BY Christy Lange in Features | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141

Look & Learn

The last two decades have seen a proliferation of curatorial studies programmes. How has this affected methodology and display, and what is the future of these courses?

BY Christy Lange in Features | 01 SEP 11

Christy Lange Since the first post-graduate courses in contemporary curating were established in the early 1990s – the Whitney’s Curatorial Program in 1991 and the Royal College of Art’s Curating Contemporary Art MA in 1992, followed by Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies and de Appel’s Curatorial Training Programme in 1994 ­– the rise of curatorial studies has been one of the most significant shifts in art education in the past two decades. Perhaps we should start off by asking whether or not it’s a discipline that can be ‘taught’ in the conventional sense? 

Maria Lind If there are three things that any education can help foster – methodology, discourse and networks – curating programmes typically offer only the latter two. They can help students acquire ways of talking about art, curating and related matters, and they allow for the formation of peer groups with whom it is possible to have valuable and long-term exchanges.

Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy I agree with Maria that these courses do offer a way of working and a forum for discourse about that work. In addition, they teach exhibition history, introducing art from the angle of exhibitions – their philosophical underpinnings and their impact on the vision and administration of new spaces and institutions.

Alex Farquharson Curating, as a practice, can’t be taught in any literal sense, but I agree that it’s possible for curatorial courses to expose aspiring curators to certain ideas, approaches and situations that can stimulate their practices. This can save long and isolated years figuring it out for oneself (speaking as someone who has never been a curating student, and who began by working in provincial environments). The risk, however, is that it becomes a reiterative process around certain canonized models. The practical aspects of curating can only really be learned on the job – before, alongside or after studying.

Polly Staple Before becoming a curator, I studied art history and then fine art, so I have an academic grounding as well as practical experience of being an artist. My approach to curating has always been fairly intuitive. I didn’t study the history of exhibitions or curatorial methodologies. When you direct an institution as I do now, ‘curating’ comes through structural decisions about how the institution operates, how the artistic programme is produced and how you engage with audiences. I also spend approximately 80 percent of my time fundraising. I don’t think they talk about that much in curating school.

Michael Fullerton, 'Columbia', 2010, Installation View, Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, curated by Polly Staple. Courtesy: Chisenhale Gallery. Photograph: Andy Keate.

CL Do you think curatorial courses sometimes focus too much on the theoretical aspects of curating and neglect the obvious aspects of working directly with artists, such as studio visits or collaborating on new commissions?

ML No programme that I am aware of can provide the amount of practical, hands-on work with art and artists that is necessary to develop even the beginnings of a methodology. We have to remember that art starts with artists, so the artists have to be centre-stage.

Anthony Huberman One of the reasons I was drawn to teaching at Hunter College was that its graduate seminars include equal numbers of art history ma students and mfa students. If you throw an idea on the table, the types of perspectives the room will have on that idea and the directions it will take it in are so much more dynamic and colourful. I think it speaks of what Maria is rightly saying, that we should make sure the artist’s voice is a prominent part of the conversation about curatorial work.

SHCC Curating is necessarily bound to working with artists but I’m not sure that is something you have to learn in school – I think it’s a choice you can make in your own practice as you go along. I remember when I attended CCS Bard, some students – including myself – preferred to work with living artists, but most chose to work with art objects. For them, artistic intent had a limit.

AH I was really struck when I taught a little workshop at CCS Bard this year that more than half of the students chose to do solo shows for their final exhibition, which I thought was great. It seems to me that they were trying to work through aspects of relationship-building with an artist and maintaining a dialogue about ideas. I’m new to teaching on these courses, so I wonder if it was just an anomaly?

SHCC It’s funny, the graduate committee actually encouraged students to curate group shows over solo exhibitions when I studied there. One student, Kim Simon, proposed a solo exhibition of Jonathan Horowitz’s work for her thesis exhibition, and she had to struggle to defend that she could actually ‘curate’ – not simply organize – a monographic exhibition. This was nearly 12 years ago, and I think curating then was thought to be more about working with a particular theme or historical topic.

PS Here in London, last year, the students on the MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art chose to curate a solo show for their final project. I’m interested to find out why there’s this shift of interest, particularly because I direct an institution that has always primarily commissioned solo projects with artists. I also see another strong tendency among young curators toward making shows that take the proposal of a fiction as their starting point. In contrast to working with an individual artist on a project, the ‘fictional’ show suggests an interest in storytelling – a discipline that comes more from literature. Perhaps these kinds of shows allow a curator to establish a more authorial space. It moves the exhibition away from being overly academic or theoretical, and puts less emphasis on the pragmatism of the institution and issues of production. I wonder if this is just a momentary trend among younger curators?

ML I’ve noticed two tendencies over the last few years, in curatorial programmes and among younger, emerging curators. One is the idea of the ‘super artist’ – a strong interest in working with an artist collaboratively, almost symbolically, to develop a new project. With that comes a certain degree of fetishization of collaboration. That, I think, is what is being described as this focus on the individual project. What often happens, though, is that the project’s existence in the world or how it communicates to its audience is neglected. The other tendency is what I have called the ‘curatorial pirouette’, which I see as an over-emphasis on the form or structure of a curated project, to a point where it forgets art and becomes formalistic. 

SHCC Over the last decade I’ve noticed a more devoted and more public form of research preceding the exhibition or the work. Whether this is called neo-conceptualism or just research-based work, these artistic practices seem to administer knowledge in a different way. They create a kind of ventriloquist-dummy relationship in which the artist implicates the curator discursively, as someone who holds a specialized body of knowledge about the work, gained through studio visits, conversations or joint investigations. Think of the relationships between artist and curator like that of Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni, Tino Sehgal and Jens Hoffmann, or Francis Alÿs and Cuauhtémoc Medina; or the specific stories behind the works of Alexandre Singh, Simon Starling or Michael Stevenson. I think it’s symptomatic of a systemization of knowledge, in which knowledge gives value to the role of the curator as a storyteller who has access to a narrative that is not apparent or openly disclosed in the work itself. This signals a wider anxiety about who gives value to art, especially because there is such a weight on the commercial art scene right now.

Carsten Holler, Umkehrbrille (Upside-Down Glasses), 2001, Installation view, The Straight or Crooked Way, 2003. Photograph: David Pearson.

AH That’s interesting, I hadn’t noticed the connection to the commercial realm and the tendency toward solo shows. When I spent those few days at CCS Bard, I guess, naively, I was encouraged by how prominently the students recognized that artists are the best teachers. Rather than just relying on the curatorial discourse in the context of the classroom, they seemed very aware that the best ideas start with the questions artists ask. They seemed to think less about artists than with artists, and that distinction is an interesting one in curatorial terms.

AF I suppose the danger of the trend we’ve been discussing – if it exists – is that it can artificially stimulate a demand for a type of artistic practice that requires a curator as an interlocutor. I don’t know that curators need flattering in that way. The relationship between artist and curator includes many instances in which the artist doesn’t require a great deal from the curator in intellectual terms. In fact, what many artists require from the curator today is little more than logistical facilitation and mediation with the institution.

ML The way most curatorial courses are structured now, students are not offered enough support to develop either the process of intellectual exchange that Sofía is mentioning or the facilitation that Alex brings up. In the case of CCS Bard, it’s probably smart for students to focus on curating a solo project because their budget for the project is so limited that they have to be careful with their resources – particularly if the students are encouraged to stay within the real estate of the white cube.

AH Which many students also seem to reject. I was surprised how hard it was for them to fill the galleries because everyone seemed to want to do things elsewhere – radio broadcasts, public events, tours or performative projects. They didn’t want to just do things in a room.

PS Why do you think that is?

AH I just did a few workshops with the students, so I can’t speak for their projects, but what worried me about some of them was the importance they gave to the form and structure of the exhibition. It’s fine to experiment with form and structure, but not just for the sake of it. Like we’ve been saying, a show needs to start with the actual content of the art work and what it asks for. A show is interesting not because it experiments with form or structure, but because it finds ways to share the content of a work of art by creating an appropriate frame for that content.

ML I overlapped with this particular group at CCS Bard for one year and I talked to them a lot about the necessity of thinking about the art in question, and how it functions, what it needs and where and how the project ‘lands’. Sometimes that ends up being an exhibition, but very often not. This was a dilemma for the Center, which wants to use its real estate for exhibitions rather than for projects that are more difficult to describe. Through discussions like these with the students, I’ve become much more aware of the importance of mediation in my own practice.

PS I’ve recently been serving as external examiner on the new Curating the Contemporary MA, a joint course between London Metropolitan University and Whitechapel Gallery, and I’ve noticed that the students sometimes forgot or didn’t realize the final and very important stage of their curatorial project – that is, what Maria pointed out: where and how it lands. If you end up working at an institution, this issue is especially important.

ML I think we as curators in general – not just curating students – have been through a period where we have launched so many projects that we haven’t really cared enough about where they land. We need to think of the audience not as an abstract, homogenous crowd but as particular groups, individuals or segments of the population. This can only be possible if we think about each project and each art work as something with a lot more potential to be teased out, and for which we can devise unique and specific forms of mediation.

CL Can you think of any models – either of a structured curating course or something much more informal, such as the one Anthony has organized with The Artist’s Institute in New York – that try to encourage curators to think about where their projects land?

AH At The Artist’s Institute we have a very particular tone to the language that we use to address the public. This goes all the way down to how a wall text is written or what an exhibition catalogue looks like. How do you want to articulate what you stand for and how do you want to share that with the world? What kind of mood or personality do you want your mediation to have? And why?

PS Maybe that’s something that will develop more in curatorial education – instead of thinking of the audience as one big mass, people will start to engage with members of that audience more intimately.

ML During my time at CCS Bard, the students had to devise some form of mediation in conjunction with their thesis project. If we want to create something other than a commercialized, consumption-orientated activity we need to move away from cultural marketing language, so it’s crucial to be more precise in how we communicate and with whom. Perhaps beyond just curating programmes, curating overall needs to take mediation into consideration much more, as Polly indicated.

AF I have noticed an increased sophistication in discursive programming in and around exhibitions at institutions of late, especially in the UK. At Nottingham Contemporary we have an unusual funding partnership with the two universities in the city, so our programmes of talks, workshops, performances and publications generate cross-disciplinary, in-depth involvement in our exhibitions. It’s through these events most of all that I see our exhibitions taking on a public intellectual presence.

SHCC I think de Appel’s programme in recent years has instituted a number of initiatives to contextually address the student’s year-end curatorial project and its audience. Every class has to investigate the context of Amsterdam, particularly the suburbs. Through their research in selecting a site and the artists, they investigate the city’s local history. I think that’s a very interesting exercise.

AF When I was on an interview panel at de Appel recently, I was impressed by the number of candidates coming from places normally considered marginal. As young, practicing curators they were invaluable to their local contexts – places like Amman in Jordan or Skopje in Macedonia– because they were acting as conduits between artists and publics in regions where there was virtually no infrastructure and certainly no market. It gave me a lot of hope with regards to what the best of these curatorial courses can offer.

John Smith Solo Show, Curating Contemporary Art MA, Royal College of Art, 2010. Courtesy: RCA/Dominic Tschudin.

SHCC I agree with Alex about the students at de Appel. These programmes bring together a group of people from very different parts of the world to share experiences of art contexts and institutions, and discuss ways of improving art’s infrastructures and creating alternative ones. You won’t find that in any book.

AH That can be said of any graduate programme, no matter what the subject. I think that’s why advanced degrees in general are so valuable – because you have access to experienced professionals as teachers and an amazing disparateness with regards to who you spend your dinners and late nights with. Another important aspect of these courses is the access they can provide to the history of exhibition catalogues. The first few times I went to Bard I was too scared to go into their library because I knew that I would get anxious about all the amazing things I would never have time to read or even look at. The history of exhibitions is unbelievably valuable and could play a more prominent role in curatorial courses. But teaching that is very difficult, not least because access to information of the history of exhibitions is so limited. Afterall’s ‘Exhibition Histories’ series is a great first step and I hope there can be more publications like that.

CL Where in its lifespan do you think curatorial education is now? Is it still in its infancy, or have we reached a period where we’re going to see a levelling out of the number of courses being established?

AF When I began teaching at the Royal College of Art ten years ago, there were few curating courses anywhere. Now there are countless. Likewise, the published literature on curating has metastasized, in part to meet this burgeoning academic demand. I remember when you could fit all the books and journals on curating on a single shelf; now they would fill half a wall. I think there are now a far greater number of good curators out there as a consequence of curating courses, although I feel there are fewer true pioneers.

AH I’m not sure that curatorial courses are that prevalent yet. The majority of people who go to graduate school to study art history, at least in the US, don’t have access to curatorial studies whatsoever. Whether that’s good or bad is another question.

ML Although new programmes pop up all the time, the heyday of the curating programme is over. Beyond the fundamental democratic question of free education, which is sadly not in place everywhere and which is tragically eroding elsewhere, I think curating programmes are not very far away from where the car industry is.

SHCC Do you mean the car industry in Detroit or in Japan?

ML I mean that we still have roads and we still need transportation but something serious has to be reconsidered and restructured.

PS In the UK at the moment, due to the restructuring mitigated by funding cuts and increases in tuition fees, no one quite knows what the future of many university courses will be, particularly courses in the humanities. I’m interested to see how this plays out for fine art and curating courses. There have been so many new regional Kunsthalle-type projects – from Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art to Nottingham Contemporary, Turner Contemporary in Margate and The Hepworth Wakefield – over the past ten years, and they need to be staffed to a high level. But the general contraction of public institutions means there will be fewer places where these young curators can work and, consequently, curatorial courses will be less desirable. So maybe we’ll see a levelling off.

AH I would be much more encouraged if there were more small artist-run spaces popping up in these cities rather than all sorts of curatorial programmes. I think we all agree that the best way to learn about how to make an exhibition is by making an exhibition, so I hope more young curators will take matters into their own hands and work collaboratively with artists to start project or event spaces.

ML Although I do think that curating programmes can be a very fruitful context. Think of Le Magasin in Grenoble in the late ’80s and early ’90s when people like Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Esther Schipper and Florence Bonnefous went there and became artists and influential gallerists. It depends on how these courses are engineered, massaged and allowed to exist. Having said that, I do think that the most interesting curators come out of having studied something else, or having had a different life experience. It’s a bit like politicians and teachers – it’s slightly scary when you realize that they’ve never done anything except politics or teaching.

AH Maybe in the future you’ll have a whole slew of teachers who have only ever been students on these courses and then made the transition to teaching and that’s all they ever do. A terrifying thought.

SHCC Well that happens with artists and professors of fine art. If you look at some of the people who are directing these curatorial courses now some of them have never been curators, nor significantly contributed to curatorial practice or discourse, for that matter. I don’t want to be critical; it’s just a fact. I also think it’s productive to ask ourselves what it means for de Appel, a curatorial school, to launch a new programme for people that want to be art dealers – critical thinkers but in the commercial art scene.

AF We should also remember that a lot of former curatorial students go to work in commercial galleries. I think that there are far more former curating students at White Cube than, say, at Nottingham Contemporary.

PS That’s interesting. I was thinking solely of public institutions but there are a plethora of private foundations that are established now which offer opportunities. There’s also an increase of activity in London of young curatorial graduates opening both commercial galleries and not-for-profit project spaces in the East End and in south London. I guess there are outlets for these students that we don’t even know about yet, and hopefully they’ll devise new formats and structures themselves.

AF If it results in more interesting artists getting gallery representation then that’s a good thing. It’s also not a bad thing when former curating students work in areas of institutions outside of exhibitions departments, as this can make for public spaces that are more conducive to art, artists and ideas. That’s the kind of collateral benevolence of these courses.

SHCC I’m waiting for curatorial graduates to go into public policy, actually.

ML An interesting development for the existing programmes would be to move away from curating and towards ‘the curatorial’ – that is, where one works curatorially in a variety of positions, as an educator and editor of information as well as a classical curator. Another way forward is to focus on the histories and practices of curating, which include much more than just exhibition-making. But the most exciting prospects for me are courses geared towards people who are already practicing curating, and who need to take some time out to reflect, research and debate. The Independent Curators International has started something like this, as well as the /D/O/C/K project in Leipzig, initiated by Beatrice von Bismarck, and the CuratorLab at Konstfack in Stockholm. There are probably a lot of people out there waiting for different initiatives, including courses for practitioners that can allow us to have these discussions amongst ourselves and with others who relate to what we do.

Alex Farquharson 
has been Director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, since 2007. From 2001 to 2007 he taught on the Curating Contemporary Art MA at the Royal College of Art, London. 

Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy 
is the curator of contemporary art at Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. She lives and works in New York, USA, regularly publishing and organizing independent projects. 

Anthony Huberman 
is a curator and writer. He teaches at Hunter College and is the Director of The Artist’s Institute in New York, USA. 

Christy Lange 
is associate editor of frieze. She was enroled in the Curating Contemporary Art MA at the Royal College of Art, London, 2002–4. 

Maria Lind 
is the director of Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2010, Selected Maria Lind Writing was published by Sternberg Press. 

Polly Staple 
is Director of Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, and a contributing editor of frieze. 


Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.