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Curators In Context
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Initial Draft: Darryl Bank, March 26th, 2008
Historically, the role of a curator was based on the dominant concerns of a collecting institution such as a museum. The curator functioned as a keeper, or a custodian, personally responsible for the acquisition, classification, and safeguarding of objects that formed the museum's collection.
Consider Xandra Eden's tongue-in-cheek definition of the curator:
"The curator: a well-educated, stuffy sort, dedicated to the meticulous observation and care of our prized artifacts."
(CIC Banff, 2:03)
In its current usage, the term has shifted considerably, and continues to do so. Curator is one of the most regularly-used terms in contemporary art, but little consensus or clarity exists on its definition.
As Xandra Eden says,
"Now the term 'curator' is being used a lot more often...you see it a lot more, often appearing on exhibition invitations and title walls."
(CIC Banff, 13:31)
Why is there so little consensus on what constitutes a curator - or, perhaps more tellingly, what does the contemporary curator do that makes their role difficult to pin down and define? In its broadest terms, the curator is an active producer of meaning. In the context of an exhibition, that meaning can be produced through their bringing together of works of art, or artists, and their development of a framework or a context through which those works can be viewed.
Paul Couillard suggests that as a curator,
"I provide a context for the work that's shown, through thematic structures, through formal structures, etc."
(CIC Toronto, 5:14).
Another way to conceive of the curator is as a catalyst, whose actions - the selection and interpretation of artists and artworks - initiate a dialogue between the audience, artist, and institution.
Stuart Reid states that
"in terms of contemporary art, [the curator] bring(s) artists and art and audiences together, starting off a chain reaction of question and response, really initiating dialogue."
(CIC Banff, 2:59)
This notion of the curator as a catalyst for dialogue can be directly connected to the significant social and relational components of a curator's function. The historical definition of a curator as a "keeper" or "custodian" implies a solitary, singular function, but the contemporary curator often must act as an intermediary between a number of diverse groups.
Melanie O'Brian details an
"inexhaustive list of the relationships and responsibilities that curators have are to the following: artists, audiences, institutions, funders, collectors, dealers, writers, press, publishers, technicians, photographers, editors, and other curators."
(CIC Banff, 7:15)
Additionally, the role of a curator can be conceived as analogous to that of a textual editor.
Melanie O'Brian suggests that the editor and the curator both participate in the
"shared activities of assembling, arranging and overseeing ideas,"
"as editors of ideas, curators bring forward art and cultural practices to make the ideas available to audiences, not only through exhibitions, but also through publications, talks...website, forums, and other events. The curator is arguably the filter through which the work becomes known."
(CIC Banff, 2:45)
Going back to the beginning of this definition, it is important to consider the shifting role of the curator in light of the institution (galleries, museums, and artist-run centres). Many curators work as staff at a museum or gallery. Many others work as independent curators, who may propose exhibitions/programming to an institution, or bypass the institution entirely, developing their own programming through other channels (for instance, public or site-specific projects). The independent curator is a relatively recent phenomenon, likely an affect of the curator's shift away from the stewardship of a collection, towards a more amorphous production of meaning.
On the topic of the institutional curator, Melanie O'Brian states the following:
"Ultimately, at every institution, the affiliated curator must accommodate a mandate. The languages of those mandates affect the language of the specific curatorial gestures and strategies. Is the goal to sell work? Build a collection? Support artistic practices?"
(CIC Banff, 9:10)
The role of the curator must be considered through the frame of authorship. As a producer of meaning, the curator is, in effect, an author. However, this authority carries with it the potential for conflict and tension, particularly in terms of the possibility of the curator usurping or subsuming the artists' intentionality.
As Melanie O'Brian suggests,
"If the curator's role is to research and present artistic practices, there is a tension that resides in how much authority the curator has in making the work."
(CIC Banff, 12:35)
It is often suggested that the contemporary curator cannot occupy a fixed authorial position - rather, they must constantly shift in relation to artists, artworks, and institutions. It is clear that the curator's role cannot be considered as a static set of actions or decisions, but rather, a dynamic, fluid process, constantly shifting and evolving in response to dialogue, conflict, and collaboration.
Philip Monk states the following:
"For me, that is the definition of curating...always responding to what artists propose."
(CIC Toronto, 16:24)
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