Monday, February 03, 2014

Taking Context for Granted

For all the seeming power they wield to influence what is considered important to preserve of our contemporary culture, institutional curators are shamefully under-appreciated in my opinion. It's not only financially, mind you, although I was recently shocked by the salary listed for a head curator position in one of Europe's leading contemporary art does one live in that city on that salary?

Of course, if it's money you're after, becoming a curator would seem a particularly hard way to go about getting it. As the Weatherspoon Art Museum's Curator of Exhibitions, Xandra Eden, noted during a presentation titled "Curators are So Over" back in 2005, 
And, of course, as most of us are aware, the benefits of high status in the curatorial field are not connected to wealth. They’re connected to respect, they’re connected to acknowledgment. 
But that's it, actually. It's one thing for curators to accept that their profession won't pay as well as, say, a **cough** manufacturing job might, but in a number of high-profile cases lately, the respect and acknowledgement benefits seem to be less of a given as well.  

My sense is that this lack of respect and acknowledgement is coming at curators from two directions. The first is certainly problematic, but I don't know that anything can be done about it. The recent shift in the popular definition of the term "to curate"  to mean essentially "to select and organize" lets anyone call themselves a "curator." That watering down of the meaning of the term cannot help but impact the public's perception of what it is a curator does. Oh, I curated the music at my company's holiday party this past year. Curating's so much work! But it's fun, isn't it?

Perhaps the way people who do what I do clarify that they're "art dealers" (rather than be mistaken for someone peddling narcotics), "art curators" (or some variation a bit less inelegant) needs to be introduced into the vocabulary. But this is the much lesser of the two sources of disrespect. The more troublesome one is that coming from the very institutions that should be curators' biggest champions. 

But let me back up.  

There are many significant contributions a curator can make while working in an institution, but perhaps the hardest to do well (because it requires consistently doing above-average work) is lifting the public's perception of the "context" of that space. In short, that means building the reputation of the space via a series of exceptionally strong exhibitions and publications such that enough credibility has been built up that greater risks can be taken in that space and the public will approach such efforts with more patience and faith than they might elsewhere. 

Perhaps one of the best examples of this in the US was the context that Paul Schimmel had built for MOCA while chief curator there. As Julia Halperin reported when Schimmel and MOCA parted ways (some say forced out against his will because of differing priorities with then-director Jeffrey Deitch, who has since resigned),
In his 22 years at the museum, Schimmel mounted some of its most rigorous and ambitious exhibitions. Though born and raised in New York, the Syracuse University alumnus is a self-professed L.A.-ophile, and has spent much of his career examining the artists who defined the city. Most famously, his 1992 show "Helter Skelter" surveyed the work of 16 visual artists and 10 writers working in Los Angeles art in the 1990s. Schimmel's 2007 survey of Takashi Murakami, which later traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, saw its fair share of controversy amidst accusations of pandering and commercialism: Schimmel famously allowed Murakami to install a Louis Vuitton boutique inside the exhibition.

"Some curatorial work should be speculative," he once told the L.A. Weekly. "Curators should be able to say that they believe in something, they think it’s important, and they’re going to show it without waiting for a consensus."
Indeed, no amount of money can just buy that context; the license to present speculative curatorial work before there's a consensus is quite hard-earned generally, but it greatly benefits every curator (or director, or trustee) associated with that institution once it's achieved in the public's view. More importantly, the context to do so greatly benefits new artists pushing the boundaries of what's come before. And so, when such efforts are not respected or acknowledged, it's offensive to everyone who works to create as supportive a network as possible for artists to experiment and innovate. 

Which brings me to the latest, inexplicable example of an institution that seems to take a hard-earned context for granted. As reported by Corinna Kirsch on ArtFCity and other publications, last week Carnegie Mellon University quite abruptly, indeed quite rudely, fired their Miller Gallery's highly acclaimed director and curator, Astria Suparak. By all accounts there was no warning they intended to let Astria go, and there's still no official statement about the firing on their website.

As Kirsch wrote:

Throwing the curator out with the bathwater has, predictably, inspired a backlash from the Pittsburgh arts community. Suparak was unavailable for comment, but Pittsburgh has spoken for her. From Eric Shiner, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, to artists serving on the Miller Gallery advisory committee, nobody sees the advantage in laying off Astria Suparak, a nationally recognized curator who has brought a range of innovative, interdisciplinary programs to the gallery. Over the last week complaints have been numerous: at least one letter has been written to the President, and a flurry of comments have appeared on Facebook.
Since coming on board to the Miller Gallery in 2008, Suparak has quickly become an integral part of Pittsburgh, revered as a lynchpin connecting the University to the rest of the contemporary art world.

Dan Byers of the Carnegie Museum of Art told us over email that Suparak’s dismissal “shows enormous ignorance of what a loss this will be to Carnegie Mellon.” He went on to say that “under Astria’s leadership the Miller has been anything but a ‘conventional gallery’” and that her “programming has been the model of a progressive, interdisciplinary, experimental curatorial approach.”
That sentiment was reiterated by Marc Fischer who sent a letter to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and the President of Carnegie Mellon University. “Why make this change now,” he wonders, “following the landmark feminist exhibit Alien She that has been such a massive success for the gallery? Who is this decision supposed to benefit?” As an artist, Fischer mentions that Suparak “proved herself to be easily one of the most fearlessly intelligent, imaginative, detail-oriented, ethical, and responsible curators we have ever worked with in our fifteen year history.”
In short, she has greatly raised the Miller Gallery's prestige across the nation, as CMU's own newspaper for its faculty and staff, The Piper, acknowledged in an article titled "Astria Suparak Brings National Attention to Miller Gallery." Here's more of that article:
Since 2008, Astria Suparak has been curating cutting-edge, interdisciplinary exhibitions and events at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery. There, installations, paintings, sculpture, electronic arts, and other works that defy category bring the three-story art space alive.

This fall, Suparak is a co-curator of the Pittsburgh Biennial, premiering five new installations at the Miller Gallery. Setting a new precedent for city-wide collaboration among major art institutions, the Pittsburgh Biennial is co-organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Miller Gallery, The Andy Warhol Museum, and Biennial founders Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
So with all this praise heaped on Suparak, by CMU's own faculty newspaper no less, for her nationally acclaimed "interdisciplinary exhibitions" presenting "works that defy category," it is curious indeed that the rationale CMU's Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Dan J. Martin, offered to explain the firing was to say the Miller "will begin ... exhibiting, presenting and exploring work across arts disciplines at the university." There seems a bit of a disconnect there.

Indeed, in his fuller statement about the change at the Miller, Martin never once mentions Suparak, let alone thanks her for bringing national attention to the school or "
setting a new precedent for city-wide collaboration among major art institutions." Nothing. As Pittsburgh's City Paper noted, the university's "previous statement has been changed to reflect the fact that CMU does not comment directly on personnel issues." But acknowledgement is hardly a "personnel issue."  Given it's among the only truly significant benefits contemporary curators can expect in their field, I'd say it's their due.

What's really behind the change at the Miller is anybody's guess at this point. Speculation probably isn't as productive here as pointing out that the firing was conducted in a way that paid neither respect nor acknowledgement to Suparak's extraordinary contributions to the Miller's national reputation and the enhanced context there now that all future exhibitions there will take advantage of. For the sake of CMU's students and community, I hope they live up to the high standards that Suparak has set.


Blogger mrpillis said...

So glad to read this Mr. Winkleman, happy to see you emphasizing Suparak's role. Just arriving to CMU, one of the lures was her programming and finding out about this was notably disturbing.

I think the decision reflects a general lack of respect for the role of the curator, as if art can magically seek out its own connections and relations. Particularly in an academic setting, it's crucial to promote the research and relational component of experiencing art, and the curatorial role of creating an experiential setting is as important as any single artist's role in making.

Glad to see this issue being discussed and thanks for posting.

2/04/2014 12:23:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I like the recognition that the role of curator has changed. As a noun it has not yet fallen on hard times, I think, or even as an adjective as in 'curatorial skills'. But the examples where you used it as a verb (curated, curating) are hair raising and demonstrate exactly your theme or context! Building the kind of context you ascribe to Suparak is
a talent few possess whether they are heads of families or CEOs or whatever...

2/04/2014 05:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You Know, President Obama is the Coolest President of all time. However he is very naieve about the future or maybe not.

Wow a $10.00 minimum wage , the minimum wage should be about double that.

He is a big proponet of 3 D printing. The way technology is advancing you might have 10 to 20 years before your manufacturing job is lost to 3 d printing and robots. 3 d printing will destroy hundreds of thousand jobs.

I have been in manufacturing all my life I can do the work of a 10 man shop with my machines.

What are all the humans going to do when machines are building machines? :(

Imagine a Museum of the future who's program is run by Artificial Intelligence with all the knowledge of the world.

Or Imagine Roy Batty as a Curator.

The future will be less humans more machines.

Right Now we are in The Roller Ball Phase of History. NFL = Roller Ball . Who will be our Jonathon E ?

2/05/2014 10:46:00 AM  

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