Response to article in culture professionals, What happened to the expert curator?

This is a repost

In his article ‘What happened to the expert curator?’ in the Cultural Professionals Network section of the Guardian, Daniel Blight proposes that “A space has now opened up – both physically and online – where anyone can give curating a go. If you are part of culture, then you are qualified to contribute to the arrangement of its artefacts.” Do curators merely ‘arrange artefacts’?

Anyone can arrange artefacts – for cataloguing purposes, for themes, for ease of management for filing, for clustering – without having a curatorial thought in ones mind. A curator’s role is definitely more than just ordering. I recall a conversation with Claire Doherty of Situations several years ago about the role of the curator, when she made me aware of the stem of the word curate – to take care of. When I curate work I remember that fact – it is a duty, a responsibility, a mindfulness. The responsibility is for the art, the artists, the partners and the audiences. It’s got complicated – but it is still curating and is still needed.

We need to reconsider what this word means before we decide whether or not curatorial practice is dead. From my personal perspective, I find it slightly uncomfortable to only describe myself as a curator, I prefer the label (if I must have one, which I question) of curator-producer. I come from an arts practice background i.e. I was an artist before I began ‘arranging’ (?!) art exhibitions. I did not do a degree in curatorial practice. But I do, in the process of Producing arts events in the public realm (I also use that term loosely, as it is soooo wobbly), find myself ‘curating’, it’s the nature of the work, it is how one produces a show that is conceptually grounded.

Peter Ride states that present curatorial practice has been un-democratised “in line with the whole shift from expert to amateur, from having gatekeepers to public participation”. The term curator is flung around randomly these days, the website harvester ‘Scoop’ sends me emails about curating content, Pinterest and ArtStack encourages users to be pseudo-curators. But surely a curator needs to understand deeply every element of an exhibition, and if working with contemporary artists (as opposed to collections of work by deceased artists), also needs to have an empathy with how the artists work, especially when commissioning new work. The range of responsibilities of a curator varies according to the context, and the medium, in which the curator operates, but a curator does more than select images for their Pinterest board, or collect a load of “Scoops’ to reblog.

“Institutionalised curators are, along with the institutions themselves, being left woefully behind.” This is a very interesting, and challenging proposition. Maybe it’s true, as a non-institutional curator/producer I do have a slight sense of being in a more flexible position than those working for organisations, but there are swings and roundabouts. I learned my trade as a freelancer and have always worked outside the mainstream contemporary art sector, partly because I have always had an interest in technology both in practice and in theory, and partly because I enjoy the sense of openness I find working with non-arts partners. There’s certainly less of the high-art/low-art agendas at the table that art has inherited from 18th Century practice.

Maybe the role of the curator needs redefining and possibly renaming, depending on the context of where he/she curates? Has curating contemporary art become more of a leadership role, a vision-holder that has a duty to the myriad of people now involved in art projects? It used to be simple, artist in studio, curator, gallery, buyer. But not any more.

So in answer to the question:

“The question for curators to ask themselves now, especially those within the public arts sector, may be: how can we attract wider audiences and create meaning within a structure that cannot adequately and quickly respond to the pace of networked culture?”

I respond with an answer – we can attract wider audiences by working wisely, recognising that some things work well online, some need to be experienced. Never forget that an audience is just a person, or a multitude of persons, that numbers are not all, that quality of experience is everything, quantity is merely numbers. And it is the art that matters.

This isn’t to say we don’t need numbers and ways generating income, of course we do, but lets not confuse things. This article is about curating, yet it’s main question is about audiences. It is not solely the role of a curator to generate audiences, it is the role of the PR, the marketing, the public engagement specialist. And audiences can curate too.

So I end with another question: might the problem lie with us discussing curators, producers and indeed artists, as being in service of audiences?

Are we forgetting that if audiences are curating, they are no longer audiences, they are active participants. And one could say vice-versa. Compare with lawyer/client, or doctor/patient dynamics – are they in the same role? Can they be in the same role? Answers on Pinterest please, as statements, make them arty and colourful, and let me curate them for you, or do it yourself for free!

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