Monday, January 28, 2008

The Role of the Curator

It is an unusual time to be a curator. Not, perhaps, an unusual time if you are a jet-setting curator who whisks from international fair to international fair, but an intriguing time if you curate an institution with a moderate budget in a smaller market city that may have an audience that is largely unfamiliar with either the trends or tendencies in contemporary visual art.

I was recently reviewing notes I had made on a trip to Washington, DC, last spring. Apart from the sheer plethora of museums and galleries (which actually caused me to abandon my normal ‘one museum a day’ rule if necessary), I made the following observation:

In an era after that of the great “tastemakers”, it is clearly the market that drives larger institutions. The curatorial challenge is for intelligent explorations of what one might idealistically call non-commodity or yet-to-be commodified culture.

What I meant at that time is that smaller institutions skirt the periphery for a range of reasons, most often both geographically and financially. And while the great residual effect of the new idealism is that there is a genuine and legitimate interest in the interrogation of contemporary culture, I am not certain this is the case. What seems evident is that curators have become speculators, so some extent, keen to have the opportunity to “break” a new artist, much like a DJ did at a time when radio still had the power to make artists. Younger curators and those at smaller institutions make these assertions, usually with little or no risk. The expectation is that they are predominantly working on the margins, and should they happen to ferret out a new talent prior to him or her achieving cult status, all the better.

Smaller institutions also have both the benefit and the bane of being able to be responsive to current trends, while at the same time lacking the ability to necessarily entice more established artists to exhibit in their spaces. Regional markets are often populated with collectors who are already better resourced, better traveled, and often equally as educated about contemporary practices.

Where does this leave the contemporary curator today? Perhaps in the realm of ideas-focused exhibitions, group shows, and intellectual innovation that often creates something unexpected. While the supercurator need merely pick up the phone, the everyday curator experiences something else entirely.

The biggest challenge for the future will be how curators reign in the roles of the market and of the collector in directing the discourses of contemporary art. What seems clear is that while the market may drive the product, the concept should drive the project.

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