The role of the curator

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Francesco Bonami.

In a recent interview on artnet.com, Francesco Bonami took a jaundiced look at the role of the curator. Bonami is a respected curator of long standing, having curated the Venice Biennale (2003), co-curated the rather mixed 2010 Whitney Biennial*, and many other shows around the world. Perhaps the interviewer, Henri Neuendorf, who is also an Associate Editor at Artnet, caught Bonami on a bad day. I thought I’d comment on some of the things Bonami and Neuendorf said.

First, the latter. In introducing the interview, Neuendorf wrote, “Even comedian Steve Martin curated an exhibition of the Canadian landscape artist Lawren Harris…” Why Martin should merit an “even”, as though he were lowest on the totem pole, is a mystery. And Neuendorf is, like so many, omitting the fact that Martin was teamed with two museum professionals, Cynthia Burlingham, the deputy director of Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and Andrew Hunter, curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Hell, even the MFA Boston skipped that in their page on the show! No wonder Bonami is feeling cranky.

More to the point, Neuendorf lists a number of shows currently being curated by artists, artists collectives, and collectors. Museums are, it is true, exploring other avenues other than the strictly academic, eager to showcase multiple perspectives and perhaps ease the impression that purely academic shows are dry and parochial. An artist brings a different set of eyes to an exhibit than a scholar – if you forget that many scholars are artists in some degree themselves. And, while Neuendorf cites these upcoming shows, he fails to look back, and see the successes and failures of non-scholarly curation. Academic curating can be dull, and so can amateur curating. What museums are seeing is that there is value in viewpoints outside the mainstream – and risk as well.

Another sentence from Neuendorf: “Curating used to be reserved for specialized art historians, and although more and more art schools offer curatorial courses, the graduates of these programs are being overlooked in favor of artists and non-specialists.” Let’s remember first that curating, like museum direction, was largely the province of enthusiasts with limited training, the “gentleman curator” until the last century. And Neuendorf (who I am being rather hard on, considering he wrote a few paragraphs as a lead-in to an interview) provides only a handful of examples to support his claim. Are graduates of academic programs being overlooked? That’s a big conclusion from such a small sampling of evidence. And I won’t delve into Neuendorf’s use of the term “star curator,” which he uses straight, but I have rarely ever seen used out of a critical/sarcastic context.

Now, on to Francesco Bonami, on how the curator’s role has changed in the last decade: “We became self-delusional main characters and at the same time totally irrelevant in relation to the market and the artists’ career.” Okay. An interesting tack for a curator to take, and somewhat baffling. The educational aspects of curation have always had a limited impact on the market, and slightly more at best on an artist’s career. The market is all about money, period; anything it can use to increase value is fodder for the money-making machine. As to the artists’ career, curators have had considerable effect in the past, but whether that effect is good or not is debatable.

Most curiously, Bonami ends on a positive note, saying that audiences are larger and smarter than ever. He concludes with “So I don’t think it is the fault of the audience if they reject certain obscure encrypted exhibitions or works of art. If you are sincerely thoughtful people will think along with you.” This seems to turn away from the tone of the rest of the interview, and, I think, he’s right. There is still a place for the minutiae of academic research, and the audience is better prepared for it than ever before. Also, there is the recognition that people outside that discipline have skills worth using. Not all of them – I won’t name names – but some. Finding an equilibrium between them is a major challenge for museums today. It’s understandable if Bonami feels a bit tetchy now and then.

So what is the role of the curator? Merely a guide, an analyst, a historian? A bit of each, and  always an enthusiast. This thing, whether it be a facet of an artist’s career, a technical quality to some particular art, or a historical survey, is worth showing – that’s not just the curator’s opinion, but that of the gallery owner or museum director, and whatever committees and individuals are involved in the selection process. The curator provides focus and emphasis, keeping the elements in the exhibit in balance and on-message. It’s a juggling act, and the fact that many exhibits work on some level is a testament to the concentration and collaboration involved. This is a good time to be a curator.

* To be fair, almost every Whitney Biennial can be described as “rather mixed.”

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