theme, there’s less filtering going on and there’s more of a chance for the viewer to see the works on their own terms.
When I raised a question about this to the panel of 6 curators, I asked the sole independent curator on the panel to address it specifically (the others worked for institutions), and was pleasantly surprised at the acknowledgement of the need to be aware of the potential for such problems when curating by all of them, but the independent curator cut through the issue and noted, rightly I think, that if a high-profile exhibition falls flat on its face, that curator will likely never get another gig like that again. Meaning, that there's a lot at stake for curators in such positions. Moreover, the independent curator noted that big biennials and such choose specific curators because they're looking for a particular type of exhibition. You know the "something" you'll get if you hire so-and-so, and sometimes that "something" is exactly what your exhibition needs.

So I left a little less sure of the critique (i.e., that exhibitions that seem more about the curator than the artists are in and of themselves bad) than I had been before. One curator later acknowledged that many younger artists are so grateful to be included in a high-profile exibition that they'll suck it up if the installation undercuts their work somehow, but that essentially no one forces an artist to participate in an exhibition, so artists can control this. Easier said than done, I know, but incrementally, I think artists can redefine the expecations to ensure their work is shown in its best light, even if the curator's vision takes priority in the installation.

Like I say again and again, it's critical that artists choose their gallery based on that being a good fit for them. The same applies to curated exhibitions. If you're approached about an exhibition, do a bit of research on the curator. Moreover, discuss early and earnestly what your expectations/requirements with regards to the exhibition/installation are (you won't get everything every time, but you're better off knowing that sooner rather than later). When I curated independently, the artists who got their requirements in early more often than not got what they needed...and those who didn't concern themselves with such matters until late in the process were often left with fewer options.

26 Comments:

Anonymous ML said...

I think that curating is currently in the same bind as art production: conceptualism is still in control but is weary. If you as a curator don't have a clear idea to promote, fewer galleries/institutions are interested. They expect strong ideas. But if the idea is foremost, the show just ends up looking like an illustration and doesn't serve the art. Curating requires both a conceptual idea and a visual idea. Sometimes you have to hide one or the other from selection committees.

4/18/2006 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

if a high-profile exhibition falls flat on its face, that curator will likely never get another gig like that again. Meaning, that there's a lot at stake for curators in such positions.

Yes, but instead of manipulating the meaning of the works involved, they should choose stronger work. Curator-centrism displays little faith in the ability of art to stand alone and places even less confidence in the power of the individual artist's vision -- no wonder this pisses off artists.

The fact that the demand from institutions (on curators) for these types of shows is so high, is indicative of a system-wide lack of respect for artistic vision. But it's not really surprising that art institutions would seek out a safety-net by filtering art for the paying public.

E_, you're correct in doubting whether this is necessarily always bad -- only because weak art often benefits from this type of curation. But this only masks the weaknesses of bad art (and more often limits good art) and is analogous to gift-wrapping a pile of shit.

That said, I can understand why emerging artists might feel enormous pressure to acquiesce. Established artists, on the other hand, should know better. By virtue of their elevated position of power, they are better suited to turn down exhibition opportunities that may not be in the best interest of their work.

4/18/2006 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

"instead of manipulating the meaning of the works involved, they should choose stronger work. Curator-centrism displays little faith in the ability of art to stand alone and places even less confidence in the power of the individual artist's vision"

Meaning changes when the context of viewing is changed. That should be self evident. So one of the functions of curating is to open up how the viewer sees art, to create an unexpected dialog between the works. If an artist doesn't want that flexibility, then definitely only have solo shows.

I don't dispute that some curators think that their ideas have greater value than the ideas of some artists, but as both an artist and an independent curator, I acknowledge how hard it is to pull off a good group show - working with artists and the frequent "me me me" rather than any awareness of the big picture is always an interesting challenge.

4/18/2006 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

working with artists and the frequent "me me me" rather than any awareness of the big picture is always an interesting challenge.


I was actually amazed early on in curating group exhibitions that some individual artists had no interest whatsoever in what I was trying to do outside how it impacted their own work. I don't mean only that they were invested in making sure I installed their work well (they should be), but that they didn't even bother to look at the other work or the dialog between it and theirs.

My first response to that was "Why would you participate in anything that you didn't care about?"

Later I began to understand thinking of group exhibitions as just a vehicle to get your work out there, but I tend to agree with ML, if you have no interest in a dialog between your work and that of other artists' you really have to avoid group exhibitions. There's a certain degree of shared investment the curator has a right to expect, IMO.

4/18/2006 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Fitzer said...

In the few shows I've curated (I use the term loosely) as part of my job as college gallery director, the most successful strategy I've found is to start with an artist's work I like, look at the themes (formal and/or conceptual) that are operating and then build a show with other artists who are using these themes in a manner that creates an engaging dialogue between them. To many times I've seen curators use artist works as simple visual aids to their uninteresting ideas.

To exemplify this, I watched a curator's talk (powerpoint) where she actually put text of her curatorial ideas on top of the artists images. I couldn't believe it! For her, the work was just pretty wallpaper.

4/18/2006 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

Meaning changes when the context of viewing is changed.

Indeed. Meaning often changes radically when the context of viewing is changed. This is exactly why artists should take context seriously and be involved in the process as much as possible (if they care about the meaning of their work). Otherwise they're handing over a key component of the artwork to a perhaps unintended collaborator.

Of course, to installation artists this is obvious, but far too many painters are lazy about how their work is viewed once it leaves the studio (aside from it 'looking good'). More painters should think of themselves as installation artists.

4/18/2006 03:42:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

"This is exactly why artists should take context seriously and be involved in the process as much as possible."

Working with a curator is really no different from working with a gallerist - if you don't have mutual trust, it will be difficult. Having gone through the ordeal of working with an artist who tried to micromanage the entire show, I suggest that artists look at past shows the curator has done and if in doubt, ask artists who have worked with the curator about the experience. I certainly do that now with artists. I may adore the work but if there is a hint that the artist is difficult - I stay away.

4/18/2006 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

the curator says, "I operate from a place of fear." and we are supposed to think that this qualifies them?

99% of decisions in the art world are about sucking up to authority. The job of everyone is to see through that to the few choices made from a place of strength and then point and declaim, "Here it is!" then get out of the way.

4/18/2006 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

I work at a gallery and install exhibits. I can't believe how mnay artists don't take the space into account when they bring in their work.

Painters should think of themselves as installation artists. I like that.

If you aren't careful installing, unexpected, and sometimes unwanted, dialogues can happen.

4/18/2006 06:20:00 PM  
Anonymous heather lowe said...

I believe the only prerequisite to being a great curator is to help the audience see the show. Make the work visible, clear the way so that the art can speak, light the pieces with precision.

A great curator is intelligent, daring and knows art history.
So...wise choices--not wise ideas.

4/18/2006 07:41:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

To what extent is it a "damned if you do . . ." sort of situation for the curator? Based on my entirely non-scientific survey of reviews of high-profile group shows, the exhibitions invariably succumb to one of the following flaws: either the theme of the show is restricting, distorting, and not true to the work on view not to mention the larger situation in the world, or the show is themeless and wandering. Obviously it helps if people think the work is strong, but that's about it.

While I'm sympathetic to the "themeless" approach, I have my doubts. What are the criteria for selection if there's no theme? Whatever looks good or interests the curator, I suppose, but in that case we're more often dealing with an unarticulated, unexamined theme. Ryan's practice described above seems to me the most sensible, and the one that I think has resulted in many of the most notable group exhibitions, historically speaking. Someone is intrigued by an artist's work, thinks about it; realizes that there's something happening there that a range of other people are working on, too, gathers them together and attempts to say what that thing is. Obviously that still means that high quality work that isn't involved in the issue at hand won't be included, but at least there's a greater chance of the curatorial gloss having roots in the work that is there, rather than being something imposed on it.

4/18/2006 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

All good points, but there's another issue too. Exhibitions with a strong curatorial vision get a lot of buzz and press, which helps build audience. How often have you seen crowds packed into a thematic blockbuster exhibit while work by the very same artists is hanging ignored and unloved in another (usually boringly labeled) part of the museum?

4/18/2006 08:23:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

How often have you seen crowds packed into a thematic blockbuster exhibit while work by the very same artists is hanging ignored and unloved in another (usually boringly labeled) part of the museum?

More than a few times, I'm sorry to say. To move away from contemporary work, I remember reading a review of the big Vermeer show that was at the National Gallery about 10 years ago in which the author pointed out that the huge crowds attending were spending their time futilely trying to see a group of paintings over heads and shoulders, about 20% of which could normally be seen in relative comfort on any given day in New York. Of course, that wouldn't get you the View of Delft, but still.

4/18/2006 08:40:00 PM  
Anonymous heather lowe said...

"Exhibitions with a strong curatorial vision get a lot of buzz and press."
Are you being entirely honest?
Isn't it the fact that you trust the person curating, or you know the artist(s) that draws you to the exhibition? Are you sure it's the theme?
Never has been for me--whenever I see a theme show I scan the names first.

4/18/2006 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

It's not just emerging artists that fall for this sillybusiness. The Whi-Bi (or to stay on topic, Iles and Vergne) totally killed Richard Serra and Mark diSuvero with context in order to prove a larger point.

Let me see if I understand this correctly. Curators should foreground themselves as much as possible with themes and visions in order to create job security. To create a product and to foolproof themselves against a flop.

And artists misrepresented by curatorial vision... go back to building crates or get jobs in advertising.

Ay yi yi. Some days it is hard to be an optimist.

4/18/2006 10:03:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Hi, Heather. You're right that people like you will go because they trust the curator or know the artists. But casual visitors (who probably couldn't name a single curator) often go to an exhibit because it's what everyone else is talking about, and they want to see what the fuss is. (The Giuliani-condemned "Sensation" exhibit is a good example.)

I'm not saying that's a good thing -- just that it may be an economic reality. Museums have to draw more than just the hard-core enthusiasts to stay afloat.

4/19/2006 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Let me see if I understand this correctly. Curators should foreground themselves as much as possible with themes and visions in order to create job security. To create a product and to foolproof themselves against a flop.

That's about as cynical an interpretation of what was written as possible, I think. How about reconsidering it as: curators are professionals with professional concerns and personal concerns of their own and those could/should be considered when assessing their decisions (not all of which will always be good, because curators are human, like artists), and besides, artist hold the ultimate defense card in their hand when they don't trust the curators' concerns in that they can simply refuse to be in an exhibition.

Or artists can do what it takes to establish the relationships with the galleries or institutions so that THEY can then curate their work as they see fit. Each of the curators on the panel agreed that artists often make the very best curators.

But, IMO, it's not fair to take advantage of what the curators offer and not at least consider that it's something less than malice (something more human, and less odious than pure ego) that leads them to make decisions you as an artist may diagree with. Disagreements will happen. Again, your best tool to avoid them, as an artist, is to start an earnest dialog about your needs/expectations as early as possible. In other words, own responsibility for ensuring your work will be installed in a way that you'll be happy with. OR...avoid group exhibitions.

And the idea that the only alternative to doing bad group exhibitions is to "go back to building crates or get jobs in advertising" suggests it's time for artists to consider taking matters into their own hands, like the Frieze kids did, and countless groups of other disenfranchised artists before them did.

In other words, don't gripe about the current offerings...forge a new way.

4/19/2006 08:06:00 AM  
Anonymous ML said...

One of the reasons this artist became a curator is because I got tired of hearing myself (and friends) whine about how bad group shows are.

I agree with Edward wholeheartedly: go out and make the art world a better place.

4/19/2006 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

As Gandhi said, become the change you wish to see in the world.

Which is why I walk around my house naked with the windows open.

4/19/2006 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

cu·rate2 (kyʊr'āt')
tr.v.
To act as curator of; organize and oversee.

No mention of creativity. Perhaps another title for the creative curator is in order.

Any ideas?

4/19/2006 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Edward:
I agree with you that it's more important for artists to create their own weather than bitch and moan about the System. It is also crucial for artists, if they are to navigate this thorny and self-interested system in the dynamic and creative way you describe, to have opinions about what curators do.

I made a cynical comment because you described a cynical action. It raised my hackles, the way this one independent curator that you paraphrase privileges personal risk assesment over other, larger goals. I think that artistic production and art appreciation suffers at the hand of over-curation. I think that curators sometimes behave counter to artists' best interests. I think that's a bummer for everyone, not just me.

We all have to eat, and I don't want to be a part of a "fair" art world at all. But I can't imagine being able to protect myself and create my own weather if I had no power to call 'em as I see 'em. While I understand the real-world pressures facing independent curators, I think that this particular curator's assesment is a little crass and self-centered, and it reads even more so in a field where so many people are taking such enormous risks in service of a larger goal. I am exercising the very power you state artists need to take more advantage of. I am saying no to this particular curator's assesment.

If I were complaining, I would assert that I would have to work with them anyway, because there is no other way because these people are gatekeepers, etc. etc. I don't believe that's true. I know too many great people--who manage to be generous, balance their personal risk, their personal integrity and relationships, and their larger sense of what they are doing and what purpose it serves--to think like that.

The best advice I ever got from an artist is "work with people you believe in, and who believe in you." How do you find and cultivate these people if you're busy doing all these mental gymnastics trying to make everybody's behavior OK?

4/19/2006 07:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In general I think that's a more balanced assessment fisher6000. Originally I thought you left no room for the notion that curators are going through a similar trial and error process all the rest of us working to promote the arts are. In other words, they're not the bad guys, even if they sometimes lose sight of what we're all trying to do here. You can criticize the "star curator" but leave some room for understanding their position. Balance and at least an eye toward generosity: no critique should leave home without them.

As for being too "busy doing all these mental gymnastics trying to make everybody's behavior OK" to find the people you believe in or who believe in you, I'm not so sure the two aren't mutually dependent. Some of my best friends and surely my best mentors are people I originally disagreed very strongly with. In other words, I try not to be so sure the folks who don't believe in me are necessarily wrong about why. Eventually you have to make your own choices, but if all you're listening to are the people who agree with you, you're missing out on some priceless opinions.

4/20/2006 08:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is an abomination in curatorial practice opening up at Triple candie i think today, a "recreation" of the work of Cady Noland, without her knowledge and permission, an exploitation of the most vile kind. it was "cute" with david hammons, but her situation is not the same and they should be ashamed of themselves. a bit off topic i know but important for people to realize how horrendous the thing they are doing is for this artist.

4/20/2006 08:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

how coincidental, I just published a post about that.

Not sure I think it's vile at all, though...let's take this discussion over there.

4/20/2006 08:41:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Hey Edward,
We are agreeing--let's chalk all this nuance stuff up to the nature of the medium. A post sounds so definitive when in fact it's just part of a really slow conversation...

Yes--I have found valuable allegiances with people I disagree with, and have had my mind changed often.

On the flip side, I have also gotten into hot water because I didn't trust my gut.

Taoists have a good structure for handling this. It is important never to write anyone off, or "mentally execute" someone. But it's equally important not to throw yourself away on people who won't know what to do with you. So you listen and receive openly. And act rarely and decisively. Be eager to listen, slow to trust.

Or to put in real-world terms, I will have a drink and chat with Independent Curator X any day of the week, provided X is nice and funny and tells good stories. But at this stage I wouldn't give X my work. And I wouldn't allow X to pander to me and tell me what I want to hear. I would be reserved professionally and wait for evidence out in the real world that trustworthiness evolved.

4/20/2006 08:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Nolan Simon said...

I think I'd like to introduce the current show at Andrew Kreps (it is, "what is it?") into the discussion. I know this show wasn't "curated" in the real sense of the word (it's all the artists represented by the gallery), but bits and pieces of this thread have migrated into installation concerns in general as opposed to curatorial manipulation of the meaning of work they show. I was excited walking into Andrew Kreps by what I assumed was a complex solo show (due to the install). I was somewhat disappointed minutes later when I found out what was really going on. This show is a great example of how installation, here I think taken to the extreme, effects the way work is approached. I'd argue that in this instance the show was better for it. Not that the work couldn't stand up on its own, just that the show as a whole was interesting and somehow greater than its component parts.

4/21/2006 12:07:00 PM  

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