To be a Curator


Taking two classes of year 10 students in 2007/08 from St Josephs RC Comprehensive to the Laing I was impressed by how much they got out of seeing the work of the BP National Portrait exhibition particularly when returning and seeing the outcomes of their self-image project completed with Miss Middleton and Miss Hewitt.
Talking to the group I was teaching at the time they were interested in how artworks were selected and how the curator thought about which pieces should go where. What qualities would you want a curator to possess? Whether you’re an artist, arts institution or an individual you are likely to have an idea of what you would expect a curator to be like. My expectations are set out below.

Essential characteristic of a successful curator:

  • Interpersonal skills: To work with everyone and keep them happy.
  • Passion: You’ve got to care or with contemporary art audiences may think its some kind of joke at their expense or with traditional/modern art why does it matter in the 21st century. Artist’s won’t trust you to represent them if you don’t care (particularly now when artists themselves may be the real commodity a curator is dealing with) and you need something to keep you wanting to tackle such a thankless task.!
  • Contextual knowledge and understanding of the artworks and audiences: okay you care but if you’re curating it helps if you know something too, after all aren’t curators supposed to be authoritative?
  • Vision/Predilection towards taking risks: Orthodoxy is prevalent in most professions and is definitely visible in the ways people present artwork. Fashion is also a consideration… sculptures on plinths, on the floor, I the environment, back on plinths as an ironic statement, no sculptures on plinths as a return to modernist ideas! Somewhere long ago I read creativity is disciplined innovation, fashion comes into curating its sometimes hard not to do what’s already happening around you.
  • Strength: to deal with the varied and sometimes conflicting demands of an artist(s), arts institutions, audiences (general public, arts specialists, press) and other parties (sponsors, Government agencies). To tackle or begin to pose often unanswerable questions relating to quality. To get things done!
  • Flexibility: to enable projects to progress from concept to reality a degree of flexibility is probably a great thing to have, working with living artists this is a must as each artist you work with will have a number of expectations about how their work needs to be shown. Arts spaces may also impose certain limitations that must be taken into consideration.
  • Organisational skills: this things is coming from a and it needs xyz whilst this other thing is coming from b and it needs 123. Insert official papers, insurance, fork lift truck, controlled climate…
  • Visual and spatial intelligence: it seems obvious but its probably one of the most important things.

Of course then there’s a name… art glitterati to draw in audiences as institutions promote your amazingly important once in a life time show/event. Maybe this is more a modernist tendency as I can’t name that many curators of the top of my head… most of them are those known personally to me or involved in galleries in my locality.
Emily Marsden curator at the Hatton, Alistair Robinson at the NGCA, Tim Brennan teaching on the MA in curating at Sunderland University, Sune Nordgren, Peter Doenshenko at Baltic (although they are directors… not strictly curators) Paul Stone and Christopher Yeats at Vane, Ray White at Groundworks, freelancers like Ele Carpenter then there is the new ‘uns like Ben Jones and Mark A James or groups of artist/curators like Glue Group. Even though I read about exhibitions it’s the artists names I take away with me not the curators.

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