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.


One Response to “Curators: you think the new guard is old guard? Really?”


  1. Resolution update! « New New New Blog - January 13, 2011

    […] I made a salad buddy at work (oops, forgot to mention I started a new job in late November after the Banff conference). We’ve agreed to buy giant tubs of salad and split the deal since you never manage to eat […]

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