Museum Curators Aren’t Your Type of Curators
If you follow my blog, you’ll see that my interests gravitate toward art and criticism from the 1960s onward, with a particular focus on video art and new media. The most recent curatorial proposal I posted on Here is a Fantasy concerns the physical geography of the internet; however, the next exhibition I have on my schedule is about Kathe Kollwitz, a printmaker predominately associated with the Weimar-era. WTF, indeed.
Curating in the museum is different from curating in a gallery, curating online, or “curating a social summary,” the latter being a popular tag on Twitter. When I’m in a museum, I have different concerns from when I’m curating elsewhere.
Being an independent curator means being responsible for setting trends in the here-and-now. Organizing an exhibition of “young and emerging artists” – a phrase common to proposals written by curators who are just starting out – means that you’re responsible for raising the bar for what’s happening in contemporary art.
In museums, the types of artists you’re working with have already been vetted to a degree, having shown at a handful of galleries prior to gaining entrance to the museum exhibition circuit. It’s a really simple path: from the artist’s studio to group exhibitions/independently curated exhibitions, then gallery representation/solo gallery shows, and then museum exhibitions.
This model doesn’t always work so seamlessly, especially for artists who work in new media. Still, it’s useful for curators to consider this trajectory when thinking about the responsibility they have toward the types of work they plan to exhibit. Supporting artists by putting them in exhibitions, regardless of location, means supporting their careers.
While working in the curatorial department at the Weisman Art Museum, I was given the task of curating two exhibitions. I was lucky; even curatorial assistants are seldom given the opportunity to manage exhibitions as full-curators, even after working in curatorial departments for several years. I was a curatorial fellow, hired for a year, specifically to organize exhibitions. Prior to working at the Weisman, I had organized and worked on exhibitions, but they were often on a smaler scale, with emerging artists and recent MFA students.
Curating from a collection means looking through museum databases, mulling over thousands of artists and artworks stored in the museum collection. Why some works should be taken out of storage and put into the museum isn’t always so obvious. While poring over documents, I was shocked: Why had this David Hockney print never been shown? Why had this work never been repaired? Often, even if there’s good work, if it has nothing to do with the overall story the museum wants to tell about its collection, then it’s not exhibited. This may seem harsh, but think about it: MoMA is a museum of modern and now, contemporary art. If they had an esteemed work from the 1920s, but it didn’t fall into the story of Alfred Barr building a modern enclave for New York City, thereby setting the framework for New York to surpass Paris as the world’s art capital, then it might not be exhibited. The same goes for the Whitney, which, although it doesn’t always restrict itself to showing just work from the United States, is still a museum founded on the premises of showing American art.
Responsibility is a key term for curators to consider when planning exhibitions: how does this exhibition fit into the history of the museum and its own historical narrative? For my exhibition about Kathe Kollwitz, I found dozens of works by Kollwitz in the museum basement which were very good, never shown, and were tied to an important history for the museum and the artist. Many of the works were shown in her first Stateside exhibition and were then acquired by the Weisman which was founded by early proponents of her works in the States, the Walker family.
Drawing lines around a museum curator and an independent curator may seem stuffy, conservative, and hey, even pretentious; but it’s necessary due to differences in how artworks are chosen and circulated. Curating in the museum means caring for a collection; and that’s something I’m willing to stick to, even if it’s not the most popular position in our hybrid-curator climate.
 In preparation for a forthcoming speaking engagement with students at the University of Minnesota to discuss my exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum, I plan to answer the question, “Why Kathe Kollwitz?” by first bringing up the differences between the hybrid role of a curator-at-large compared to the more strictly enclosed roles of a museum curator.