ROLE REVERSAL: ethical traps when curators become artists

It has often occurred in the history of art that when the vested interests propping up high reputations have fallen away, other figures from the periphery have risen. Even inside the days of our post-everything epoch, when success goes to those who demand it as often as those who deserve it, the longer reckoning known as posterity inserts itself into our consciousness as old images overpower new ones, and we wonder what the museum of the future will retain from our creations.

If the museum continues to be posterity’s place of residence, the curator must be its host, with responsibilities that are not to be taken lightly. Although the influence of curators has shaped the corpus and coloured the marrow of contemporary art, their authority still derives from the traditional idea that they are detached observers, maintaining a critical distance from the ideas or objects they examine and judging without self-interest. Which may explain why people are watching closely as a number of prominent local curators are now establishing careers as artists, and the curator-as-artist becomes a familiar, little-questioned phenomenon of the art world.

A gradual levelling of the playing field between curators and artists in recent decades has seen curators gain unprecedented power to make and forsake artists, and artists taking to casual curatorship as an act of self-preservation. But while the rise of the artist-as-curator has brought many illuminating exhibitions and insights from close to the creative source, and artists return to the studio after these excursions as reliably as a bear turns in for the winter, can we extrapolate that curators-as-artists will enhance the culture? As I picture a curator on the cusp of coming out as an artist, going with a flow that may hitherto have run through them as a silent undercurrent, I have trouble reconciling between the sense of abandon I would like to imagine them experiencing, and the cold hard facts that:
A. They may, and do, embark on their art careers while hanging on to positions of curatorial influence, and
B. They enjoy career advancement based on networks developed through their jobs as curators, while many artists who have worked with distinction for a very long time, but simply don’t appeal to prevailing curatorial tastes, are still way off the radar.

Questions on the ethics of a curator doubling as an artist lack a forum in which to be aired and clearly answered, because curatorial processes  have always been conducted like acts of secret magic behind closed doors.

Questions on the ethics of a curator doubling as an artist lack a forum in which to be aired and clearly answered, because curatorial processes in our museums and art organisations have always been conducted like acts of secret magic behind closed doors. State galleries, the Australia Council and NAVA all have codes of conduct that any member of the public can read, but they were written before curators and artists drifted into role-blur, and provide only general advice that employees should absent themselves from decisions that could directly benefit them. I can only presume that a curator-artist could not or would not try to rig the system to see a piece of their own work acquired or selected for an important exhibition (surely not..?) but that doesn’t mean the rise of the curator-as-artist won’t insidiously influence the commerce of the art world in other ways.

Picture just one scenario. ‘Jason’ is a curator who has established himself working in various public institutions and continues to hold down curatorial jobs even though he is now in the early years of his career as an artist. He is engaged as a curator to purchase work for a significant private collection, making the final selection from a group of works pre-selected by a separate panel. On arriving, he finds that one of the works is by ‘Fuzz’, an artist and occasional curator who recently invited him to contribute work to an upcoming exhibition, an opportunity that Jason accepted. In this situation the appearance of compromise will mar whatever decision he makes. If he selects Fuzz’s work he opens himself to charges of nepotism. If he doesn’t choose Fuzz the question will linger as to whether that work could actually have been a good choice, but a choice he couldn’t make because of their friendship. In either case, Jason’s involvement in the scene as an artist has gotten in the way of a clean, effective performance of his curatorial role.

In keeping his work as a painter private during his career as a curator, Tony Tuckson demonstrated the redeeming force of private morality in an art world where ethical guidelines are weakly drawn.

It’s true that the mechanisms of the art world have always been greased by friendship and mutual interest, and yet charges of favouritism rarely stick because aesthetic judgment is essentially an expression of personal preference anyway. There is a long history of curators buddying-up with their favourite artists. Does the fact that some curators also play the artist card really change anything?

It does, because curators who fancy themselves as artists and artists who dabble as curators now meet on an entirely level plane, with something tangible to offer each other. Opportunities for mutual ingratiation will increase across a range of institutional and private contexts, and in the absence of any kind of monitoring individuals will be free to behave however they like. We may well look back and say that the emergence of the curator-as-artist marked a new deterioration of one of the essential elements of good curatorship: disinterested judgment.

We are fortunate to have, within living memory, the example of at least one local curator who put personal ambition as an artist aside to preserve that detachment. In keeping his work as a painter private during a highly productive career as a curator, Tony Tuckson demonstrated the redeeming force of private morality in an art world where ethical guidelines are weakly drawn. He was also a major artist.

It will be intriguing to see whether curators-as-artists will open the door for artists who have never been within coo-ee of curatorial attention or simply re-inforce the inner circles of institutional favour. But putting aside the question of whether this development in our cultural life is good for you and bad for me or vice versa, there’s a more important question of whether it’s morally sound, and on this score it’s not hard to see the damage curator-artists could do to the professional integrity of curatorship.

Courtesy the artists, Watters Gallery, Sydney; WilliamWright•ArtistsProjects, Sydney;
and ANU Gallery, Canberra.

Please note: In the same article William Wright was correctly compared to Tony Tuckson: two artists who concealed their paintings to the public while they maintained high profile curatorial roles in public and private galleries.