Curator in Contemporary Art

Familiar words, when introduced to the lexicon of contemporary art, often changes their meaning. It all happens because the art practice today is no longer restricted with former borders. Exhibitions are organized now not only in the museums, and not only artists participate in it, and artists are involved not only in art, as drifts towards social problems. It turns into a global interdisciplinary discussion platform and you can often hear about “projects”, which refer to a great variety of expositional situations, a merge of “exhibition” and “creation”. Or about curators, who, in fact, are not mere organizers of shows anymore and occurred to be the moving force of art process. “Curator” is another word, which means more than it initially used to. He is not a philosopher yet, but a carrier of new methods of knowledge production; he isn’t an institutional head, but not a simple museum worker; not a public figure, but a person with power of critical analysis.

Emergence of curatorial practice

Looking back to history of exhibitions since the end of the 18th till the beginning of the 20th century, we can see that shaping up of such personage in contemporary art as curator was logical and inevitable. Both during the first academic shows in the 18th cent. and gallery shows in the 20th cent., certain types of exhibitions appeared under the influence of similar factors, which included not only situation in art, but economic and social conditions as well.

Evolution of exhibition practice started from origin of exhibition as cultural phenomenon. In the late 18th cent. Artist accepted a new role – not of a court master, who completes commission of those in power or church, but a significant individuality that has freedom to demonstrate his work to a wide public and receives certain profit from it. Since that time the desire to transmit principles that were consonant to the spirit of epoch grew stronger, as we see in art if Jacques-Louis David, who reacted in his paintings on the brightest episodes of revolution, Consulate and Empire.

With growing attention to it, “contemporaneity” occupied all aspects of culture. Emerged in the second half of the 19th cent., it became a part of world outlook of the “rebellious” artist, who opposed the conventional system of art the new, aesthetic-centered style of Art Nouveau. By the early 20th cent. this category overpasses social and psychological motif of “Art for Art” motto and transformed into the vanguard project.

First sign of curatorship turning into a self-sufficient practice and singling out of general mass of other art practices became obvious in late 1960s. The main protagonist of the new phenomenon was Harald Szeeman. When he made an exposition of the 5th Documenta festival in 1972, called Questioning Reality, Pictorial Worlds Today, the attention of critics was, probably for the first time, drawn not to certain pieces of art, but on the way Szeeman made them secondary to his own, curator’s (in absolutely contemporary meaning) concept. Now curator (not an artist, as it had been before) occurred in the focus, and the activity of that new personage required comprehension and definition.

In his book The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (2012) Paul O’Neill analyzed in details the process of developing of curatorship as a specific form of cognition and interaction with art, overloaded (or enriched) with interdisciplinary skills – today that list includes management, art history, philosophy and many other humanitarian spheres. O’Neil mentions an important moment that marked a speeding institutionalization of curatorial practice, its “taming” and including into System.

It was in 1987, when Le Magasin – the first educational program for curators for postgraduate students in Europe – was established in Grenoble. By the end of 1990s there were almost no doubts that curator is a full-fledged profession. It received special recognition after the beginning of “era” of biennales and festivals, when the whole machine of contemporary art was moved by curator, and he reminded the successful actor, who travelled around the world. Yet there’re still some doubts whether it’s possible to represent the huge experience of curatorship in the Procrustean bed of educational programs.

Curatorial education

One of the most attractive side of curatorial practice is its multidimensionality. First of all, it’s the method structuring the show in such way it can become a field for generating new meanings and values. Therefore, curatorship is rather a method of perception that allows evincing implicit connection and analyze information. And then we get a powerful machine for producing knowledge we can join to, but hardly control it. No other profession in art the balance of organizational and intellectual skills is so crucial. It’s hardly needed to mention that contemporary education for curators isn’t just practicing in creating shows (there’s no ‘How to’ instructions for that). Management and coordination is just a craft ingredient one can understand only while working. The true mastery each curator has to learn is maneuvering between various disciplines and searching for the points of contact between art and context.


Quotes by famous curators

Boris Groys

The independent curator is a radically secularized artist. He is an artist because he does everything artists do. But the independent curator is an artist who has lost the artist’s aura, one who no longer has magical powers at his disposal, who cannot endow objects with art’s status.

Hans Ulrich Olbrist

Despite the current increase in information about art via the Internet and other media, knowledge still depends a lot on meeting people. I see exhibitions as a result of dialogues, where the curator functions in the ideal case as a catalyst.

David Elliot

Contemporary art touches on all aspects of life—dreams, thoughts, emotions and reality—and attempts to bring them together in aesthetic form. The distillation or resolution of these elements in art of high quality provides a unique experience, rivalled for me only by a contemplation of the beauty and power of nature. Art, if it is any good, also enshrines values of freedom which are always being threatened. The freedom of art to be itself is a metaphor for broader political and social freedoms. History has shown us that they are connected.

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