Death of the Curator is a series of posts devoted to curatorial problems.
Part One: If Curating is Like Cutting Hair, Then I Don’t Want Any Part of it
Curating has become a catch-all term for anyone who wants to present art. Here’s five images of artworks I like on a Tumblr post—it’s curating. Curating has become a two part process: I selected several things I like and then, I put these things somewhere. All you need to curate is desire and a digital or physical space.
The ease of curating has created an excess of curatorial types. It’s hard to describe what a curator does when so many people do it: there’s the curator as DJ, the curator as editor, and, as a recent addition to this list, the curator as hairdresser. All these metaphors are troubling; curating has become like anything and everything. Curating has put on all these disguises, only to lose itself.
It’s time for a serious reevaluation of the curator. Institutional critique has targeted galleries, museums, and the commercialism of art, but so far, this critique has not focused on the curator. To be fair, the professionalism of curatorial practice is still fairly recent.
Art historians were once the only ones who entered museums as curators. In the 1990s, the development of Bard College’s MA in Curatorial Studies, and other advanced degree-granting programs, created an excess of curators with official papers. Now, there’s not always a museum where these curators can land; there’s too many curators and not enough museums.
Without enough museums to house curators, the independent curator has become more active in defining the new curator’s role. Curating inside the museum relies heavily on curare, the Latin word referring to caring for and arranging. Taking care of a collection requires researching individual works, finding relationships among those works, making sure statues aren’t crumbling, and the like. Without a collection to care for, the subject of curating has expanded to reflect this new reality. Rather than working within the limitations of a collection, the independent curator has fewer limitations about the types of works they can show due to the structure of museum departments which are still based on mediums (i.e. photography departments), time-periods (i.e. Post-war art departments), and geographic location (i.e. non-western departments).
The new curator can be anything you want, but this freedom is its biggest flaw. If the curator has become a hairdresser, someone commissioned to trim, cut, and shape another person’s dead skin cells, then what’s the big deal? Curating has lost its fashion and appeal. Hairdressing—well, that’s a pretty one-on-one activity and what’s a hot hairstyle now won’t look so great in a few years.
Johannes Cladders, a curator best-known for giving Joseph Beuys his first museum exhibition, was asked why he preferred curating in a museum to the gallery. He believed that that the importance for showing contemporary art in a museum because “Nobody falls from the moon…Everybody comes out of a tradition.” Cladders was wrong: curators are falling from the moon, only to land on their feet as hairdressers.