Archive | November, 2010

Curators: you think the new guard is old guard? Really?

21 Nov

Between the time I got home from Banff last week and today, Nancy Tousley wrote up a pretty nice summary of the curatorial conference, Are Curators Unprofessional? for the Canadian Art website. It’s a great little piece with some key observations and critiques, so I won’t write a summary here or delve into many of her concerns because she articulates them all so carefully. I instead would like to present my own completely subjective feelings on the conference, and my experience participating in the Matthew Higgs workshop.

First, the Higgs workshop. Matthew Higgs is pretty BOSS. There were 16 of us young curators, from all across Canada, who were awesome and brought cool work. But not surprisingly, there was no cohesion to what we brought. Like, none. Just some shared formal qualities amongst a couple works. I expected more people were going to bring video, but it was largely sculpture and 2D works. Since it was only a 3 hour long exhibition that we had only one day to work on, Matthew Higgs knew that what we really needed was a structure. So he made some very rational suggestions and we generally agreed to them, although a small part of me hoped that we would all just bring our work downstairs and invoke total chaos.

The workshop was a great opportunity to see in less than 12 hours how one pretty awesome curator curates. Sure, it was a bit weird and meta to be a curator curated by another curator. But all that aside, it was an enlightening experience in exhibition-making, even though I got the vibe that Matthew was perhaps more in his element laying out and installing 2D works and sculpture then grappling with video work and generating publications.

As for the conference…let’s refer to Tousley’s write up for a bit.

What resonated with me most that Tousley wrote on the Canadian Art website, is this:

Curiously, however, though a few panelists touched on it, the majority of speakers resisted or simply refused to discuss the relationship of the curator and the artist—especially when it came to power relations, almost as if these did not exist. This remained the case even when direct questions were asked from the floor.

I think I was probably the one who asked the direct question Tousley alludes to above, where, in response to speaker Ute Meta Bauer’s remark that “it is such a privilege to work with artists,” I conversely asked “but isn’t it a privilege for artists to work with curators?”. Given that first and foremost, it’s a contemporary curator’s job to work with living artists to create exhibitions, it was completely ridiculous to me that this question was skirted over. I’m glad Tousley kind of thought so too maybe.

But I digress…

With panel titles like “Judge and Jury” and “Craftwork”, it’s not surprising that the conference speakers were largely old guard, particularly given that the title of the conference alone frames it all as dealing with the very urgent and prescient issue of “OMG the discipline is being so professionalized because of academic training and museums making themselves more accountable now WTF?” A lot of the speakers seemed to suggest that it was nice and all that my generation of curators were being professionally trained in the discipline, but that it was also problematic in that it meant we were all getting too into our heads – or worse, not getting into our heads enough. It was quite contradictory.

Things I hated?

1. Bruce Ferguson’s misogynistic key note, wherein he likened the discipline and practise of curating to world’s oldest profession. It would have been clever and entertaining if only the gender inequity wasn’t a scourge on the past and present of curatorial and art-making practises. Yes, it was very clever with it’s C words and P words and V words – I really wanted to like it cause of it’s whimsy and it was probably a blast to write (and I  also really like Bruce Ferguson a lot as a former teacher and mentor). I might have been okay with it if it came out of a female curators mouth. But it wasn’t. And it set a really weird tone for the rest of the conference, where male keynotes dominated (although the panels were more gender-balanced).

2. The heady conceit of some of the speakers. There was more pretentious theory, poorly delivered, than I could take last weekend. Call me a lazy, undisciplined theory-hater all you like (because I know it’s not true). But for me, in the age of contemporary curating, practise and execution are what largely matters because that’s what the public sees and experiences and they make up the majority of the equation of art-looking and experiencing.  And curators need to be accountable to the public as well as serving the artists they work with, if the artists in question are alive.

3. Failure to answer questions and squirreling via etymology. Of the millions of questions asked during the Q&A portions of the conference, the speakers answered few of them, which made the audience response portions not very fun or productive at all. Also, I did not feel there was any value in the presentations by speakers who opted to hash over the etymology of curating. Sorry if this sounds rude, but it’s 2010 and it should be assumed that everyone attending this conference is a specialist.

4. Curators pretending that they don’t know what we’re learning in school when they’re the ones teaching us. Off the top of my head, I can’t give a specific example (sorry, my bad), but there were definitely a few moments where a couple of the speakers seemed clueless about what my generation of curators are learning in school, when really, they are the ones teaching us. Very weird.

Things I loved?

1. Ute Meta Bauer and Ann Demeester. Seriously, you guys. These two have it all figured out. I wish I possessed the kind of intelligence and incisiveness that both of them brought to their presentations. Even though both of them brought up issues in the practise of curating that were problematic, and they contradicted themselves a bit, I was enraptured by how elegantly they delivered their thoughts and positions on contemporary curating in the current political landscape, while also touching on relevant bits about the history of the discipline. I really hope to see both of them next time they have speaking engagements in Toronto.

2. Paul Chaat Smith’s engaging earnestness, and his screening of The Shining during his presentation. Paul Chaat Smith now has me totally inspired to consider how The Shining could actually be used as a metaphor for the contemporary state of museums, in terms of curatorial practises, public opinion, and exhibition-making. I want to write a blog post on this in the future, so stay tuned! He elegant articulated the challenges of his role as curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian  in a way that elicited twice as much applause as the other speakers. And yes, I was probably the last one clapping.

3. Louise Déry’s frankness about her ‘sins’ as a curator. A big thank you must go out to Déry for being so direct about the challenges she has faced as an institutional curator. I won’t rehash her sins here because you should hear them when the podcasts for the conference are released, hopefully on the Banff website.

4. The parallels that a lot of the curators drew between the practise of curating and the art of improvisation. Ever since I began dabbling in improvisational comedy in May 2010, I’ve had this strange feeling  that there are some very VERY interesting parallels between this art form, and the craft/art of curating. One day I hope to write about this a bit more but I need to flush my thoughts out and sit on it longer. I thank the speakers for planting the seed more firmly in my mind that there are indeed similarities and affinities between these two activities and I am exciting to think, and write, more about them in the future.

That was a long post, kids. I think I need to lie down and eat a banana. Thanks for reading! And apologies for any spelling or grammatical errors, I will correct them when I am finished with my banana.

Dear 16 Year Old Self

9 Nov

If you exist on the internet in any form you’ve probably noticed this ‘tweet your 16 year old self’ nonsense. I think it’s a great idea, but not a ‘less than 140 characters’ great idea. I’m going to write a blog post about instead. Suck that, twitter! Yeah! You pull up those pants that are falling down because they’re the wrong size.

Dear 16 Year Old Jen,

1. You are not the most attractive girl at your school, it’s true, but you are also not wholly unattractive. The world will not implode if you make out with someone who *might* be more attractive than you, or someone who happens to also be older or younger than you, or someone who is stupid. It’s just frenching.

2. Your boobs will get bigger. I promise. Stop stuffing your bra with shoulder pads. I don’t know why they will get bigger, but they just will. Actually, I do know why they’ll get bigger – you’ll put on 20 pounds or so. But you won’t look super fat or anything, I promise. Just all womanly and stuff. On that note, way to go for having a healthy body image and not an eating disorder. Not sure how you managed that cause you’ll obsess more about your figure when you get older and it will be stupid.

3. I can see you’re having trouble deciding between English or Art or Theatre right now. You don’t have to pick between them yet. Chill out.

4. Thank you for wearing whatever you like. It will serve you well in life and always make you happy.

5. Thank you for being one of the few 16 year olds on the planet WHO DOES NOT CARE that some people think you are a nerd or loser. Because you are a nerd AND a loser. And the most important people in your life, past present and future, think you are awesome just as you are.

6. Give in to electronic music. JUST GIVE IN. I know you’re hanging on to Nirvana but just let NIN become an immediate gateway drug to uncharted territories of sonic wonder.

7. Speaking of drugs and alcohol, thanks for showing some moderation and abstinence here. Your ability to not overdo anything and have fairly extreme self-control will serve you well later in life. Hollaback from age 31 – your liver still looks pretty good, as do your kidneys, lungs, and all those other organs you use to process toxins.

8. Experiment: stop being lazy and waiting until the last minute to do stuff. Instead, try out how nice it feels to pace yourself and not rush.

9. Listen. You really need to get better at listening to people. STFU.

10. I know you’re having organization issues right now, but trust me – you will become A VERY ORGANIZED person one day. Almost freakishly so.

11. Yes, your parents are overprotective and it really really sucks but your relationship will get better when you’re financially independent and married and stuff. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.

12. Speaking of parents, stop worrying that they will die. Yes, they are sick people, but they have several more good years in them. Wait til you’re in your 30s to start worrying about that, and then spend lots of time with them. Actually, spend lots of time with them in general even though you kind of hate them sometimes.

13. Thank you for growing out that perm. *shudder*

14. Thanks for reading lots of books. It’s a good choice.

15. Don’t think you have to pretend to be happy all of the time. It’s okay to be sad or angry.

16. Uh, basically you’re on the right track. I would just advise that you stick with French. You will regret losing that later, but regret very little else.


thirtysomething Jenny

Professionalism is not enough?

8 Nov

Guys guys guys – crazy news! I’m done my MBA! Isn’t that crazy? I think so. An arts administrator and artist with an MBA… it sounds like I should walk into a bar and be the start of some joke or something. A very expensive joke. Maybe the joke will end with me running the bar? I don’t know. Ideally it will end with me making more blog posts because I have more free time.

In other news, I am very grateful to the Canadian Museum Association and the Department of Canadian Heritage for providing me with a travel grant so I can attend the Are Curators Unprofessional? conference in Banff I posted about awhile back. I am also grateful for my awesome parents for footing the rest of the bill as a graduation present! Nothing like professional development after some scholastic development. While in Banff, I will also be participating in the Matthew Higgs Curatorial Workshop, where I am looking forward to meeting lots of awesome emerging curators, and presenting the work of emerging Toronto artist Zak Tatham.

So anywho, on the heels of all this, I thought it was interesting to come across this excerpt by graphic designer Milton Glaser, from part of AIGA Talk in London. I intend to take this nugget to Banff with me and keep it embedded in the back of my head.


Early in my career I wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything – not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past.
Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative? Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.”

via one of my favorite blogs, pageslap, by one of my favorite people, Nicole Stamp.