Whither curatorial studies?

top_left_metThis in from Eva Diaz:

Following on the previous piece on museum directors, I was surprised–yet somehow not surprised– that the list didn’t mention artists, curation, or really much about museum  content.    One would think that such a list of “improvements” to museums would include the requirement that museums strive to better their shows and content?   In particular, the list missed mentioning curators; you know, those poor souls who the Association of Museum Directors employ, and who are ostensibly the creative agents within museum institutions. That omission got me thinking about what curators do, about the curatorial profession, and about the pedagogical cottage industry of curatorial studies.

That means asking “why the global proliferation of post-graduate/MFA-granting curatorial programs today?” And that begs a related question of just what is “curatorial studies” as a discipline.   Maybe the problem is that it isn’t one at all.   

Perhaps it’s easier to begin by asking what sort of professional outcomes curatorial studies presents its graduates.   As a degree (M.A.) or credential, it doesn’t offer much professional security in academia, which generally reserves permanent or tenured positions in the arts for holders of terminal degrees such as art history Ph.D.s or art practice MFAs.    The close connection (and often asymmetrical relationship) of curatorial studies programs (no PhD)  to art history departments (PhD-granting) means that the seat of their graduates’ professional aspirations aren’t in academia, but elsewhere. Where is that elsewhere?

Simple answer, right? To curate, that is, to organize art exhibitions (and to produce and perhaps write for art catalogs that result from those exhibitions) happens in but a few sites: art museums, non-profit or university art centers, and commercial art galleries.   Curatorial studies programs feed students into these three institutions; the art magazine world and the grant-giving/foundation sector can be folded in here too, though generally they do not involve curating narrowly defined.   Working as a curator generally means intersecting with at least one of these art display institutions, whether or not the curatorial work is independent or salaried.   Though these sites have different masters, different “employers” so to speak, the non-profit and museum worlds in particular share certain professional similarities.   Yet curatorial studies programs don’t seem designed to educate students about the expectations of these institutions.

Curatorial studies perhaps can be better understood as a process of inadequately preparing students for the professional demands of curation today, roles that can be described schematically as: a) underpaid arts  administration  (ultimately a relatively powerless position in a system of compromises made to fiscal and ideological pressures from home institutions that often originate in fundraising or market demands, to related pressures from artists to act as administrative agents for their careers at the level of “interior decorating”/architectural design, social networking, and publicity).   To counterbalance the desultory reality of meetings, grant writing, paper-pushing, etc., then b) the role of star  super-curator  is dangled before students, the lure that the field provides a lifestyle of fame, affluence, and leisure, that successful (read charismatic and exceptional, not drone adminstrator) curators globetrot exotic locations, putting together financing and deals without having to do much real intellectual work, scholarship, or writing.    And charm goes a long way: these folks must be good at entertaining the whims of wealthy trustees looking for cultural edification or other transgressive experiences.    The duality of a repressed/real vs. a fantasy/aspirational construction all but precludes c) the role of a  scholar  or  intellectual, one  with a stake in the production and circulation of knowledge who marshals expertise in the discipline of art history towards a form of spatialized and textual argumentation/selection—a creative  practice  that at its best connects art history to the present with intellectual freedom and a kind of activist zeal.   I would  love  to hear somebody talk about how infrequently jobs of any of the above descriptions, even drone curatorial adminstrator much less creative scholar, are available to the annual pool of graduates of curatorial programs globally.

That isn’t solely the fault of curatorial studies programs; the life of the intellectually creative scholar is under siege in most quarters.   But the problem may be that curatorial studies programs (infrequently) imagine this kind of “tenured” freedom, and of course can never promise it, since they aren’t actually part of an academic department or discipline.   Museums and non-profits, at least in the U.S., frequently append to curation (which earlier I defined as organizing art exhibitions and producing/writing for related art catalogs), another criteria: finding ways to pay for those shows and for the operation of the institution generally.   That’s where the time and energy goes, and there often isn’t much left over for ideas, creative work, or even reading and basic scholarship.   I hear this complaint from curators with depressing regularity.   Undoubtedly the role of curator has been squeezed too narrowly between administration and dealmaking; but the travesty may be that curatorial studies programs fail to acknowledge this when they recruit students and collect their often sizeable tuitions.   Shouldn’t we then ask what sort of training curatorial programs  are  giving their students?


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