The role of a curator is complex and always evolving. The primary role of a curator is to assemble or select collections of works of art, or art projects, grouped around an idea or theme. Many artists are also curators, and often a curatorial project is launched in response to events or concerns in the artists’ community or with regards to the ideas investigated in the artist’s practice. Many artists curate shows as a way of gathering various artistic voices together to create new meaning or to create/extend a context for their own work. Curating a show that has a completely different subject matter than your own work can also be intellectually rewarding.
Curating is a great way to make connections with other artists and art professionals, to expand ideas about your own work, to create a dialogue within a particular community, or to give an idea a public face. Whether in a traditional gallery space or a public site, curating can give an artist experience and exposure, which may lead to a job, new work, or a newly defined community.
Where To Start
There are many places to begin in the curatorial process. You may have a theme or an idea in mind, or you might need to do research and visit exhibitions. Once you have the structure for your curatorial project, you need to compile a list of artists to contact. Think about your immediate connections, then ask other artists and mentors for suggestions. Next you will need to do some fieldwork by visiting these artists at their studios.
Often a curator goes to a studio with an idea of what she/he wants, and she/he chooses work accordingly. This model can result in interesting shows, but the downside is that your work may not be selected because it doesn’t highlight the curator’s point of view. With specific curatorial direction, artists’ work may fit comfortably in one exhibition and not another.
Another curatorial model is to define the content and context of the exhibition based on the sensibilities of specific artists, or certain topical issues. Instead of choosing specific works, the curator asks the artists to create work or choose her/his own work specifically for the exhibition. This model truly highlights the artists’ voice but it may be risky and can change the curatorial voice and/or position of the exhibition. Artists are often great judges as to how their work fits into the content of a show.
Ask yourself what types of arts organizations might be appropriate for your curatorial project. A guest curator may have much more creative leverage at a nonprofit space versus a commercial gallery, where revenue is needed to keep the lights on. Always think beyond the white walls of the gallery and remember that many site-specific projects and storefront locations can produce excellent exhibitions.
Consider the following:
What is the context of the exhibition? How will the show relate to where it is held and the current events that frame it?
How will you conceptually frame your exhibition?
Who is your audience?
Do you want to include local, national, or international artists?
Do you want to invite emerging artists, mid-career artists, or a combination to exhibit together?
What is your budget?
Curating existing work is very different from curating work that has yet to be made. Working with your friends is sometimes a challenge, so work hard to maintain both the friendship and a good working relationship. As a curator, you are in a position of authority and responsibility.
When word spreads that you are curating an exhibition, many artists you know or are acquainted with will come out of the woodwork. Some may go as far as courting your interest in their work even if it is not appropriate for the show. Remain strong and professional in your interactions—never take anything personally, and avoid desperate artists. Keep in mind that it is often uninteresting when curators invite only their friends to participate in a show.
As a curator, it can be very difficult to control the community’s response to your show. You have to be willing to stand by the artists you include, and the conceptual ideas that underscore the exhibition on a public platform.
Curator as Artist or Exhibiting Artist
There has been a lot of discussion, both pro and con, about the curator as artist. There is a strong notion that if the curator includes her/his own work it is a reflection of her/his ego. Yet, if the artist curator were truly egotistical, she/he would do a solo exhibition. These rigid definitions of the role of the curator can be shifted and expanded, as well as influence the curator’s position in her/his relationship to organizing exhibitions. The most important thing is to try and avoid obvious conflicts of interest. Trained arts professionals can usually tell when a curator has taken advantage of an exhibition opportunity, so only include yourself in your curated shows if your work adds to the conceptual and aesthetic statement of the show.
Creating a publication in conjunction with an exhibition can produce a great historical record and provide artists with a way to extend the creative reach of the show into the future. Sometimes catalogs have other functions and a target audience outside the art scene. There are many ways to self-publish a catalog.
A catalog is one way to create an archival record, or to add other options and texts about your work, but you can also consider publishing an artist book as a companion artwork that can be used later when the show is over. This publication might include work from the show, but also a story, a history of the work, or other aspects that enhance the project, or it can be used as an archival element.
Exhibitions do not always need to take place in a traditional location. An exhibition can exist in your local newspaper or on the Internet. Alternative sites for exhibitions might be appropriate, particularly ones that take the site’s distinctive features into consideration. Great exhibitions have taken place in really odd places. Artists have exhibited their work in shopping carts where advertisements are usually located, in parking spaces outside world fairs, in semi-trucks, and rented sites at flea markets and storage buildings. It is good to challenge the conventions of display.
For a curatorial project in an alternative venue, you may want to contact business owners, city officials, and anyone else necessary to grant you permission and access to host an exhibition. You may be given a wall in a business, an empty storefront, or a monthly spot on a public park calendar. As a curator, this is your opportunity to include artists’ work that not only assist your curatorial point of view but also fit into the context of the venue.
Working with artists in new contexts can be harder than in a traditional gallery venue. As a curator or organizer, you may need to consider liability insurance, special permits or permissions, or negotiating with a person who has little or no understanding of the arts.
These days, lines blur between models of practice as a curator, (whether we can call it ‘traditional’ or otherwise), organizer, historian, artist, or critic. One way to look at a curatorial practice is in “gathering voices” together in order to expand ideas and meaning between works that might be in agreement, or in contraction to each other. One of the reasons many artist curate, is their interest in putting various “voices” together in the same space.
How we gather and represent voices has implications on how or if those voices are heard. Clearly, how we frame those voices is important. This framing includes the curatorial model, the context, i.e., institutions of all kinds, our assumptions, and the language we use. We are all in some position of authority. How and if we acknowledge our positions becomes crucial.
Consider the way press releases from institutions frame the artists work, or the institution which is presenting it. Often over the top, with phrases such as “the most important artist of our time” or how edgy the institution is for presenting this “new” work. Be aware of how institutions “frame” exhibitions, what language they use, and whom they think their audience is. Press can be a good indicator for the study of representation. Look at the correlation between curatorial practice and the different ways that content is derived through curatorial practice. There are so many decisions and factors that determine how our work as curators and organizers gets read. Certainly the institutions we work in and who we represent are factors, and they can lend content to our exhibitions. One’s curatorial practice will be contextualized by the institution in which the work is presented.
Who is included, or more than likely who is not included in exhibitions, signs of the institution and its relationship to the community where the institution is located or “non-institutional projects,” and attempts to present ourselves outside the institutional context are all indicators of our projected content. Is there is any such thing as a non-institution? It’s certainly debatable. In addition, our gender, race, and age as curators, our own histories, the successes and mistakes we make, how we position ourselves in a historical context, or how accessible we are, are all part of the curatorial model we use and has implications on how the project maybe received. Are the voices we have gathered heard? Or repressed in the name of our own ideas?
There is some overlap in terms of how artists worry about the presentation of their own work and how organizers or curators present work. Both are thinking of how the work will be read, the artists within the curators ideas, and the curator who is often using the artists work to present ideas. There’s been a lot of discussion about the curator as artist, both pro and con.
One of the reasons many artists have developed new ways of curating has a lot to do with access, in terms of artists having access to institutions, or whether anybody will talk to them from the institutions. Many curators usually look at the same institutions when they travel to other cities to look at work. They all go to the big museums and galleries and ask who’s doing work in town. They might go to the artist-run centers, but what I think happens is it usually ends up being the same recurring list of artists that get looked at. When you travel to various cities you often see the same artists over and over again. Artists become trendy, and exhibited accordingly. Funders often complain that everyone is applying for funds to show the same artists.
One of the curatorial models can be described as the shopping curator, in which the curator goes to the studio, has an idea of what she/he wants to do and what to say, and chooses the work accordingly. (“I’ll take one of those and two of those and ...”). I think there are both good and bad aspects about this.
Another model would be that the curator creates the content and the context of the exhibition based on the different sensibilities of the artists whose work she/he becomes familiar with, or by certain issues “in the air.” But instead of choosing specific works the curator asks the artists to create work or choose her/his own work specifically for the exhibition. This can be more risky, but often the show is better. I think it also changes the position of the voice and the framing of the exhibition. We can argue about that. This model is often inherently more interesting, and the work is rarely pushed by a non-artist to fit the context of the show. Artists are often a great judge as to how their ongoing work fits into the content of a show when they construct or choose the work accordingly. For those curators who demand to have the last word, they can always see those choices before they arrive in the exhibition space. But it’s less about shopping and more about context. The artist’s voice is usually more apparent in the exhibition.
Other exhibitions are created when a curator chooses a number of artists who choose other artists to be part of an exhibition. It expands the pooI of artists, but I often find this is a very arbitrary experience. I think there are many possibilities for going past a number of people that one knows. This model might work best for studio visits.
An artist invites her/his friends to participate in a show she/he curates. This is usually not very interesting. It’s also very arbitrary.
There’s the free-for-all where everybody hangs works, which is the model for mail art, older fax art shows, etc. “Quality” is always an issue with these projects, and most professional artists don’t participate in these kinds of projects.
Other kinds of models also exist, such as curating a reading room. Armando Rascon created what he calls “The Multicultural Reading Room” in the 90’s. He asked 30 artists from all over the States to present two or three books that had made a difference in their lives in terms of how they thought about multiculturalism and what influenced how issues were formed for them. The exhibition traveled to a number of different sites and then was donated to a library as part of its permanent collection. It automatically created a situation in the library where the acquisition pushed past its book collection and expanded the boundaries of what the librarian might have chosen. Another example of creating a situation where more than one voice speaks and where something quite wonderful can happen.
Another 90‘s example. There’s a space in San Francisco called the Galería de la Raza. The curatorial staff was very frustrated with the fact that the projects being proposed for their space were not very interesting. Shows leaped from one fanatic idea to another. So they sat down as a committee and created a whole year of ideas they wanted to address and things they wanted to accomplish for the year. But instead of curating within their own institution, they opened it up for proposals from the field, with the guidelines determining the content of the submissions. What happened is that they were getting a lot of different solutions and ways of looking at the issues they were interested in. The mission of their programming remains consistent, but the way this mission is accomplished has been opened up to some great ideas they never would have thought of themselves, and the issues that are important for them to address as a space are being addressed. There are exhibitions in which the work is changed or altered by the audience. Perhaps the viewer is asked to participate by adding or altering an element to the work, or by moving parts around the space. So who’s the artist?
Another model is the neighborhood committee or project. There were some interesting debates going on in Los Angeles in which a community wanted to do a mural. It was being blocked in every way possible by the powers that be within the city. They were really struggling with the idea that a community or neighborhood can actually choose what they want in their neighborhood. So there is this interesting dilemma that’s going on between who has the power to actually block an artwork supported by the very people who live there. It’s a reversal of the Richard Serra phenomenon. The proposed mural happened to chronicle the history of the Black Panthers.
A curatorial project took place at Exit Art in New York, and it’s called, “How Do You Play the Game.” They invited five “highfalutin’” curators in New York to create an exhibition within that site. It was a collaborative, conceptual exhibition project which investigated the curatorial process and revealed how curators’ choices reflect their aesthetic and critical values. The show was conceived of as a game in which the participants, five curators of contemporary art, will each take turns selecting and installing works of art chosen in response to the other curator’s selections. In the succeeding weeks, the five curators took turns independently choosing and installing new works. It changed and expanded each week reflecting and reinforcing curatorial dialogue. This model foregrounds curatorial practice within the exhibition itself.
One of the ways in which curators are stepping outside the institution is to involve businesses and other institutions in non art locations. Artists are hooked up with business owners/workers who are non-artists. These are people who have never worked with artists before and they each work on a collaborative page for a publication or installation in their place of business. The curators were interested in alleviating the situation where the artists are separate from everybody else. They presented these collaborations in a publication or newsletter which then was distributed throughout the city. Other projects include showing the work of artists in libraries or other spaces. Interesting locations that have been used include the old Los Angeles Zoo, the New York Times, furniture stores, bookstores, public parks, bodies of water, etc. See the alternative exhibitions list in the chapter of Venues.
Curating is an ongoing and evolving process. It can be considered as a part of ones art practice, or not. Changes in how curators work is often influenced by how artists have changed curatorial models, or taken risks in new ways of presentation and dialog. Distribution by various means will keep changing, especially as technology changes. The most important factor is how we frame the work we do or how we are framed by things out of our control. Our voices as curators and the voices of the artists we gather are important elements to our culture. Perhaps by being aware of our decisions and the language we use, the way our work is perceived will come closer to our intentions.
You can also get our popular book for artists which includes all of this information and more here.