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To Curate or Not to Curate

"To Curate or Not to Curate" by Jens Hoffmann, Fall 2007, pp. 110-15

Jens Hoffmann is a writer and curator and the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco.

On the occasion of the curatorial tragedies that are documenta 12, curated by Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, and the International Art Exhibition of the 52nd Venice Biennale, curated by Robert Storr, I would like to examine some aspects of curatorial practice and the difficult and somewhat misunderstood condition in which this profession finds itself at this point in time.

It is no news that curatorial practice has fundamentally changed over the last 20 years. This has partly to do with the emergence of the so-called independent curator, the more central position curators play in the set-up of exhibitions, the influence of artistic practices on curating and the proliferation of the art world in general through the establishment of new biennials, art fairs, galleries, museums and so on.

Once the field of art historians, curating has become a fashionable occupation of late. The popular understanding is that it is somehow a glamorous profession that allows curators to jet around the world, organize exhibitions in the most exotic parts of the globe and hang out with the rich and famous. The reality does not match this distorted idea. Most curators struggle to make ends meet; they are underpaid in their museum jobs and the concept of the independent curator organizing exhibitions across the planet is nothing but a myth. In the history of curating, only about five curators have ever managed to make a decent living while working unattached to an institution and without a permanent position at a museum. By and large there is a misconception about curating; what I have described so far is only one part of a much larger story.

Ask 20 people what they think a well-curated exhibition is and you will get 20 different answers. Curating remains a very young profession. It has not yet managed to develop a clearly defined identity, any form of theory or even standards by which to measure quality. This is further complicated by the fact that curating has diversified over the last decade. There are now multiple coexistent discourses on curating that are often not related to one another at all. Many have grown to be very sophisticated and specialized: from the art history–led discussions around collection displays and museum exhibitions to the debate around art in public space, and from the arguments around biennials to disputes regarding the idea of the so-called “creative curator.”

Now that curating has become popular—just look at the number of curating courses offered around the world—in the general eye it is often simply understood as the practice of flipping through art magazines, walking through art fairs or biennials and selecting artworks that will illustrate a clever theme or idea that the curator has thought of. That curating is more complex—something that in fact has a lot to do with experience and the ability to be multi-talented—has not yet reached everyone. By this measure, it was insane to appoint curators with the relatively limited experience of Robert Storr and Roger Buergel to curate two of the most prestigious exhibitions in the world—neither has previously been involved in putting together anything on this scale.

A large number of people have only a recent interest in art. For many of them, art fairs or large biennials are the primary venues for their perception and consumption of art, but many do not understand the difference between a carefully considered curatorial argument and the commercial display at an art fair. Who can blame them? “Art Unlimited,” at this year’s Art Basel, while not planned curatorially, was probably the most interesting large-scale display of contemporary art this summer in terms of the quality of the works displayed. But for that reason it seems even more important to articulate exactly what curators do, to make clear that there is a difference between the presentation of art for clearly commercial purposes, on the one hand, and the creation of a complex intellectual and artistic debate on the other.

Given discrepancies in knowledge and the lack of consensus regarding the role of the curator and the practice of curating, the question of questions is, “What makes a good exhibition?” It seems obvious to answer, “A good exhibition is an exhibition with very good works of art.” Yet this is only the beginning. The ability to select good works and properly install them should be a given for every curator, for every exhibition. (Sadly, it is not.) Exhibitions should also be considered within larger frameworks, such as the program outline of a museum or the professional trajectory of a particular curator. Exhibitions should be considered too in terms of the ways that they address specific audiences, the spaces in which they take place and how they relate to the social and political contexts in which they occur. Artworks need to be installed with a sensitivity to the artists’ intentions and an understanding of the works’ position within art historical contexts—if in doubt, talk to the artist or someone who knows something about their work! All related material, such as publications, lectures, conferences and ancillary printed materials (including invitation cards and posters), should help to form a clear argument and a comprehensible concept. Yet no publication or conference can or should replace the exhibition or come to its aid. The curator should bring a sense of staging to the exhibition, with the intention of creating a unique experience for the audience and for the works of art. Above all, the curator should have a vision.

What ultimately matters is what we see in the exhibition space. In judging the abilities of a curator, what matters is the exhibition, nothing else. It does not matter how articulate a curator is, how many Ph.D.s he or she holds, whether or not he or she is an art historian or whether or not the curator can write. Just because someone is very articulate, intellectual or theoretically savvy does not mean that he or she knows what to do with an artwork in a gallery space. I have seen extremely smart people completely handicapped when confronted with how to actually install a painting, and others who do not seem to care about the exhibition and put all their energy towards the publication of a catalogue or the organization of conferences. Unfortunately, there are many very intelligent people in the curatorial field with little sensitivity for artworks and little aptitude for installing works or staging exhibitions. All too often, exhibitions look good on paper, but fail to live up to the grand claims made in their own publicity materials.

The person chosen to curate an exhibition such as the Venice Biennale or documenta should be selected on the basis of the exhibitions she or he has made in the past. The selection jury should travel to see as many exhibitions as possible, then decide who to invite. Having curators line up to present concepts in front of a board is like asking an artist to come to a podium and speak about their work instead of looking at the pieces themselves.

What happened in Venice and Kassel this summer was appalling. Let us start by considering the portion of Storr’s exhibition that occupied the Padiglione Italia at the Venice Biennale. Storr is primarily known for the high-profile solo exhibitions he curated while at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This history became very apparent when one entered the building and saw large displays of work by many of the artists Storr has worked with in the past—Sigmar Polke, Sophie Calle, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Nauman and Elizabeth Murray— in what one could call museum-quality installations. There is nothing wrong with following artists through their careers and working with them repeatedly; in fact, it is a sign of strength and consistency. However, what we saw here was a set of unrelated solo exhibitions by artists that most of us are familiar with. The biggest mystery was a room that contained works by a number of dead artists—presumably heroes of the curator—forming a pantheon of art from the last two decades. Both the installation and the works were extremely unsuccessful; a few unimportant Martin Kippenberger paintings pushed into one corner of the space, some carelessly installed Fred Sandback pieces and some sloppily hung Leonilson drawings. At the Arsenale, where one might hope for a more contemporary and maybe less morbid selection of artists and works, things were not much better. It was here that the real weakness of the exhibition came to light. The curator, resisting alignment with market forces, had for the most part selected relatively unknown artists; when one saw the works one knew why they were unknown. For me, there was no sense that the curator was engaged with the current discourses and tendencies in contemporary art. He had selected a crude mix of works from all over the place, many with a documentary feel to them or a relationship to ongoing international conflicts. One piece in particular, Emily Prince’s monument to American war dead in Iraq, exemplifies the curator’s approach. Prince, a 25-year-old art student from San Francisco, created a work in which she draws a portrait of every American soldier who has died in the war. As it goes on, the piece becomes larger and larger. While Prince, full of good intentions, wished to draw attention to the tragedy of the war in Iraq, the piece could be read as a slight to the thousands of other people who have died in Iraq over the last four years. And so the exhibition continued. Nothing seemed to add up to anything larger or more profound. While the works here were better installed than in recent Arsenale exhibitions, the overall atmosphere was dull due to the lack of dynamic and energizing works of art. Rather than taking a risk, Storr went for a status-quo notion of quality. All I thought was, “Where is ‘Utopia Station’ when one needs it?” While the Hans Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tiravanija–curated section of the 50th Venice Biennale (in 2003) was utter chaos and in some respects a big mess, it had an energy and anarchy that this show completely lacked.

Given the current visibility of curators in the public eye and the proliferation of poorly or pretentiously conceived exhibitions, one suspects that audiences have started to grow tired of curators, particularly the better-known and more prolific ones. But Kassel’s participation in this critique of big-name curators backfired badly this summer. While one hears along the grapevine that the committee selecting the artistic director of documenta 12 wanted someone serious, meaning someone with an academic background, the committee members could not agree on any of the better-known candidates. The surviving name was a relatively inexperienced curator from Vienna. In the past, documenta has made a point of appointing curators who are little known (and upon which a jury of high-profile curators can agree when they cannot push their own favourite candidates through the selection process). This is partly why, the story goes, the list of individuals nominated for documenta 12 read like a who’s who of today’s most important and most influential curators, yet Roger Buergel got the job.

The installations in Kassel were disastrous, but the biggest problem was the selection of artists and artworks. Buergel wanted to make a point of selecting artists who play little or no role in the international art circuit. This is fair enough. It is something that should be encouraged; we have all grown tired of seeing the same faces over and over again. But when it comes to documenta, things might be a little different; the quality of artworks is the only criterion that can and should be applied. This show is thought of as the most prestigious and most earnest large-scale group exhibition in the art world. It is a show in which artists who have achieved a certain historical significance get to present large, often new works alongside some of the world’s most promising emerging artists. This year’s documenta presented a lot of mediocre pieces by younger artists, a lot of outsider positions that bore no relevance either to current discourses around art or to historical positions.

When I took my first steps into the glass pavilion in the Aue garden in Kassel, I wanted to be positive about the whole matter, though I already feared the worst. I thought the idea of a glass house was eccentric and initially liked it. But as I moved further into it (someone described it as a sales pavilion in a Bulgarian trade show), I realized that this was turning into one of the worst art-viewing experiences that I have had to endure in the last few years. The pavilion is a perfect example of the kind of thing that a curator comes up with for a particular display but in the end is not able to pull off; it ends in a debacle where no one looks good. I felt badly for the artworks; I was embarrassed for them and the artists who made them. It did not get better in any of the other venues. The Neue Galerie, with its painted rooms and low light levels, elicited my curiosity for about two minutes, after which it became clear that the display device suffocated the artworks (and that the colours used for the different rooms seemed to have been chosen totally arbitrarily).

Documenta 12 made me angry for a number of reasons, monetary waste being just one. Buergel and his co-curator, Ruth Noack, who is his wife, had €19 million at their disposal. This enormous budget would seem to demand some form of responsibility, but one’s impression is that the curators simply followed an agenda that was isolated and underdeveloped. In Germany, documenta is the ultimate art event, attracting about 600,000 visitors each time it is presented. It is the only contemporary-art show that many people will ever see, and, as such, it is taken as a benchmark of the current state of contemporary art (at least this is what visitors are told in the abundant propaganda that surrounds this exhibition). This year, all these people will walk away from Kassel with an extremely unclear idea of what art is about at this point in time.

In contrast, there are two biennials that have stood out for me over the last couple of years and I would like to proffer them as examples of cautious and considered curating. Both the 7th Lyon Biennial, in 2003, and the 4th Berlin Biennial, in 2006, were distinguished by their precise installation and their sensitivity to the artworks they included. In Lyon even more than in Berlin, the curators (Thierry Raspail Xavier Douroux, Franck Gautherot, Eric Troncy, Robert Nickas and Anne Pontégnie) clearly and carefully guided viewers through a focused exhibition. Everything seemed to be in the right place at the right time. While I do not necessarily agree with every aspect of these exhibitions, both shows were curated with an excellence that has become rare in today’s environment.

Undoubtedly, the biennial model as it was developed during the 1990s—a global overview show of contemporary art—is now bitterly outdated. The exhibitions in Lyon and Berlin were early manifestations of a departure from the idea of the biennial as a playground for curatorial ideas based on post-colonial theory; they made no attempt to necessarily represent what is going on in the further corners of the world. But what might alternative approaches to organizing biennials and other large-scale group exhibitions look like? One option would be to get rid of them entirely. This will not happen, nor should it, since such events do have their merits—still and against all odds. A good example of a biennial that has had a consequential impact is the Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil, one of the longer-running biennial art events. Since its first incarnation in the 1950s, it has had a tremendous effect on art-making in Brazil and has contributed to the development of one of the most interesting centres of contemporary art in the world. Over the last five and a half decades, Brazilian audiences have been introduced to ideas of modern and contemporary art that might otherwise never have reached them, at least not so quickly. For countries on the so-called peripheries, where access to art magazines is limited, proper education via biennials makes a lot of sense.

One idea I have recently had for the Venice Biennale is to shut down the International Art Exhibition component and shift the focus again to the national pavilions. What an amazing model for a biennial this would be—40 or more carefully curated solo exhibitions of the best artists from each participating country. This is what the 9th Lyon Biennial, which has just opened, has moved towards by inviting 50 curators to select a single favourite artist (or artist group) and organize a solo show of his or her work. Whether or not this concept will work depends entirely on the individual presentations. Another idea would be to appoint curators not just for one biennial but with the intention of giving them a more permanent position that involves curating three or four in a row, the way a director of a theatre or film festival functions. I also always enjoy biennials in which I can see various exhibitions organized by a number of curators. The International Art Exhibition of the 50th Venice Biennale was one of these. While trashed by the press, it offered the possibility of clearly identifying different curatorial styles and ideas. Nothing could have been more different from the clear and meticulous installation of Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition than the frantic and dynamic presentation of the exhibition curated by Hou Hanru, the theoretically-minded section curated by Catherine David or the chaos of “Utopia Station.” Francesco Bonami, who was responsible for organizing the whole affair, took a big risk by inviting 11 other curators to take over the Arsenale. He was heavily criticized for it, but ultimately his exhibition and those of his co-curators will be remembered far longer than this year’s boring affair.

I write these lines out of concern for my profession. It is time that we as curators become more rigorous with our critique of the devaluation and selling-out of what we do. It is time to save our profession from amateurs. While we do this, we must make sure that our exhibitions meet the highest standards of quality, to signal to the world that this is a profession that requires serious engagement, experience and talent—and that has been poorly represented by the shows that we have seen in Europe this summer.

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