Introduction to the Curators Panel

Karen Atkinson, Introduction to panel


Francesco Bonami reports in his recent book, “The space that art takes in this world is so small that it can be easily over looked.  Its yearly audience is roughly the same as that of one hour of America On Line (AOL).” In the era of hyper communication, pin and eight hundred numbers, multiple phones, recent proliferation of 10-10 numbers, perhaps there will be a chain of endless beginnings in this endless mode of success collaborations between cultural producers with shifting and growing audiences.” (1) But who gets to participate?  I have had the privilege of engaging in a few international gatherings of curators in the last 6 years, as well as some “think-tank” gatherings.  Conversations with curators in South Africa, Hong Kong, Britain, India and Australia have provided additional insights and even more questions.  I want to share some of the questions and ideas that have arisen from these and other discussions and present some things to think about in the context of our panel presentations. 

Borrowing some language from a description of one of a curatorial gathering I participated in Canada titled “Naming a Practice: Curatorial Strategies for the Future,” I am hoping we will examine the curatorial practice of contemporary art in an environment of increasing instability and change.  We have seen shifts in cultural ideology, economics, technology, institutions and the climate of changing practices for artists and curators.  Although curators have played an active role in various initiatives, their practice continues to be largely defined by public institutions and their mandates.  New ways of presenting as well as revealing the curatorial process are being developed and presented that provide a place for social interaction across cultural differences and ideas while addressing the working realities of curators, artists and audiences.  Curators need to name and define their practices while pushing new boundaries and to articulate new strategies and formations that can make institutions and individuals more responsive and relevant to contemporary culture. (2) 

Some basic questions about curatorial practice and the role of the curator:

·               Will the freedom of cultural practice, to do and to make, become an ever-greater division of social class?

·               Will the new technologies supersede or integrate the arts in its current mediums and strategies?

·               As meanings merge and collide, will their complexity cross into new territories, form new partnerships, provoke new models?

·               What will be the relationship between local and global knowledge and what role will the globalized intellectual play?

·               Will a new togetherness make us all winners in the “post-millennium”—rich and poor alike, the famous and the unknown artist,                artist and audience, funders and non-profits—or will the gaps widen?

·               Will the Web succeed in making the illusion of a smaller world?

·               Will the Internet complete the destruction of a failing multi-culturalism that has often been unrealistically practiced?

·               Will artists and curators continue to shake up the perception of a homogeneous society?

·               Will theory’s ever-changing transformation of “what is hot” stabilize into new relationships while maintaining ideas of diversity?

At this gathering of curators in Canada, curator Sharon Brooks comments, “Contemporary exhibition formats such as retrospectives, overviews o recent production and thematic exhibitions continue to operate within many of the structures of modernist curatorial practice.  At the same time there has been a rhetorical divestment of modernist assumptions.  Yet these formats continue to structure the receptions of art and spectatorship, and often close down the potential of art in favor of the message inscribed in the structure—messages like ‘this is a great artist who has developed over time like all the other great artists in history’, or, ‘Here is the best new work grappling with the central issues of our time,’ or, ‘Eureka!  I found ‘the idea’ underlying all this seemingly unrelated and heterogeneous current work.”  (3) 

Are these assumptions so much a part of our current cultural practice that they find their way into most curatorial models?  Or will the future hold other options?  The following are some ideas for thinking about the future:

·               Find alternatives to traditional curatorial strategies and exhibition structures.

·               Encourage the breakdown of the curator’s singularizing vision of an elite art world through community centered public                              programming: education, outreach, or community liaison. 

·               Reject the idea of curator as connoisseur.

·               Interrogate the idea of curator as critic.

·               A reconsideration of the role of collections and collecting.

·               Encourage a shift from categorization and representation to knowledge as the principal goal of the museum.

·               Locate new alternatives to museums, galleries and alternative institutions - including non-sites, multiple sites and site-disruptions.

·               Consider curatorial practice as a social practice.

·               Consider “projects” instead of exhibitions, which can have an expanded vision of “the show”.

·               The museum as site for community festivals. 

·               Develop more residencies and cross-disciplinary links. 

·               Develop alternative architectural designs and experiment with new managerial structures. 

·               Consider curatorial practice based on the model of computer based hypertext.

·               Question the relationship of public and private funding partnerships through sources such as, foundations, mega-shows, venture            capital, etc. 

·               Consider the function of cooperative exhibitions and democratize curatorial networks: global information sharing as a solution to            isolationism.

·               Encourage link-ups between art and non-art institutions and groups.

·               Reconsideration of the present status of arts and museum publications, magazines, books and artists books through alternative              strategies of co-publishing, technology and its relationship to the viewers interpretation, multiple authors.

·               The impact of self-censorship of artists and curators.

·               Question hierarchies.

Bonami raises further issues: Culture and education are under fire, even in crisis.  They have been for some time, and I personally don’t see the situation changing for some time.  This poses an enormous challenge to those of us whose work is committed to the cultural well being of our society. Most cultural institutions on the front lines of contemporary social discourse want to re-negotiate their vision and infrastructure.  Easier said than done.  The agenda for cultural organizations seems more urgent than it has been for some time.  On this agenda are questions about ethics and the nature of the work place, not to mention how different cultural and extra cultural disciplines can interact in mutually beneficial ways.  The changing nature of society at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries presents a remarkable confluence of the issues that demand our attention: transculturalism, the ongoing integration of feminist ideologies into discourse, the problematic of the technological ethos and the re-negotiations of our relationship with the environment. (4) If the content of cultural programming does not include these social issues in a sustained manner will that program be viable? 

As Gayatri Spivak has suggested, “There are many subject positions which one must inhabit since one is not just one thing.  The question who should speak is less crucial than who should listen.” (5).  Renee Baert, a curator in Canada, sums it up best in passing on her observations: 

 A certain past of curatorial practice is evoked, an anterior practice predicated on the model of the curator as conservator but also as connoisseur.  We might be rather dis-identified with this bourgeois figure of acute sensibility who is able to recognize, and let us say, resonate with [the] sanctified object that he (sic) privileges ‘art.’  I have had an occasion however, here and there, to hear accounts by contemporary curators about how they envisage their role and so I have inquired as mall lexicon of such interpretations.  In one memorable instance the speaker’s identification with the notions of curator as gate keeper was so pronounced that he likened his role, seemingly quite comfortably with that of a ‘cop.’ At the same public event, and at the other extreme, another curator made a claim for an intense poetic subjectivism extending in his words, ‘from the fundamental polyschizophrenia of the curator figure to his internal laceration.’  I have become quite familiar with the idea of the curator as a kind of pioneer discoverer figure; charting out new territory on the aesthetic or cultural frontier.  And we are acquainted with the model of the curator-friend.  We have also the idea of curator as a ‘transgressive’ figure—or facilitator of the artist-transgressor.  Indeed the notion of the curator as a facilitator is itself quite wide spread, though in my experiences, this rather self-effacing stance is seldom accompanied by a discussion of how the choice of artists to facilitate comes about.  I have heard moving appeals to the role of the curator as a guardian of cultural ethics.  And many curators particularly today see their work as a form of cultural activism, as part of the wider extra art political or affiliative community.  Finally, no such list would be closed without the idea of curator as artist.”  (6)  

How indeed do these manifestations of the curator as historian, therapist, shopper, political strategist, administrator, broker, activist, publicist, facilitator, artist and art object, teacher and collaborator, coincide with theoretical practice?


1.  Francesco Bonami, “The Road Around (or, A Long Good-bye)”, Echoes: Contemporary Art at the Age of Endless Conclusions, (New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc.), 1996, p. 11.

2. Letter of invitation to participate in conference think-tank.

3. Sharon Brooks, “Productive Affinities, Singular Differences”, “Naming a Practice: Curatorial Strategies for the Future”, (Banff: Banff Centre Press), 1996, p. 99.

4. Selections from Francesco Bonami, Echoes: Contemporary Art at the Age of Endless Conclusions, (New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc.), 1996.

5. Renee Baert, “Provisional Practices”, “Naming a Practice: Curatorial Strategies for the Future”, (Banff: Banff Centre Press), 1996, p. 116.

6.  Ibid, p. 117.