writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Today's Curator: The Ever-Evolving Multi-tasking Machine

I wrote this for one of my classes in university and decided after the semester was over that it would be good to publish it in my column. When I tell people I'm studying curatorship, the reaction is either 'oooooooooooooooh!' with this awestruck face (which led me to mention the sorcerer bit) or 'Curator? What's that?' haha :D

Published in The Philippine Star, 21 July 2008

Today’s Curator: The Ever-evolving Multi-Tasking Machine

What does a curator do? Who is a curator?

A curator, it seems, conjures up the image of a person surrounded by precious objects with locked up secrets—to which only he/she has the key. Not unlike a sorcerer of some sort, a curator is ostensibly someone of great wisdom, shrouded with a kind of mystical quality and from whom people seek to learn more in a specialized area. This is the attitude encountered in those outside the art scene who are faced with the word—or even more so the person who is—curator.

Yet, while there is a degree of truth to how the public perceives curators, there have also been substantial developments that have changed the curator’s role, attitudes and even his/her position in an institution.

A curator is no longer someone of absolute knowledge whose views go unquestioned. As Tomislav Sola wrote in ‘Museums and Curatorship: The Role of Theory’, ‘…they are not in possession of the truth.’

Today’s curator is expected to admit his/her bias and is more and more keen in engaging in dialogue and participation with others in the art scene and with the public in a local, national and international scale. Rather than presenting exhibitions from an all-knowing voice, curators are now slanted to be more open-ended and present their ideas in exhibitions as evolving with room for discussion. Public programs like curator’s talks and artists’ talks which allow the public to ask questions and give their own input imply a shift in the balance of power. Curators are now more conscious of their exhibition’s visitors, which is reflective as well of the change in the philosophy of museums and their increasing accountability to the public.

What hasn’t changed is that the museum curator is still someone of highly specialized knowledge in an area of the institution’s collection. He/she is expected to conduct research on the collection, keep the collection in prime condition, recommend acquisitions that enhance the collection, develop exhibitions that make use of the existing collection (in whole or in part of the exhibit) and possibly have temporary exhibitions that are in thrust with the vision and mission of the museum.

While a curator’s role mainly circles around the objects of his/her specialty and the collection in which he/she is entrusted, a curator is more than a researcher or a caretaker. He/she is a harbinger of ideas. Yet, the lack of understanding of this as a curator’s role has led to a denigration of its meaning. Jane Kessler, in ‘The Role of the Curator: What are the Criteria by which Every Exhibition Should Be Judged?’, laments that curating ‘has come to mean the process of selecting and exhibiting. In too many cases, that’s as far as it goes….a curator makes a statement. There is a thesis, an idea that will be given tangible form through the selection and display of objects (or in some cases, nonobjects).’

Given that they are open-ended and like pots of liquid where ideas bubble forth, curators nowadays are more like scientists, especially, as Dorothy Spears writes in ‘Curators Wanted: Must Love Art and Travel’, in the global rush to acquire works and discover the latest international superstar. They explore the world for new discoveries (new talent) and experiment in their ‘laboratories’ with new ideas and for new formulas. They present hypotheses and arguments with evidence (artworks and research) to support it. They engage in discourse and are open to views that question or are even directly opposed to their work.

Yet, the curator is responsible for more than just ideas, research and collections with curators easily being the busiest people in the museum. They are plagued with mundane administrative tasks, with answering public queries and with attending a multitude of functions for networking and in support of their colleagues and institution’s patrons (and perhaps in a bid to nab that loan from that frisky collector). In museums overwhelmed by funding problems and in smaller museums with few staff, a curator has to do more if not all of the work such as painting, constructing, packing, installing, designing and writing. The title of the article on curators written by Grace Glueck in The New York Times captures it well: ‘The Job Description Reads, “Do It All”’.

Curators need to expand beyond their usual roles or risk being bypassed for the plum position of the organisation—the director. With funding dwindling and demands increasing, museum trustees look for someone versed in business and management skills to run the institution, hiring businesspersons rather than curators, as Benjamin Genocchio writes in ‘Boot Camp for Curators Who Want the Top Job’. In America, the Center for Curatorial Leadership was started in 2006 to address this problem by training more curators in these areas. Curators, now more than ever, are expected to be efficient art managers that are able to fundraise and brainstorm plans for sustainability or risk a rare chance to advance. Being a director after all doesn’t necessarily mean giving up curatorial duties as some positions carry the title (and responsibility of) ‘Director and Chief Curator.’

Ethical obligations and time also limit what a curator does beyond the institution he/she’s connected to. Any other art-related income and activities should be clarified with the museum with art dealing not even an option as it poses a conflict of interest. In ‘The Museum Curator and the Public’, an early twentieth century article published in Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum, Fiske Kimball stresses that this conflict of interest is something the curator must keep in mind as his/her role is very much one of public duty even if the institution he/she works for is a private one. The curator must even be ready to answer general queries from the public gratuitously as part of a public service.

Today’s curator may not even be attached to an institution at all and subsequently may have no permanent collection to take care of. Independent curators have risen as the art scene saw the increase in number and importance in biennales around the globe. Yet, all curators, even independent ones, have to deal with institutions and collections in their everyday.

Yet, those aspiring to simply be a curator are sure to find out that it isn’t so simple. In an article on becoming a curator, June Cheong writes that the field’s recent professionalization means curators must now usually come armed with relevant degrees (a master’s at minimum and commonly in art history or curatorship) and practical experience often beginning with unpaid volunteer work. And those who find themselves curators must be prepared for it. Margaret Birtley, then Director of the Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies program of Deakin University in an interview said, ‘There’re lots of long days followed by after-hours exhibition attending, which together with the low pay (means) people have to have that strong sense of vocation.’

So, who is a curator?

Today’s curator, it seems, is that ever-evolving multi-tasking machine: that idea generator, that dialogue exchanger, that collection custodian, that passionate fundraiser, that world traveler, that library rat, that mad scientist and that efficient public-minded administrator—to name just a few. A curator isn’t some mystical sorcerer. But, indeed, a spell of passion for his/her work appears to be needed to enable him/her to step into all these roles and accomplish the many things that he/she needs to do.

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