Perhaps it is best to start with the obvious: that curators are not an original invention of the last thirty years, and that they have existed at least as long as people have been making exhibitions and, before that, ‘curing’ souls and conducting scientific experiments.
So perhaps the issue is one that is sometimes overstated, though overstated for a particular reason, which is the increasing separation of the specialist, or intermediary, from the institution (museum, gallery or academy) and consequent emergence of a new kind of creature from the shadows – a process that is the effect of ‘outsourcing’ and has been hastened by the increasing mobilisation of people, capital, goods, services and ideas.
The rise of the curator, as a separate species, had much to do with the declining power of the critic, once it became apparent that there was no longer any kind of ‘master narrative’ or single, Archimedean point from which the critic could apply leverage to his arguments. Once modernism had failed, and with it the myth of the avant-garde, we were left with a host of often irreconcilable subjectivities – the individual ‘mythologies’ of Roland Barthes, translated into the ‘obsessions’ of Harald Szeemann. We then had to relearn how to look, or rather, to ‘see’, in a variety of non-retinal ways that would bring different disciplines and approaches to bear on a given artist, a given situation, or a given activity. In the steps of Duchamp, we had to take as close an interest in the artist as in the art, and in the process as in the product. The full title of Szeemann’s pioneering exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, in 1969, said it all: ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Works–Concepts–Processes–Situations–Information – Live in Your Head’, and so, too, did the headline of his equally lengthy title for the landmark Documenta 5, in 1972: ‘Questioning Reality’ (Befragung der Realität), which implied a drawing together of art and life. By transforming the exhibition hall into a work space and the exhibition into a laboratory and, above all, by accepting the consequent status of freelancer (‘freier Konservator ohne Haus’), Szeemann changed the ground rules of the game. He laid the foundations of a new profession, though it was to take another generation, and the creation of academic courses in curating, for the profession itself to become professionalised.
All this has happened, more or less, in the first twenty years of my professional career, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, during the period commonly associated with postmodernism, which represented both an end and a beginning. But the changes took time to work themselves through, and the background in Britain, for example, was relatively conservative and hidebound, as behoved a country that was regarded as peripheral to the contemporary art world until some point in the early 1990s. There, there used to be ‘selectors’ of exhibitions (the kind of thing the critic, Sir Herbert Read, had been acustomed to doing) and museum curators, who organised occasional exhibitions of historical and contemporary art, in addition to their main job of cataloguing and presenting the ‘permanent’ collections. (It was not until well into the 1990s that the Tate Gallery had the capacity, and a policy, for a continuous programme of exhibitions and displays). Practically all exhibitions work in the publicly funded area was thus institutionally based and nationally biased, if only to justify the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. The static nature of this set-up was largely undisturbed by private enterprise, as collectors were few and far between, and the market for British, as well as international, art catered largely for clients in the US and on the continent. Consequently, there was little chance for the independent curator to gain a foothold in the system, and one would have had to look elsewhere – to the Kunsthallen in the German-speaking countries, to some of the more adventurous museums of modern art in the Netherlands and Scandinavia and, from the early 1980s, to the French Centres d’art contemporain and the Italian regions, as well as to the burgeoning art fairs and biennales – to find the relevant openings.
My own formation, at the British Council, had, therefore, been within the safe, exclusive, but somewhat stultifying, preserve of national funding structures and traditions, though always within the kind of international context provided by the Biennales and network of Kunsthallen, epitomised by the International Association of Curators of Contemporary
Art (IKT), in its original, largely ‘mitteleuropäisch’, incarnation. Then, as now, one could be called on to play a wide variety of roles, as theorist and practitioner, in formulating exhibition projects and carrying them out, acting as ‘commissioner’, curator, organiser, publicist and in a host of affiliated roles, such as fundraising, serving on juries, adjudicating competitive examinations and awards, advising art schools and collecting contemporary art.
Little of this has changed very much, I suspect, either for me or for others, except that the burden of working in an institution has become increasingly onerous, on account of the pressures to meet a host of fiscal and political requirements - not to mention the increased expectations of sponsors and ever more numerous and fragmented audiences. I have worked as an ‘independent’ for eleven years now in most parts of Europe, and the principal differences have been in the increased mobility and the freedom to experiment with a variety of individual choices and approaches. Most stimulating has been the opportunity to work direct with artists and institutions, without carrying the burden of ‘representing’ anything much more serious than my own strengths and shortcomings.
The curator, as thoroughbred, is still something of a myth – just look at the c.v.s of all those ‘independent’ curators who flit in and out of institutions and who move with effortless ease between the pubic and private spheres! - but the curator as hybrid creature of the moment is very much alive, and as much a symptom of the ‘90s and 2000s as the biennale, that other symptom of globalisation. Both are with us to stay, and both are the product of an events culture, as much as of an explosion of interest in contemporary art or a crisis of confidence in the institutions. The curator today is a nomad (Achille Bonito Oliva was among the first, to demonstrate the philosophical sense of this) and carries all the necessary tools in his cultural baggage. S/he is attentive both to the voice of the artist and the social and physical context into which the work is projected. Independent curators come in as many varieties as tropical fish (or those from the greyer waters of the Atlantic, for that matter) and behave with comparable habits of display and disguise.
Atone end of the spectrum, they behave as ‘agents provocateurs’, who exaggerate and heighten our perceptions of a given situation, in order to impose a specific reading, which may be intellectually productive, but which is sometimes at odds with the evidence. At the other extreme, they are ‘hommes/femmes à tout faire’, who try to displace their activity, as a means of foregrounding the object of their attentions. As a critical participant, I am not sure whether I do not enjoy the stimulus of the former category more, but I would situate my own practice more naturally in the latter, which was elegantly summarised by Robert Storr, in a recent interview, where he said that ‘In the first instance, I am interested in creating something behind which I can disappear’.
The contemporary curator is ‘dAPERTuttO’ (Szeemann, 1999), and this is what a number of us had concluded, in becoming involved in the creation of the European Biennial, Manifesta, in the early 1990s, as a mobile European platform for work by young artists, who were either outside the geographical reach of the market or who had not yet succumbed to its embrace. And the work of a new generation of curators (Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Viktor Misiano and Rosa Martinez, among the first batch) signalled a new departure and new possibilities for transnational and interdisciplinary collaboration, that have set the frame for the ‘relational aesthetics’ (Nicolas Bourriaud). This, in turn, has moved us out of the world of ‘post-’(modernism, colonialism, or whatever) into a four dimensional environment, in which the curator works critically alongside the artist – and not at a distance from him or her – to produce a new kind of dialogical space. The freshly minted curator has broken free from the linear discourses of the dominant cultures and bespoke patronage (whether public or private), to test new modes for the production and distribution of cultural capital, and to ease our adjustment to the idea of multiple identities and multiple, often conflicting, social, political, ethnic and doctrinal affiliations.
In the brief set for this short paper, we were all asked to comment on the exhibition we should still like to do. I would say unhesitatingly that I should like the opportunity to follow up the Council of Europe exhibition, ‘Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-45’ for which I was the commissioner at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1995, with two further instalments: ‘Art in Europe in the Cold War 1948/9-1989’ and ‘Europe in the Age of Globalisation 1989-2009’. Both would, desirably and necessarily, be collaborative, interdisciplinary projects, which would be the product of extensive research, debate and preparation. The first would deal with conflicting perceptions of collective and individual identity, reflected in the artistic movements of the period, when cultural and ideological conflicts between the superpowers were played out on a European stage, and the second would reflect the dissolving of geographical and political boundaries, the reinterpretation of histories and the creation of a new global culture, which was reflected in specific European experiences of migration, displacement and regeneration.
There are many examples I could cite, of the meaningful interaction between an artist’s work and the local context, but none better, perhaps, than the plot that Nikos Charalambidis devised, for the exhibition of his work that I curated for the Cypriot ‘pavilion’ in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, in Venice. For this, the artist succeeded in transferring his personal ‘stains’, as a political refugee and an artist who is obsessed with the fallibility of utopias onto the unsullied modernist architecture of Carlo Scarpa and enlisting this context, in turn, for a contemporary re-reading of Venetian and Byzantine history, in the conflicts of the Middle East.
Henry Meyric Hughes