What does “curating” an art exhibition actually mean?
In June 2014, Maurizio Pellegrin, a Venice-born and educated artist, was appointed the Creative Director (among other significant staff changes) of the National Academy Museum in New York. In an interview with the Gallerist column of the Observer, he made certain comments (http://observer.com/2014/06/exits-and-layoffs-plague-national-academy-as-museum-makes-way-for-new-creative-director/) that were derisively received by “critics” and also reported in the New York Times, see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/10/arts/design/academy-museum-struggling-to-recover.html?_r=0. At issue were Maurizio’s hyperbolic comparison of himself with Anna Wintour and the Academy with Vogue magazine and the assumed lack of “curatorial” experience in a museum setting.
The term “curator” has come in vogue in the art market over the past 15 or so years. It has been said that “no other word or phrase from the professional lexicon of contemporary art has leaked so quickly into widespread popular usage as ‘curating’”. See, e.g., comment by Dan Fox at http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/being-curated/ . Everybody is a curator now!
It seems to me that to claim the mantle of a “curator” the person involved in affect should be in the same position as a director of a movie, or play, or the conductor of an orchestra. They should contribute in some tangible way to the overall work product and make it a whole with individual pieces of art as inspiration and palette. Curating, then should involve a kind of relationship between the curator and the artist, not merely between the curator and the artist’s work. The following quote from Paulina Olowska in the Frieze article above sums it up for me
“Th[e] joint creativity (flirtation) of curators and artists, as well as of artists and artists, took place on three levels. Firstly, at the level of the creation of new works, or the choice of existing ones from an artist’s output. Secondly, juxtaposing these in an open-ended manner with works selected by the curators from the archive collection. Thirdly, there was the opportunity to work together on the visual aspect of the show, for instance, through collective discussion of the most suitable hanging of works in relation to each other. What I mean to say is that the curators were in a permanent creative dialogue with the artists, and the exhibition was ‘open form’ up until the very last moment. The process of developing the exhibition was dynamic and extremely fascinating. This scenario also made the artists look at the show in a more synthetic way. They were not focused only on their own work, or the works in the immediate vicinity of their work.”
How often do we encounter this? Not enough, I think. But my experience with Maurizio, even on a limited basis, leaves little doubt of his dedication and energy in this area.