Are Curators Unprofessional?: Group Practices – Canadian Art
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Features / November 18, 2010

Are Curators Unprofessional?: Group Practices

The Catalogue is Out! panel at Are Curators Unprofessional? with (from left) Bruce Ferguson, Philip Monk, Monika Szewczyk, Matthew Higgs and Michael Turner / photo Don Lee, Banff Centre

Are curators unprofessional? This provocative question is likely to produce a full spectrum of responses depending on your point of view and whether or not you have a stake in curating.

Accordingly, when posed as the title of a curatorial symposium hosted by the Banff International Curatorial Institute from November 12 to 14, Are Curators Unprofessional? easily filled two days with stimulating presentations. The opening night’s keynote address by Bruce Ferguson even gave the proceedings a whiff of controversy. Instead of a formal paper, Ferguson, a Canadian former independent curator and gallery director who is now dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American University in Cairo, gave an alliterative spoken-word performance that won applause for its playful verbal gymnastics. It was controversial mostly among younger delegates who found it sexist and who objected to Ferguson’s analogy of curating as prostitution—one Ferguson had chosen as a way of demonstrating the instability of such terms. In an equally playful response to Ferguson’s keynote, Tom McDonough, associate professor of art history at Binghamton University in New York, suggested the appropriate analogy for the curator might instead be “the dubious profession of the pimp.” “Can we imagine the curator as an outsider making purposeful misuse of institutional space?” he asked.

The conference title was rephrased for the title of the first panel, held the following day, as Are Curators Unprofessional (Enough)? This turned out not to be a trick question. Two resurfacing concerns of the conference, attended by more than 100 delegates—curators, art and curatorial studies students, artists, gallery directors, writers and at least one catalogue and exhibition designer among them—were the increasing professionalization of curatorial practice and the institutionalization of same. (The unlovely nouns that result from adding the suffix “-ization” themselves suggest a practice that sees itself as subjected to constraints forced by agencies and agendas, some of which are outside of its control.)

In retrospect, McDonough’s model of curator-as-outsider was the first pronouncement of an emerging theme. Many of the 22 well-prepared and thought-provoking panelists, who came to the conference from Canada, Egypt, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United States, were seeking alternatives to the present state of curating, looking for ways of understanding the curator and his or her function in a changing (art) world, or exploring ways of breaking old moulds while holding onto valuable knowledge and experience.


Along the way, the word “curator” was closely examined and pronounced an unstable term (which was seen as a good thing). The words “resist,” “refuse” and “subvert,” usually heard in conjunction with the intentions of artists, came up often. So frequently were they heard, in fact, that Diana Nemiroff, director of the Carleton University Art Gallery, observed in her wrap-up that panelists seemed to be appropriating the idea of the avant garde and redefining the curator’s position as one of resistance.

This idea of subversion is an exciting notion. It suggests that contemporary artists and curators are closer in their aims than might initially be thought, and that there is potential for curators to participate in substantive change by adopting a strategic “unprofessionalism.” Given a number of factors—the present circumstance of a highly commercialized art world, its overlaps with the worlds of celebrity and entertainment, the wheeling and dealing of major art museums, the phenomenon of the exhibition-as-entertainment (a version of the blockbuster), the proliferation of careerist curators and institution-bypassing collectors’ museums, the shrinking of support for the arts, and the rise of populism and extreme right-wing conservatism, known for vociferous fund-cutting and anti-intellectual distaste for contemporary art—there is plenty to resist.

Louise Déry, director of the Galerie de l’UQAM at the Université du Québec à Montréal, confessed the sins she committed as a curator in a large public institution. These included refusing exhibitions that were forced upon her, refusing a recommendation from the wife of the Quebec minister of finance, and refusing to participate in a meeting at which she would be asked to identify potentially offensive works in an upcoming exhibition of nudes. A university art gallery or artist-run centre affords greater intellectual and curatorial freedom, Déry said.

The new political climate is chilling, however. Ann Demeester, director of de Appel and head of the de Appel Curatorial Programme in Amsterdam, works in the Netherlands where Geert Wilders’ right-wing Party for Freedom, the country’s third-ranking political party, has been recognized by the government and has a role in making policy. In trying to formulate a response, Demeester said she and her colleagues have identified three potential options: one, to become professional populists who identify with the enemy, adopt their agenda and subvert it; two, to become uber-professionals who address only their own community and preach to the converted; or three, to become amateur public intellectuals, along the lines of Sartre’s definition of a widely informed non-specialist who expresses his or her opinions publicly. Demeester leans towards the third option. One of the meanings of curator in Dutch, she said, is someone who cleans up the debris after a bankruptcy. Using this meaning as a contemporary model of the curator, she said, “We have to try and clean up the bankruptcy of western democratic society.”


While bankruptcy cleanup might seem an absurdly tall order, Demeester did stand out as the only panelist who voiced such urgent concern about dilemmas that “haunt” her daily. The other major threat she fears is the cult of the amateur, arising from free, shared, unverified information on the Internet and the blogosphere, wherein anyone can publish opinions. Her concern is that factoids are replacing learning, that knowledge and experience have no more weight than uninformed opinion, and that the ability to discern fact from fiction is being eroded. “The cult of the amateur is destroying the ground we stand on,” Demeester said, admitting at the same time that she values the positive aspect of the amateur—the pursuit of a subject for the love of it and the desire to know—which has long been associated with curating. “How can we assure that the knowledge and experience of previous generations who were self-taught be transmitted? How can we debunk and unpack the bundle of [received] knowledge that we have?”

Looking backward seemed to offer ways of looking forward—or, at the very least, a means of understanding the present moment—in presentations by Cuauhtémoc Medina, Pier Luigi Tazzi and Ute Meta Bauer.

Medina, an independent curator and researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, examined the roots of the term “curator” as it was used in Roman times and made the conference’s most comprehensive and penetrating contribution. His contention is that “no useful assessment of the current curatorial ethos and pedagogy can be produced without understanding it as the result of an effective resistance towards the previous project of professionalization” exemplified by the work of the French museologist Georges-Henri Rivière (1897–1985). As one of Rivière’s disciples put it, Medina said, this effected a turn from an art (“a simple intuitive expression or a body of techniques”) to precise rules.


One of the deepest changes in contemporary curatorial practice, Medina said, is that “it has had to mirror the non-specialized, anti-disciplinary and fluid nature of [contemporary] artistic practices that lacks any predetermined technical specifications or ‘spiritualized’ medium.”

Tazzi, an independent curator and critic, traced the birth of the contemporary curator to the emergence of the temporary exhibition, citing Documenta and the biennials, and began a genealogy of curating with the innovative and influential Swiss curator Harald Szeemann (1933–2005).

Bauer, founding director of the Art, Culture and Technology Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stepped further back to the beginning of the 20th century to point out that the first large temporary exhibitions of current art were mounted by artists and architects.

And Teresa Gleadowe, an independent curator and writer based in London, held out hope that the biennial, which is blurring into an art fair, might yet again become an “exhibition,” rather than what curator and artist Matthew Higgs called a “mess.” Her hope was based on the contributions of a multi-disciplinary, artist-run initiative, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, which co-curated Manifesta 8 in Spain this October.


Curiously, however, though a few panelists touched on it, the majority of speakers resisted or simply refused to discuss the relationship of the curator and the artist—especially when it came to power relations, almost as if these did not exist. This remained the case even when direct questions were asked from the floor. As Nemiroff observed in her wrap-up, most of the speakers in the panel on judgment relied heavily on quotations from other writers or philosophers instead of addressing curatorial or critical judgment directly. There was little discussion of the artist-as-curator or of the proposition that curating can be (and sometimes is) a collaboration between curator and artist.

These unaddressed issues would be a worthy subject for a future conference, as this one, organized by Kitty Scott, director of visual arts at the Banff Centre, successfully covered a great deal of material that will take time to unpack. Considering the history of curating certainly had an energizing effect this past weekend, and it remains a rich field for future study.

So are curators unprofessional (enough)? Evidently not, but based on the conference they seem to be seeking a new kind equilibrium in a practice that is inherently and necessarily unstable. Medina argued that “in fact, the curator’s role is to back up and serve the existence of a heterogeneity that, no matter how economically and spectacularly integrated it becomes, is never granted full citizenship and keeps on suggesting the risk of a fraud.”

Conference proceedings will be available as podcasts at a future date.