The Cult of the Curator

The curatorial tactics on display at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s 2016 survey exhibition Painting, More Painting managed to draw a general focus, ironically, more on curating than painting.

There were a number of reasons for this and none of them boded well for those who specialise in contemporary curatorial practice. The very structure of the show suggested that painting per se was decidedly secondary to the imposed curatorial design and structure.

This simple fact, as obvious as it was, was made more overt by the denial implicit in the statement made by co-curator Annika Kristensen when she told ArtsHub that “we didn’t want to have any more curatorial control than the selection process”.

Kristensen’s comment was in the context of the decision to hang the selected paintings in alphabetical order, an element of curatorial control that suggested a cool indifference to the actual aesthetics contained in individual works.

A similar lack of aesthetic sensitivity was seen in the tactic of commissioning Sam Songailo to paint a massive grid as a “backdrop” to the works in the main room, making the smaller paintings seem like afterthoughts. Those who escaped the grid were given wee survey shows in the other rooms, thus clearly getting dramatically preferential treatment. “Curatorial control” was the sheer opposite of Kristensen’s statement; this was “curating” in extremis.

There are a number of differing aspects to what is known as curatorial practice. Some are highly specialised and invaluable such as the custodianship of specific creative niches. Curators of Indigenous art, as but one example, need to learn many arcane secrets that would be bewildering to the average pundit. Curating massive survey and retrospective exhibitions requires an almost obscenely detailed knowledge of an artist’s career and life story in a way that is not dissimilar to writing a monograph.

But when it comes to curating group shows of contemporary art something seems to have gone seriously awry.

Today universities run full-blown academic courses in how one curates an exhibition. Prior to this, curating contemporary art was a far more instinctual activity. One often knew the artwork via visits to the artists’ studios and ideas were often hatched via wine-fuelled discussions about influences and inspirations.

This could, of course, backfire. Back in 1986 I curated a small show called Falls the Shadow which featured Tony Clark, Lindy Lee, Geoff Lowe and John Young. It was inspired by our conversations about a certain return to notions of the “romantic” in contemporary art at the time, a shift away from the cool postmodern rhetoric of appropriation. Aesthetically, they were a sublime match. It seemed a simple and elegant idea, and of course, it was slammed by certain critics for just that reason; simple and elegant lacked critical rigour.

However, Falls the Shadow, just as Painting, More Painting, achieved one thing: both shows provoked debate and discussion, clearly a healthy thing. Whether they were pro or con the exhibitions themselves, punters were forced to take a position and articulate their arguments. I myself thought the concept of a serious reconsideration of painting, especially in a gallery renowned for its avoidance of the brush over the last decade, was brilliant. Many complained that there were very serious omissions, which was true and could have been partially addressed by a more level playing field – the mini-survey shows could have been replaced by the works of up to 10 more artists. Rather than hanging the show alphabetically, it could have been presented more thematically; a section exploring figuration, another abstraction and so on.

Still, it did inspire a degree of almost feverish discussion and one did not require a PhD to appreciate the central arguments. Today it seems one requires a PhD not only to curate a show, but to understand its supposed content. Today it seems that one must come up with a “hip” concept – Singularity, the Anthropocene, whatever is in the ether, perhaps even the dazzling concept that some artists still “paint” – then write an impenetrable essay that jams the often bewildered artists into the curator’s argument.

Course descriptions for studying curating make this abundantly clear. One must achieve a “theoretical examination of the display and reception of contemporary art”. And “your theoretical investigation will be supported by project-based work to give you a critical and practical appreciation of the issues involved in conceptualising, developing and presenting exhibitions, including spatial thinking and planning,” and so on.

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to “examine and interpret the knowledge and understanding of curatorial practice” and “critically discuss and review innovation and experimentation in curatorial and exhibition practice” and “identify, evaluate and apply some of the ideas and practices concerning contemporary curating” and “critically reflect upon the issues involved in conceptualising, developing and presenting contemporary exhibitions”.

What used to be fun has become a dry “to do” list. The artists become lab rats in order to prove the curator’s hypothesis.

Thus we see exhibitions that, to quote one curator’s statement, explore “realms of the unknown and potentially unknowable aspects of human understanding – the things that we can’t fully comprehend or for which words and recognisable forms simply do not exist” and address “liminal spaces, transposing and transforming materials from the familiar to the foreign in order to explore themes of uncertainty and crisis”.

Meaning, precisely what, I remain unsure.

In 30 years of conversations with practising artists I swear I have never heard any artist use the phrase “liminal spaces”. Yet this is a perfect example of the language being taught not only to curators, but to young artists throughout the academic education system. In a decidedly informal survey taken over several months in 2016, asking artists how often curators had visited their studios, the answer was, all too regularly, “never”.

Thus, with many of the curated shows, the activity does not necessarily reflect what the artist is aspiring to, but rather what the curator believes the artist should aspire to: the curator’s vision comes first and foremost, the artist is only there to bolster and illustrate the often hyper-academic theory of the PhD-clutching graduate curator out to make their mark.

University-bred curators rarely have a commercial bone in their bodies. That can be a good thing. They often present artists that the commercial galleries would treat with disdain. Extraordinarily powerful shows have been curated at the likes of The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Monash University Museum of Art and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art through to the more challenging “alternative” spaces as Chalk Horse Gallery and First Draft Gallery in Sydney, Art Space in Hobart and Melbourne’s West Space, Utopian Slumps and Gertrude Contemporary.

A small army of curators, including Mark Feary, Charlotte Day, Linda Michael, Melissa Loughnan, Jane O’Neill, Kirsten Rann, Rosemary Forde and James Kerr, amongst others, have opened our eyes to artists which may otherwise have languished in obscurity. Without young, adventurous curators we may not have seen to rise of such figures as Nick Mangan, Ronnie van Hout, Irene Hanenbergh and Tony Garifalakis.

When they manage to avoid getting engrossed in academic navel-gazing, curators of contemporary art are part of the life-blood of the visual arts. They just have to be reminded at times that it is first and foremost about the art, not the “curatorial concept”.

Illustration by Tony Lopes