A Curator Answers

June 22, 2009

We have been blown away by the thoughtfulness (and volume) of questions you submitted via Unframed, Twitter, and Facebook for our ongoing Ask A Curator series. We will be rolling out answers over the course of the next few weeks, so keep checking back and keep submitting questions. First up, we turned a question from Ian, who left a comment here on the blog, over to photography curator Charlotte Cotton.

To what extent do curators feel pressure to make a show that will impress other curators? Is there a sort of unspoken competition to put together exhibitions that will outdo or one-up other museums?

What interesting questions! So far, I've not heard of the planning of a curatorial version of American Idol or The Apprentice, so I think we are safe to assume that there are no fist fights nor mercenary tactics scripted for the behind-the-scenes of curatorial life. In the main, I don't think a curator working within a county or public institution looks at what they perceive as their specialism as a terrain that can be fully or globally dominated by you and you alone—and that's not one's aim. The really stimulating part about what you get to do as a curator is to think originally, but also within a context of there being a critical and energetic mass of points of view and approaches to your subject that drives it forward and gives it renewed relevance to contemporary, and mainly local, eyes.

I don't think there are many convincing parallels between the lives of artists and curators, but from the outset of my career as a curator I have observed a connection between these two creative fields. Artists seem to divide into those who avoid being aware of (and contaminated by) the most popular or empirically vast forms of art in order to do what they do and sustain their individuated voice, and those who get sustenance from looking and thinking about what other artists are creating and actively seek out the discursive potential of their arena. Curators, I think, also divide into those who need a state of isolation from popular trends and those who are actively nourished by the overall scope of contemporary curatorship and what it means to interpret culture for a broad constituent (i.e., who actually experiences the fruits of one’s labors). For both ways of life, it's the practitioners who could not live or create in any other way, who have no alternative profession or way of communicating with the world, who create the magic and innovations of their fields. Both artists and curators are highly sentient of how we collectively look and, therefore, how you make exhibition-goers engage with the forms of culture and histories that we explore.

Embedded within your questions seems to be a desire for qualifications of the extent to which being a curator is a competitive profession, and perhaps also how curating tallies with the mechanics and politics of academia, where the currency of projects within a peer group of individual thinkers is a serious issue. I still remember a comment from a staff meeting I attended at a similarly encyclopedic museum as LACMA fifteen years ago. I was a curator in a much-maligned, out-of-fashion institution whose senior management opened up the debate in an all-staff meeting to the audience, perhaps looking for ideas from its junior curatorial staff about how this stumbling, dusty beast of a repository to all manner of human endeavor might be brought up from its current state of decline and irrelevance. Following a rallying and eloquent cry from an old-school curator who had no intention of modifying or stylizing his impressive knowledge of his subject, sullying the complexity of his scholarship with the trappings of populism, a young researcher stood up. She asked us to make a distinction in our intent and ambitions between being academic and being intelligent.

In my opinion, a curator always keeps in mind that while there will be peers in the visitors to their exhibitions who expect an awareness of and a departure from the received wisdom of the relevant field. There will also be an added litany of doctoral thesis-holders who parlay with the same fenced-in terminology as traditional curators, but we'd be best to keep in mind that these scholars may also be bringing their inquisitive five-year-old with them—and that they also email, google, twitter, and read their local newspaper. Our job as curators is to not only respond to but also anticipate what is timely, and to engage with the “how” and “what” that can be presciently shaped from the wealth of the visual and material histories for which we have responsibility, for anyone who is intelligently inquisitive about culture.

Charlotte Cotton

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