curating the contemporary

“Curate” has become one of the defining buzzwords of contemporary culture. Contextualizing one’s art has become almost as important as making it.  Beyond the art world, people curate their social lives, their social media, and their refrigerators. A friend calls surfing the web “self curating.” The word “curate” has become democratized:

 The word “curate,” lofty and once rarely spoken outside exhibition corridors or British parishes, has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting. In more print-centric times, the term of art was “edit”….But now, among designers, disc jockeys, club promoters, bloggers and thrift-store owners, curate is code for ‘I have a discerning eye and great taste. Or more to the point, “I belong.” For many who adopt the term, or bestow it on others, “it’s an innocent form of self-inflation,” said John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “You’re implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does.” -Alex Williams, On the tip of creative tongues, N.Y. Times, Oct. 2, 2009

Documentation was the traditional intention of the museum curator.  By placing importance on caring for the past, traditional curating invested in a geneology of art and assumed a “master narrative” of art history. Maria Lind, Why Mediate Art? in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, ed. by Jens HoffmanModern museums now have a variety of values driving curatorial activity including not only documentation but also education, entertainment and economics.  Indeed, to remain relevant, presenting organizations are increasingly turning to artists as curators (Danspace Project and Movement Research lead the way).  YBCA’s notes for the “Bay Area Now 7” Festival include this statement: “[Our] core idea is to decentralize the curatorial process.” Artists themselves now commonly program other artists on programs of their own work for a variety of reasons, including economics (to sell more tickets or pay the theater rent), inspiration (to surround themselves with new/other ideas), validation (to gain credibility by association), and community (to build relationships).

Curating is a natural extension of our culture of collage and appropriation. More than ever, identity is relative and contingent.  And yet there is a way in which curatorial thinking can limit context rather than create it.  No matter who they are, curators risk creating ghettos of taste.  This tendency exists in festivals that shunt audiences into thematically organized programs, in social media sites that speak only to a certain subculture, and in artists who only curate their friends or refuse to appear on programs with artists who are too “other.”  (An artist recently told me that he would refuse to be on a program with a certain other artist because he thought audiences were not capable of seeing his work in its proper context if said other artist were on the same bill.)

Contemporary curatorial thinking must meet the challenge posed by contemporary art itself: Not to control meaning, but to multiply it.  “We must multiply the ways we look at the world,” writes Adriano Pedrosa in “What is the Process?” in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, ed. by Jens Hoffman.  Unlike modern art, contemporary art “no longer proceeds toward any supposed teleological conclusion.” (Joao Ribas)  There is no master narrative.

Contemporary curating, like contemporary art, must be rooted in a more investigative approach.  As more and more join the curating club, we need to question the values that drive it. I’m questioning my own curatorial thinking, which to date has programmed aesthetic allies alongside my own work.  How can I curate in a way that is not about self-aggrandizement or belonging? How can I curate in a way that opens me (and my audience) up to dialogue, instability and difference?


Join the conversation about curating: Come to the panel on curatorial thinking Friday September 26, 2014 at the Joe Goode Annex, part of Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project’s program, “Have We Come a Long Way Baby? Curating is Always a Conversation with History.”  Panel will feature Frank Smigiel, Associate Curator of Public Programs at SFMOMA; Dena Beard, Assistant Curator at UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA); and Sarah Curran, Programming Director of the Stanford Arts Institute. Details here.

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