I was a curator once. An actual one, one who works in a gallery or museum, who puts on exhibitions and so on. I left the role at a particular juncture within the visual arts industry, when curators were moving front and centre. That time was held a personal journey for me as I moved from Dublin to New York, from a burgeoning visual arts scene to a highly developed one.
My first job title in Dublin was ‘exhibition organiser’, where the role was clearly on logistics. Get the list of work, establish the values with the artist, organise insurance, transport, the installation and hanging, manage the production of the catalogue and poster, liaise with the writer and designer, work with the director on promotion, and liaise with education on talks.
The creative aspect of the role rose and fell with the artist in question, usually in terms of the decisions around the catalogue design and the exhibition layout. Some artists needed more support than others, some less. In short, the engagement with the material was mainly functional in nature and creative only to a point. Co-ordinator is the term in popular use now and it’s used in many industries, today co-ordinators hop between creative sectors quite easily, it’s a set of transferable skills.
At the time, the act of curation, for me, became an extension of that kind of work. Making a decision to show this artist, in your space, at this particular time, and to craft an exhibition of their work. Having learned the technical skills of exhibition-making, it was time to engage with why this person, at this time in that space. Not that there was always an entirely rational reason for the selection, quite frequently it was from a gut instinct, with the various contexts being nonetheless fully borne in mind.
The curator steered their way through the emerging culture, finding things of interest. For me successful curation lay in being interesting in turn, where your take on things, somehow, contributed to the forward momentum. And having a take meant literally what you picked up to look at.
In a way the act of curation was simply selection added to those earlier learned logistics. It was the job of the artists to provide the work, my role lay in ‘look here’ and opening the door.
There were shows where the artists managed everything, self curating in short, the exhibition making broadly came from them. Blue Funk, a media group who dealt with issue based work was one, Derek Spiers, a photojournalist was another. You selected them, you facilitated them, and that was that. There were others where you stepped in more and the shape of the exhibition emerged from the engagement with the artist, the material to use, the amount and the presentation all formed through the interaction.
In each and every case, the artists made the work and the artist’s work was front and centre. The exhibition was a point of encounter with the work, that was its point.
Then I went to New York.
My first gig was an exhibition of Irish artists for NYU. I was called a curator and introduced as such to the industry there. I rolled that term around seeing how it sat. I had always viewed the term as pertinent to a museum where scholarship underpinned exhibition. In one of my first evenings there, we went for dinner, and there on the top of the Anarchy Café’s menu was “menu curated by....”. It was the first indication to me that the term might have had some slippage, that it might mean something different.
The second indication lay in my visit to Exit Art, a gallery on lower Broadway which my contacts in the visual arts had suggested as a possible venue for exhibitions I might curate. I visited over several months and it became clear that their view on exhibition-making was that an exhibition was a piece of work in itself which used artists work as its raw material. The curator was front and centre here.
Which in a broad and diverse world, is all well and good. The problem for me, is that this view has become the dominant view of curation. Curators set themes now and seek work to amplify the theme.
The exhibition title lies as some clue, a divination rod for the public to unearth hidden meaning and perhaps a stick for the curator with which to poke around and uncover work. In addition, this ‘mature’, developed notion of curation has become allied to a stagnation in personnel. Gallery directors have long lives it appears, and younger independent curators are barely fostered. And in the absence of an ongoing venue, independent curators cannot develop or ascribe meaning through a succession of shows, a programme, instead each exhibition becomes the event, a here’s-what-I-have-to-say.
There are some interesting developments, my students rarely indicate ambition to be shown in the major venues. It’s almost as if it was in a different realm, instead they seek to do their own work and self-exhibit. There are many pop-up spaces emerging in Dublin with artist led events. The circle closing again perhaps, it recalls Independent Artists and Living Art from the seventies. And independent curators, who feel equally excluded, have the relationship with artists that inspires some hope, there are projects, however isolated it appears to me, which seem to ring with a sense of authenticity.
Curation has entered the film world’s vocabulary. One of the outcomes of the digital revolution has been the diminution of films prominence in popular culture. As the net engulfs ‘content’ filmmakers have had to adopt multiple roles in order to keep afloat and to establish meaning. We are not just to produce work, we must promote and exhibit work, not only our own but also work we believe in. A return to the original meaning of curation at least in how I saw it, ‘Look here’ and open the door.
I personally hope that we keep that naive simple view, that we leave the art of being interesting to our filmmakers.