ROLE REVERSAL PART II: When artists adopt the title of curator

Early in 2016 I wrote a short article about the ethics of curators embarking on careers as artists while holding positions of influence in the art world. (ROLE REVERSAL: Ethical traps when curators become artists, Artist Profile 34) Due to the brevity of the piece I was not able to discuss in any depth the related, somewhat older phenomenon of the artist-curator, that figure who is known first and foremost as an artist, whose activities in the administration of exhibitions or venues sees them add curator to the title of artist. I was invited to address the subject of the artist-curator by the Directors of Stacks Projects, Sydney, for the catalogue of their Directors’ exhibition late in 2016. I chose the form of a story, since the tale of how those who make art and those who govern it came to hanker after each other’s powers invites a spirited telling.

In the beginning things were simple. Over millennia, aesthetic expression was part of daily life with no self-conscious concern for art. Civilisations came and went and the crafted artefacts they bequeathed to time gave testimony of their existence. It was later generations who found these items beautiful and sometimes terrifying. They kept them in museums and called them art, and when somebody was needed to brush the dust from them the curator came into existence.

The curator grew to know the objects they cared for very well, and over centuries rose from being a servant to become a master of sorts: not only a trusted judge of old objects but an interpreter of new things. Modern curators found themselves in the high and difficult position of discriminating between the greater and lesser artists of their own lifetime, as a filtering of quality that had once occurred slowly and retrospectively in museums was augmented with the purchase of brand new work. In the heyday of high modernism the curator was transformed from an invisible worker (part scholar, part housekeeper) to a figure vested with the power of bestowal; the power to declare this is art and watch people scurry.

Of course, artists themselves had long-since challenged curators to accept their provocations, with one generation after another pushing against the limits of acceptable taste, and in a sense it was the avant-garde artist, courting validation from the museum, who put the curator in the position to look upon a work and say: yea or nay. By the late twentieth century artists had grown sufficiently conscious of the curator’s power to begin craving a piece of the action, and during the ’90s the artist-curator became a well-resourced figure, staging large thematic exhibitions within museums (The Uncanny by Mike Kelley, Gemeentemuseum Arnhem, 1993) and rearranging displays of public collections according to their own taste (Mike Parr’s Dead Sun of 1997 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales). Why the museums aided and abetted the artist-curator at this time is a fascinating question to ponder; perhaps it was an offering of peace from the referees to the players in a period when the museums ran the game very tightly. The eagerness of already-famous artists to adopt the role of curator indicates how desirable a position it had become.

In the twenty-first century the curator’s aura has shone so brightly that it is not only artists who envy their power; people from many walks of life aspire to be like them. The blogger compiling a list of her favourite books writes: curated by Jody. The bloke who looks after the wine list at an expensive bistro sees some point in calling himself a curator. Perhaps for the first time in human history, the power of the administrator has equalled the power of the art object. In fact it has been, at certain moments in the last decade, cooler to be a curator than to be an artist. The next chapter in the story of the avant-garde will no doubt be set in the rapidly changing and non-hierarchical field of curatorial studies, not the fine arts with its familiar spectrum of established and emergent disciplines.

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Many artists perform, from time to time, some of the tasks that have traditionally been executed by curators. Perhaps this makes them eligible to describe themselves as such. I am thinking not only of the famous few who have taken the museum by storm, but also the legions of artists who have established small exhibition spaces and provided themselves and their peers with opportunities to exhibit. There is a debate to be had about whether declaring oneself a curator without any study in the profession is a legitimate claim, and yet the fact that people with no training in curatorship have devised and realised fabulous exhibitions, and initiated important exhibition venues, seems to knock that contention for dead.

But notwithstanding the good work artists have done as curators – and I sympathise with their restlessness to take back some power of self-determination from professional curators – I confess that I experience an instinctive reaction against artists adopting the title curator. Perhaps I have sat through too many talks by curators to believe that curatorship is a profession worth aligning oneself with; talks that were like being bashed over the head for a half-hour with an Australia Council strategic policy document. Too often, when the the title of curator is taken by artists it is not in defiance of the status quo, but is a step towards their total assimilation into a system that gives greater power to administrators than makers. I despair to see young, self-described artist-curators who have already internalised the hollow language of bureaucracy so thoroughly that no glimmer of personal doubt can be glimpsed through their armour. Clearly the position of curator holds some allure for them. But what could it possibly add to the supreme creative license that the pursuit of being an artist already equips them with? Doesn’t the exposition of contemporary art fall more naturally within the ken of the artist, who dwells at the source of art, obviating their need to announce themselves as curators? The current rhetoric about curatorship being a profession transformed – the art world as a new, level playing field where the distinction between artist and curator virtually vanishes – strikes me as a story told from above rather than a credible account of the way art is administered in our society.

When artists open premises where new, unheralded work is given its first showing they provide a community with the opportunity to set its own agenda. They make a significant contribution to our culture, in a spirit of experimentation that in no way resembles the strategies of selection and control that, today as ever, characterise the profession of curatorship. For this reason, I can only see the title curator as a misnomer, a redundant appendage, when it is an artist who adopts it.

Image: Tony Tuckson sorting paintings for the Wynne Prize with Hal Missingham, at the Art Gallery of NSW.