A brief history of curating
And why the word is in fashion
In the afterword of Everything you wanted to know about curating* *But were afraid to ask, architect Yona Friedman points to the curator as the “key person for information transmission through objects.” But, what does this mean? The curator is generally identified within the cultural realm as assuming the responsibility of exhibition production–and is sometimes regrettably seen as the bland, mechanical selector of artwork in a given space. In both cases, the curator is much more.
Curating is a practice that may require myriad roles, conjunction of voices, discourse, and varying degrees of participation. It is an expansive field committed to taking on new challenges and nuances of cultural mediation. In other words, its breadth imbues the vocation with perpetual mystery and the ability to challenge modern perspectives.
During the 17th century, ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ were designated spaces where people gathered and displayed exotic trinkets alongside artworks already endowed with value and significance. Gradually, the collectors developed a kind of expertise and practical rigour that resulted in objects accumulating thematically. Such tasks, as well as guarding the collection, required a full time surveillant. The use of the Latin word curare, meaning ‘to take care of,’ emerged during the 18th century with the solidification of the museum milieu. This terminology recognized the curator’s role as the keeper or guardian of collections.
During the second half of the 20th century, influential figures in the curatorial field came together and formally recognized exhibition making as a medium in the transmission of knowledge and ideas—as a type of art in and of itself.
Harald Szeeman, curator of Kunsthalle Bern between 1961 and 1969, embodied the romantic attributes of the early years of creative curating, despite not actually defining himself as a curator. Under the title of Austellungsmacher (exhibition-maker) Szeeman adopted a personal practice inspired by the artists with which he worked. For him, curating adopted an expressive quality and assumed legitimate power of representation. Until that moment the role of the curator was neither visible nor celebrated—It was a myth that someone took deliberate action with regard to the space, conceptual structure, contextual bias, display, text, sequence, narrative, logic and rhetoric. In many cases, artist-led curatorial practice and the so-called artist-curator blurred the line between practitioner and producer, so anchoring a rivalry of ego and authorship.
Following the rise of conceptual art during the 60s and 70s, and the growing debate around institutional critique, the curator’s role took a major turn. Lucy Lippard’s essay Six years: The dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, defined and grouped artistic practices that renounced object-oriented/ tangible aesthetics, prioritizing conceptual endeavours. This meant artists focused on the idea and theory behind their artistic production rather than privileging its ultimate physical manifestation. These new complexities forced/encouraged curators to rethink their practices of mediation and acknowledge a new criticality that was moving art away from the traditional exhibition format.
According to Paul O’Neil, the 90’s marked the supervisibility of the curator. which included the delineation of the term and the academic canonization of specific exhibitions and the curatorial practice. Due to the proliferation of international biennials (Sao Paulo, La Habana, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Gwangju…) and the massive visibility of Documenta and Manifesta, curators assumed a kind of manager position within the global art world.
Nowadays, curatorial practice is linked to contextual frameworks, whether independent or within a museum or institution. The independent curator for example, seeks to develop research-based projects or exhibition proposals as a reaction to contemporary discourse, and as a way to experiment with the visual field and the integration of various audiences or disciplines.
“The curator has to bridge gaps and build bridges between artists, publics, institutions and other types of communities. The crux of this work is to build temporary communities, by connecting different people and practices, and creating the conditions for triggering sparks between them.”
— Hans Ulrich Obrist
Recently, the term ‘curator’ has been problematic in several cultural domains. This was evident when Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the 2012 artistic director of Documenta 13, caused an uproar when she defined her curatorial staff as ‘agents.’ It’s become fashionable to curate anything and everything. It’s becoming trendy in gastronomy, music, fashion, and small-business to include a ‘curated by’ label—advocating for and selling pre-selection by experts. In my opinion this is boring and unnecessary. Are we curators of our lives while creating online exhibitions of ourselves? And if so, how much do we want to curate our experiences? How much do we think and contemplate while uploading or discarding? Do you view your life as being ‘curated by me’? Despite my initial discomfort at the mere formulation of these questions, I will remain neutral in the interest of curatorial freedom and evolution.
1. Sixteen practitioners including Philippe Parreno, Ingo Niermann, and Noah Horowitz among others ask questions to celeb curator Hans Ulrich Obrist – in what appears to be an informal conversation- Outlining his practice, origins, ethos and future visions of curating.
2. Irit Rogoff in The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating Ed. Jean Paul Martinon. (2013)
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