Are Curators Unprofessional? Thank God, yes!

Banff International Curatorial Institute
November 12-14, 2010

As a recent graduate from a museum studies and curatorial program, I thought the topic of the recent symposium at The Banff Centre, Are Curators Unprofessional?, would be pertinent to questions I have about my own curatorial career as I am still trying to determine what curating might mean for me in my own context.

The definition of a curator seems dependent on the institution that’s associated: large provincial museums, artist-run centres and independently run initiatives that lie somewhere in between a studio, social space and gallery. All of them can accommodate curators and all of them have very different demands, tasks and expectations. All of this means that each curator must find his/her own space for his/her own goals. The discussions that came out of the Are Curators Unprofessional? symposium produced a lot of anxiety, however– some of it aligned with my own concerns and some created new ones. I was depressingly reminded that curators are constantly going through an identity crisis because they know that they cannot exist without artists, rendering them potentially perfunctory. Ultimately, it’s not productive for curators to feel inadequate, especially at a symposium where they're trying to commiserate. I'm also skeptical on how far curators take that identity crisis to heart, since it's rather dramatic. Curators construct arguments that are produced out of artists’ productions – just as people write essays with references – it doesn’t mean that what curators have to say is secondary or less urgent; it’s just a different way of thinking about what we have at our disposal; making connections among ideas we think are important. And I think we all know this – so why the obvious avoidance of discussions on the relationship between artist and curator throughout the symposium?

Discussions over the role of the new curatorial generation coming from recently created university programs is what took most of my attention during the symposium. Considered by many of the established symposium participants as factory production lines, the younger generation coming out of these university programs was certainly fussed over. Ann Demeester, Director of the de Appel centre and curatorial program, expressed urgency in her concerns over the type of curator that is being produced out of these specialized programs. She believes that instead of focusing on intuition and passion, the programs are prioritizing administrative skills in exhibition development, writing, scheduling, etc. Curating is not a normal profession – you cannot expect that curators are in demand – that you will be hired by an institution and have a string of exhibitions handed to you on a regular basis to churn out. I already knew this, and gave myself a few lectures over the past couple years, asking why I would ever think to study a job that is so convoluted, so varied, and potentially unnecessary. Of course, this profession requires basic skills, but I know there is no way to survive in the field without independent drive. Also, why would you be in this field if you weren't passionate about it? This holds true for all arts workers.

Curating is not an old profession, generally agreed to have begun with Harold Szeeman in the 1960s. Museums and galleries operated for decades upon decades without curators – at some point (I think when art started being about art) curators emerged as taste-makers, interpreters, thinkers and organizers of collections and exhibitions. Meaning-makers and researchers – public workers. They served a function that was self-created and remains self-regulated (and dependent upon institutional context). For quite a few months during my studies, I forgot that curators are responsible for collections – I was working in non-collecting contemporary art institutions because I was interested in what the curator was able to accomplish in this situation, forgetting other associated roles. I also found independent curating appealing simply because it means I only have to work on what I’m interested in working on – what seems important, pertinent and urgent. Along with Demeester’s concerns, were the stories from established curators who related their experiences as scholars who began in other fields of study only to come to curating out of a need to do something that could only be expressed through this role. This is the element of passion, I suppose. Circumstances have changed. You don’t have to start somewhere else first, you can now follow an intended path towards curating that’s simultaneously informed by philosophy, gender studies, political science, studio practice etc. Curating is establishing itself as a field of study and younger people can begin pursuing it earlier, gaining skills that will help them with all the practicalities that will come their way once they’re in the real world. Like any other industry, the art world is also founded in business and marketability and one can determine how to work within (or without) that. The very presence of a series of symposia on curating means that it has become a profession that has a history and a trajectory (Unprofessional? followed 2008's Trade Secrets). Right?

A couple of presenters talked about the fights they have waged during their curatorial careers; defending their choices and philosophies, sometimes in defence of an artist, sometimes in defence of their own projects. Louise D√©ry, Director at Galerie de l'UQAM, admitted her past sins, which included the refusal to attend an annual corporate ball held by the gallery she once worked at, and the refusal to curate artists she wasn’t passionate about. Andrea Viliani, Director at Fondazione Galleria Civica-Centro di Ricerca sulla Contemporaneit√† di Trento, related his experience of being fired and re-hired multiple times over one of his projects. Neither have regrets; they were doing their jobs as they saw them. We all know that curators do a lot of institutional hopping, and it’s very inspiring, in a time when jobs are scarce and precious, to hear that these curators are willing to sacrifice their job security in the name of artistic integrity. This is probably the quality that many of them are concerned will get lost in the new generation since our economic situation is different.

The overarching cry from the symposium was to please keep curating unprofessional! It can operate with the freedom it does precisely because it is indefinable. The fact that we cannot neatly distinguish it from artist practice, from business practice, from education, from goals of self-celebrity is what makes it healthy and strong. The university may very well be perverting the idealized figure of the curator who stumbled upon this brilliant way of working with art and ideas. If so, it’s only perverting the original ways things have been working. The final speaker on the ‘wrap-up panel’, Sarah Robayo Sheridan, Curator at Mercer Union, spoke up for the younger curatorial generation. In Demeester's previous talk, she said that the de Appel program focused on de-programming its students – Sheridan asked in response, what are we de-programming if the previous generation wasn’t trained in anything particular? What are we scared of?

Suffice to say, my generation understands the worth of being in a field where you are consistently self-employed, understanding institutional affiliation as a movable context that is strategically determined, case by case. Again referencing Sheridan’s pointed and necessary statements at the end of the symposium, she expressed an observation on the nostalgia that pervaded all the talks. Nostalgia: a discontent for the present and a fear of the future. The past worked, now we’re not so sure about the present, with the threat of professionalism (whether that’s a good thing or bad thing) and with the first generation advancing in age, there is a fear for the future – monotonous, uninspired young curators? No way.

To get a fuller sense of who spoke and the topics addressed during the symposium take a look at the Canadian Art online article by Nancy Tousley and the Akimbo article by Amy Fung.

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