A new book from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage featuring contributions from Carlos Basualdo, Peter Eleey, Helen Molesworth, Hou Hanru, Rita Gonzalez, Jens Hoffmann, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Ralph Rugoff, Robert Storr, Ingrid Schaffner, Claire Tancons, Nato Thompson, and many more.
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“Wide-ranging, unprejudiced, repeated, protracted, and in-depth looking constitutes the bare essentials of the curator’s craft.” —Robert Storr
“I’m not interested in perpetuating the increasingly artificial distinction between curators and artists.” —Claire Tancons
“Working in the public sphere can allow projects to escape the bracket of art, and often they can simply exist as unexplained phenomena in the world.” —Nato Thompson
In October 2013, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (the Center) published this pocket-size book, which gathers together interviews with 41 curators to talk about their influences, aspirations, and challenges, offering a candid assessment of the field at this moment in time. Pigeons on the Grass, Alas is illustrated with 24 drawings by Pew Fellow Sarah McEneaney.
“We at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage like to believe that we are experts at convening experts. Almost weekly, we host thought leaders—including artists and cultural producers—from around the world at our headquarters in Philadelphia. They come to participate in round-table discussions, run workshops, and meet with our grantees and other constituents in one-on-one consultations. They collaborate with us on research, helping us to identify and then analyze critical questions in the fields that we fund. They also adjudicate our grants—and are thus integral to the annual distribution through the Center of millions of dollars to support visionary projects from artists, organizations, independent curators, and presenters in our region.
“This book is a convening of experts unlike any other we have organized. Why? Because the ‘convening’ only takes place within its pages, rather than inside our own walls. We started by inviting professional curators—pigeons, as we affectionately designated them in homage to Gertrude Stein—from near and far to respond to an evolving list of questions about their approach to their work—a ‘pigeonnaire,’ if you will. Intentionally general, the pigeonnaire probed such topics as influences, daily practice, issues in the field, artist-curator relationships, and the curator’s responsibility to society at large. Over the course of a year, the pigeons dropped by with their answers, and as they did, we summoned them to roost on the Center’s website. When more than 40 had nested, we decided that it was time to capture the moment in an absorbing little pocket book.
“But we had our own questions: Was there a way, we wondered, to rethink the presentation so that it would be a conversation rather than a series of individual interviews? Could we juxtapose, to provocative effect, answers reflecting distinct viewpoints? How could we construct a situation so that the reader might believe she is witness to a real-time dialogue as it unfolds? We decided to organize the contents not by contributor but according to the questions we had asked in the pigeonnaires. We then strung the questions and answers together in a continuous narrative that reads something like the transcript of a large meeting, or, in pigeon-speak, a kit. In the end, we think grouping the responses around key issues provides a relatively accurate portrait of common ground and fissures in the field of curating now. The pigeons have all been most thoughtful and candid, and we, pigeon fanciers, are deeply grateful to them all.”
That seems to be a perspective that is gaining currency, especially among younger curators. I’d like to look at this more broadly by asking, how has your thinking about your work and the role of the curator changed since you first started in the field?
It seems that many people who are looking for progress in curatorial work no longer see the exhibition as a viable form for the display of art. I disagree and feel now more than ever the need to make exhibitions. I think that exhibition making can potentially reach far beyond the sphere of art and that is something I am investigating quite actively at the moment.
I have become ever less enamored of the concept of the curator as the protagonist of exhibitions, though I will concede that in a handful of cases one can, for better or worse, speak of a curatorial auteur. At his best and its best, Harry Szeemann personified that approach; at his worst and its worst, he did as well. It is much like what one can say of Joseph Beuys, who Szeemann so much admired, acting as the shamanistic protagonist of his work. But only a fool would try to create a hubristic persona like Beuys’s today, and only the most desperate of wannabes would attempt to play understudy to Szeemann. Naturally, there are quite a few of them around, and sadly some very talented curators who should know better have succumbed to the temptation for greater or lesser periods of time.
More generally, I look forward to a redefinition of the curatorial role that—paraphrasing Clement Greenberg’s definition of modernism and with as much polemical perversity as I can muster—consists, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Curatorial practice’s area of competence is, first and foremost, art. When curators lose sight of that fact, and of art itself—no matter how critical any particular body of work may be for one or another aesthetic tradition or even of the idea of art—they almost invariably end up doing art and the public a serious disservice. Too often they are amateurs in other fields who grant themselves full license to speculate and invent without having studied those fields in detail or even fully reconnoitering them, and they end up doing bad sociology, bad history, bad philosophy, bad psychology, and, above all, bad politics. Wide-ranging, unprejudiced, repeated, protracted, and in-depth looking constitutes the bare essentials of the curator’s craft. Before you can bring anything to another person’s attention, you must be able to see it and think it and re-see it and rethink it yourself.
I have become more aware of the emerging role of curator as producer, aside from the more familiar roles of the curator as connoisseur or as instigator of public debate. The emergence of art that really develops in relation to context and the discussions between the curator and the artist are blurring the boundaries of the professions as we currently know them and raising important questions around the ideal qualities that one should be looking for, or hoping to promote, in the curatorial practice of the future.
My idea of the role of the curator has remained pretty stable over the past fifteen years. The curator should be able to bring artists to the fore for the first time; reveal recognized bodies of work in a new way; notice, assess, and present what is percolating in the art world and distill it through the work of a variety of practitioners; and offer audiences new perspectives and also a deep and meaningful backstory! All that said, what has changed is that I am now far more understanding of all the practical concerns of exhibition making—that your curatorial vision must be circumscribed by the limits of budgets, the desires of lenders, and the realistic expectation of artists.
Nato, what about you? I imagine that your thinking has changed.
It has changed in the extreme. The major move has been into the field of public art and with it came an entire paradigm shift. I remember distinctly recalling when I worked at MASS MoCA that the major impasse in terms of a general public appreciating exhibitions was that they couldn’t figure out why these things were art. I realized the question was a dull one and that the only real problem of people appreciating art was the frame of art itself. You don’t need to know something is art to appreciate it. That seems sort of obvious, but the truth in that has been made more evident the longer I work at Creative Time.…
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