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May we suggest

Features / November 20, 2008

Trade Secrets: Swapping Curatorial Confidences

White Columns director Matthew Higgs and Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal director Marc Mayer at the Trade Secrets conference in Banff / photo Banff Centre

Ever since the Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997, there’s been a great deal of interest in the ways that architecture affects the experience (and popular appeal) of art spaces.

But what about the invisible conceptual architectures—that is, the theories and practices of curatorial work—that affect the experience of art spaces regardless of starchitect-led, trustee-funded renos? These have received far less attention.

So last week as the Art Gallery of Ontario was opening to tens of thousands in Toronto, Trade Secrets, a Banff Centre conference, provided a rather more modest structure for a hundred curators to debate current practices—best and otherwise—for bringing art to the public.

Here’s some of the key themes that emerged at Trade Secrets, all of which will shape the shows we see for years to come, no matter where we see them.


At the time Trade Secrets was being organized in spring 2008, many curators were concerned about high auction prices diminishing the ability of museums to acquire quality artworks. Since then, the art market bubble, like so many others, has burst.

As keynote speaker Richard Flood, chief curator of the New Museum, noted, the market drop has lessened some curatorial issues and raised a whole host of others. Now, rather than contending with competitive collectors, museum curators must cope with dramatic drops in endowment funds, evaporating corporate sponsorship monies and reduced attendance revenues, all of which lead to major obstacles.

“Endowments are crashing; money people assumed would be there is nonexistent. Everyone has taken a major hit,” he said. “I hate to keep going on about this, but it’s all happening: first the hiring freeze, then attrition, then layoffs, then things like exhibition schedules extending—three months becoming six months, and so on.”

As a remedy, Flood recommended a number of measures: using institutional mission statements as a guide for budget cuts; developing strong relationships with dealers for advantageous discounts; nurturing reliable connections with trustees to make sure promised supports come through; pooling monies with curators at other institutions to commission new work (the New Museum already does this with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago); considering residencies that would result in acquisition of art made on the premises; and focusing, where relevant, on regional strengths, artists and audiences.

Western Front’s curator of exhibitions, Candice Hopkins, concurred, noting that it’s not necessarily money that’s needed to curate compelling or big-name shows. According to Hopkins, various negotiating strategies have resulted in Western Front, a small artist-run centre, hosting shows that include Paul Chan, Lida Abdul, Janice Kerbel, Jimmie Durham and John Baldassari, among others, for an average total budget of $3,500 per show.


Organized by Kitty Scott and Sylvie Gilbert from the Banff International Curatorial Institute, assisted by Royal College of Art curatorial program founder Teresa Gleadowe, Trade Secrets managed to pull in a diverse field of 22 notable presenters. Some, like Paris’s Francois Aubart and Mexico City’s Lourdes Morales, had just recently graduated from curatorial programs. Others, like New Museum director and keynote speaker Richard Flood, or Generali Foundation founder Sabine Breitwieser, are legendary. Some, like Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, had just finished working for large institutions like Tate, while others, like Joanna Mytkowska of the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, are in charge of museums that are just being built. Further, it wasn’t just curators on tap; artists Edgar Heap of Birds and Ken Lum also presented.

Given the breadth of presenters, there was little agreement on the primary role of the curator—and therefore little agreement on how to evaluate and educate contemporary curators.

For his part, Cuauhtémoc Medina characterized curating as requiring a kind of Frankenstein-like persona, a little of one function and a little of another all mashed together. Though he teaches in curatorial programs himself, he voiced concern about the perceived “pandemic” of curatorial programs, particularly those that intimate structure and order when curating is, to him, a “paradise of the improvised.” He also concluded that while “you may not be able to teach curating, it is possible and productive to educate curators.”

Flood emphasized the need for multifunctionality and training in a different way. “It’s a bad time for specialists,” Flood said, “Curators need the ability to function in the real world, and the real world often disappears in academic struggles.” Flood emphasized the need for emerging curators to have expertise in (or willingness to learn) budgeting, selling programs, approaching private sponsors, honoring existing hierarchies and understanding how commercial galleries and auction houses work. Most of all, he said, was a need for “old-fashioned modesty… something I see less and less of these days.”

Recent Royal College of Art graduate (and now Barbican curator) Francesco Manacorda, who also teaches curating courses, noted he was “very frightened about many curatorial projects having as an audience colleagues only.” More pointedly, he said, “very often in curating, people disregard one of the two final clients of the curator—the public or the artist,” a process to a degree encouraged by the solipsistic study of curatorial education. Still, he didn’t think his curatorial education was a waste, comparing it to “being subjected in 2 years to stuff it would take 5 to 10 years to learn otherwise.”

Not all the information around curatorial roles and training was gently received. As Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal director Marc Mayer said to some applause, “I came here skeptical and now I’m appalled. Is the public ever mentioned in curatorial programs? [Many of these programs] sound like it a scam on the part of “for profit” educational institutions.” (Candice Hopkins described the $26,000 annual tuition at the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard as one of the particular low points of her graduate studies there.)

Richard Flood noted that beyond questions of money, institutional self-interest can still be influential to young curators: “One of the ironies of CCS Bard is that it is built around a collection on temporary loan. Rarely has there been study so intense on one collection.”

White Columns director Matthew Higgs also raised a red flag around the potential for a new conformity on the part of recent grads. “In going against the modernist canon are we creating a new one?” he asked, referring to what he perceived as too-frequent study of phenomena like the New York MoMA’s “Information” exhibition of 1970 and Harald Szeemann’s archives.


The politics of inclusion and exclusion—who’s in and who’s out of the art world’s key exhibitions—continue to be an issue as well.

While Medina, who worked for much of the past six years curating Tate’s Latin American Art Collections, said in a private interview that he saw the art world as a whole becoming a refuge for radical politics of all stripes, it’s clear he still has an interest in the geographic biases of exhibition-making. As he announced at the conference, one of his current projects is a January 2009 conference called “South South South South…” which will focus on artists, curators, critics and practices in—where else?—the global south.

“After the politics of inclusion, where do we go?” Medina quipped. “We go south.”

Also on this theme, Aboriginal Curatorial Collective founder Ryan Rice pointedly asked Mayer during a collections session whether the MACM was purchasing any work from aboriginal artists. Mayer’s response was uncertain, referring to a lack of personal knowledge in the area. In a later session, Candice Hopkins noted that some of the contemporary artists she’s most interested in are aboriginal and live in Northern Quebec, particularly members of the Isuma video collective.


Some of the most anticipated sessions at the conference revolved around the presentation of “top ten” lists, which invited curators young and old to present items that inspire them.

Justina M. Barnicke curator and Canada’s 2009 Venice commissioner Barbara Fischer was lauded roundly for her list, which chronologically traced documents analyzing the “incommensurability” of art practice to museum practice at various points in time. Her overall message? Artists lead curators—not the other way around.

More casual lists revealed a raft of different influences. Sabine Breitwieser named Shoah and Walter Benjamin’s The Other as Producer to her list. Marc Mayer mentioned silent films and Claude Tousignant. Ontario College of Art and Design curatorial studies director Rosemary Donegan revealed an interest in the cultural meaning of folding and stacking chairs as well as admiration for spectacular public theatre piece The Sultan’s Elephant. Joanna Mytkowska spoke of Tomas Pospiszyl, who opened the archive of the Eastern European secret police for display, and Ion Grigonescu, who documented the modernization of Budapest like an Iron Curtain–styled Matta-Clark.

The listmaking didn’t stop there. Lourdes Morales fingered Raqs Media Collective and Mexico City in general as sources of inspiration. Francesco Manacorda played a Family Guy TV clip and mentioned Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus in the same breath. Ken Lum discussed a Chinatown in Lima, Peru, as well as the political economy of a textile pattern made from the diagram of a slave ship—sold for $1,000 on canvas or $10 on a scarf during a visit to Africa.

Cuauhtémoc Medina enthused about Tintin, about Trotsky’s House in Mexico City, “where something very important got destroyed,” and about a never-completed Oscar Niemeyer project in Tripoli he calls “the museum of failed modernity.” Joseph del Pesco took up the torch of media pranksters the Yes Men and the filtered web videos of Candice Hopkins held up a well-thumbed copy of Museums by Artists, edited by attendee AA Bronson with Peggy Gale back in 1983, and also pointed to Eyal Weitzman’s books on the architecture of oppression as relevatory.

White Columns director Matthew Higgs delivered the coup de grâce to the process when, as a response to the final top ten session, he asked each of the 90 or so people present, technicians included, to name one thing that inspired them this year.

Though the art world and curatorial challenges are far from being healed by such feel-good gestures, it at least did demonstrate that everyone, degree or not, has a secret or two to trade.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via