in Opinion | 16 MAR 06
Featured in
Issue 97

The Name of the Game

What is a Curator?

in Opinion | 16 MAR 06

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive.
He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for somewhere to hide.
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (2003)

Last year I was interviewed by a journalist from a British newspaper about my work as a curator. Her questions were pretty vanilla at first, but then came one that filled me with dread. A pause, a shift in intonation from solicitousness to something close to irony, and then: ‘So where do you stand on the idea that today’s curators are, essentially, artists?’ I gave a long answer, sprigged with caveats and codicils. When I picked up a copy of the paper a week later, my response had been boiled down to a single pull-quote: ‘I am no more an artist than I am a plumber.’

If this dust mote of personal experience is worth repeating, it’s not to point out that newspapers often prefer sound-bites to doubt-framed disquisitions but instead to highlight how close to being a part of mainstream thought the notion of the ‘curator as artist’ has become. In a recent two-part essay for frieze Robert Storr usefully plotted the history and pitfalls of the meme, concluding that curators might best serve art and its public if they modelled themselves not on artists but on ‘great Modernist [literary] editors’, acting as ‘a probing but respectful “first reader” of [an artist’s] work’. Whatever the attractions of this approach, several things make it hard to put into universal practice. One is the fact that now the notion of the ‘curator as artist’ (or, less emotively and more accurately, the curator as some sort of not entirely un-artist-like auteur) is out there, it seems unlikely that it will expire through anything but natural means – trying to put the cat back into the bag, after all, usually results in nothing but hissing, scratches and flying clumps of fur. Another is that much of the art of the last 15 years or so necessitates that the curator adopt strategies for exhibiting that owe much more to contemporary art itself than to traditional gallery or museum display. Yet another is that, at least in terms of themed shows or presentations of a single artist’s work that rely heavily on context, the curator does function as an author, if by ‘author’ we mean somebody who provides new visions of worlds that we do – or don’t – know. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the idea of the ‘curator as editor’, however, is that it relies on analogy every bit as much as the idea of the ‘curator as artist’ does.

‘Curator as … ’ constructions speak of a welcome self-reflexivity and plurality of approach, but they also almost inevitably stick in the craw. There’s a faint atmosphere of subterfuge about them, of borrowing the glamour or gravitas of another profession in an attempt to graft it onto one that we’re aware is, for all its possibilities, also commonly bound up with the grey, clerk-y stuff of fundraising and filling out loan forms. (Among these constructions, the worst offenders I’ve come across include ‘curator as anthropologist’, ‘curator as stylist’ and once, unforgivably, ‘curator as DJ’.) More importantly, the fashion for analogy in framing the figure of the curator points to a certain lack of self-confidence in the field, as though curating is an activity that can only be understood, or even validated, with reference to activities that exert a greater gravitational pull. Despite the explosion in curatorial discourse over the past couple of decades, despite the foregrounding of ‘star’ curators in innumerable biennale press releases, the feeling remains that the profession is at times still closer to the advertising copywriter who claims to ‘work in the creative industries’ than to the novelist who is simply and unapologetically a novelist.

Some solutions suggest themselves. In a recent interview the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist pointed out that ‘there is a missing literature of exhibitions’, something that encourages an amnesia about the history of curating, with all the identity crises this implies. Patient archive work will provide a partial corrective, as will the translation and/or republication of key texts by curatorial pioneers such as Alexander Dorner, Willem Sandberg and Pontus Hulten. This, however, takes time, and what may prove a more immediate agent of change is the emergence in the near future of a fresh generation of curators who, having already had the doors between disciplines kicked down for them by their immediate predecessors, are likely to be confident in claiming that their broad range of activities falls under the rubric of ‘curating’, rather than some anxious hybrid of this and that.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s short story The Visit to the Museum (1939) a Russian émigré arrives at a French provincial museum, where he meets the curator, Monsieur Godard. Godard leads him through the collection – which includes a sarcophagus, a whale’s skeleton, ‘large paintings full of storm clouds’ and even ‘a gigantic mock-up of the universe’ – before unaccountably blinking out of existence. Thrown off-balance, the émigré stumbles through a door and fetches up not in another exhibition space but in the mother country he thought he had long ago left behind. Is Godard a ‘curator as magician’ or a ‘curator as angel’? No, Nabokov leaves such constructions well alone. The writer describes him simply as a curator, somebody who is both present and absent, somebody who marshals objects and images and histories to transport and transform.