Category Archives: Curators

Museums & Mission Statements

Andras Museum Word-CloudOur own András Szántó has just written an interesting article for the Art Newspaper on the purpose of museums; at least as proclaimed by those museums’ own mission statements.  (You can watch a video of a related discussion, hosted by András at Art Basel Miami Beach here.)   The article covers an analysis done by András and fellow Art world analyser Adam Levine of the mission statements of 60 museums around the US (you can see the accompanying Wordle graphic above) and seeks to draw conclusions about the state of strategic thinking at these grand institutions based on the words they did, or did not, use.

I think it is a fun premise and I like the comparison of the “refreshingly short” and eloquent statement from Akron Art Museum: “to enrich lives through modern art” with the tomes of MOMA, The National Gallery and Boston’s MFA.   The latter three of course were developed and approved by large Boards; and you know what they say about anything done by committee.   (Though to be fair, both MOMA and the National could have stopped at the end of their first sentences and done OK; while the MFA does a decent job with its last…)   András then goes on to draw parallels with the ongoing transition of Museums trying to more proactively respond to their market places and suggests that woolly mission statements are a symptom of woolly thinking about the role of Museums in the modern world.

It is a reasonable inference but may be too harsh. Continue reading

The season of our disconnect

bigstockphoto_ear_2677195I got back from Art Basel this weekend on a plane full of artworld types, with fresh impressions for my interesting disconnects file.

First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town.

Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

The third contrast arrived by way of the 430-page summer issue of Artforum. The tome was not in my mailbox, which proved too small, but on my doorstep. It was shrink-wrapped with the current issue of Bookforum, which includes a review of a new book on the “internship economy,” by Ross Perlin. Titled Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, the study documents the stunning and roundly depressing rise of unpaid labor in our creative industries. One can see why Bookforum reviewed it. The art world, it seems, can fill a glossy with almost as many ad pages as the September issue of Vogue. Yet how many of those ads were placed by young folks working for a pittance, or pro bono, just to get a shot at a job? Continue reading

Enlightenment comes to Tiananmen Square?

NMCThe Art Newspaper leads this week with a thought provoking and fact-filled article on a huge co-operative Arts project between the German and Chinese governments to bring major works from German museums to the newly re-opened National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square.   The theme of the exhibition is the European Enlightenment, and the story is by our own András Szántó.

A glimpse of the exhibition:-

Over dinner on a bitterly cold January night in Beijing, I asked Cordula Bischoff, the Dresden-based curator of “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which object in the exhibition best represents its message. Without hesitating, she pointed to a silhouette print in the advance catalogue. The work, attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips, depicts Voltaire, the French philosopher, holding a lantern that shines a light outward beyond the picture frame. “He is carrying the light and leading the visitor out of the exhibition,” she said. “It tells everything.” Bischoff’s counterpart, Chen Yu, a curator at the National Museum, nodded in agreement. “This picture is a metaphor of the Enlightenment,” he said. “The European Enlightenment is still influencing people everywhere in the world. Chinese people are still enjoying its fruits.”

And a comment by a local resident:-

This is an era of tremendous change. It is time to pause and reflect. Are we a leader economically? Spiritually? It’s part of the opening up after 30 years. What have we lost and what have we gained?

As Andras points out, Confucius was an inspiration to many of the leading lights of the European Enlightenment and so it seems the cycle of inspiration returns.   One wonders, though, what the results will be as China is really only taking its first hesitant steps forward culturally, even as it charges forward economically.

You can read the full article here.

“Curator” R.I.P.

rip“Behold our fall collection,” trumpets the mail order catalog of Restoration Hardware, the home interiors chain. “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.” And so another of our words bites the dust. The word “curator” is becoming overused to the point of losing its meaning.

A curator once had to be assigned to specific collection—the word is rooted in the notion of caring for someone (etymology links curators to insane asylums). In recent years, however, “curation” has been de-linked from any fixed array of things. A curator is no longer a warden of precious objects but a kind of freelance aesthetic concierge. The task now simply involves a clever way of putting works together to follow a purported theme. Independent curators are hired by museums on installation hit-and-run missions. The independent curator has migrated into the realm of commercial galleries. And as the New York Times announced last week, private dealer Phillipe Ségalot is putting together an auction at Phillips “like a guest curator at a museum.”

It was perhaps inevitable that “curation” would jump over the artworld fence, to be embraced by commercial marketers eager to elevate ordinary goods into the realm of Olympian taste. Glossy magazines write breathlessly about beautifully curated retail emporia. One reads about well-curated lifestyles, cheese trays, and sock drawers. Our daily information diet comes to us from curators of the news. I’ve heard people say they curate their schedules and dinner parties.

Through adoption into the lexicon of commercial marketing and quotidian speech, “curator” and “curate” have entered the graveyard of words that have become terminally diluted in their meaning even while—or precisely because—they are issuing from more and more lips. A case of linguistic atrophy and opportunism? Or an apt reflection of the messy but exciting amalgamation of everything in today’s culture?

Three cheers for austerity

205_a_a_giff_weight-newThree makes a trend, the adage goes. So here’s one: The upcoming Whitney Biennial, the National Academy’s Annual Invitational, and Site Santa Fe have sharply curtailed their rosters of exhibiting artists. The reason is money. The outcome is just what the art world needs.

Bloated biannials and survey shows were a boom-time phenomenon we can do without. They are self-defeating in terms of their purpose, which is to provide a point of view about what’s going on. And for better or worse, art fairs offer a more comprehensive summary of the totality of artistic activity.

Cultural bloat is an understudied phenomenon. Its effects are subtle and pernicious. On the surface, bloat entices us with more and more of a supposedly good thing: brick-size novels, three-hour movies, fancier museum buildings and cultural extravaganzas that betoken civic pride and scaling national ambitions.

Underneath all this more-ness, however, lurks the shadow of unsustainability. And that’s hardly the biggest threat. The lure of large numbers relieves the pressure to leave material on the cutting room floor. The cacophonous results mimic the quick verdicts and ceaseless profusion of the marketplace. A more restricted format, by contrast, tilts power to curators. It flushes away the fluff and injects some editorial discipline into the enterprise of art. Think of it as slow cultural food: Harder to cultivate and prepare, more satisfying to consume.

There’s been a lot of writing lately about how austerity is good for art. Much of it is sentimental bunk. Artists deserve to live well, like anyone else. But a case can be made, I believe, for trimming output and narrowing distribution channels. We may have less art to see, but more attention to lavish on it.

Whither now, Museums?

Andy Warhol $$$Those living in Europe are sometimes surprised by the shockwaves that private sector economic turmoil creates for Arts Institutions in the US.   If you come from a region where large portions of a Museum’s budget comes from the public purse (in some countries it is all government funded) it can be eye-opening to learn that those well-funded US institutions that out-bid the Europeans at Auction are often largely privately supported.   So an article in this week’s Art Newspaper by our own András Szántó is well-timed.

Private donors remain skittish. Corporate support is hard to find and ever more tightly tethered to marketing priorities. Public funding is jeopardised by imploding budgets and competing needs. Foundations, too, are smarting from losses. Some are rethinking their support for culture altogether. Venerable charities like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations no longer have divisions with “art” in their names. Museum income from tourists, members, publications, shops, rentals and restaurants is stagnant. It has been a perfect storm.

Whilst András is right to highlight the woes of incumbent institutions trying to fit existing plans into shrinking budgets, I wonder if some of this wasn’t inevitable?   The hubris of recent years and the multitude of new small private museums seeded by privately amassed collections has spread curatorial resources rather thin and scattered good works into more buildings.   Maybe we have too many institutions?   András again.

Museums are joining forces more readily on publications and web projects, such as Artbabble, a kind of YouTube for art videos. But while content partnerships are proliferating, museums have stopped well short of the kind of consolidation that reshapes other distressed industries. “There is a pride factor that makes it very difficult to merge,” notes Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

One hears a gentle sigh of relief around the globe, as the financial markets rebound, so this may all soon become academic.   But I wonder…   So what do you think?  A disaster for Art Lovers everywhere?  Or a much needed shake-up amongst our venerable institutions?

After the dead tree

The nice folks over at The Art Newspaper asked András for his thoughts on what would happen to Arts writing with the decline of the Press.   His response can be seen here, or after the break.

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Lessons from Havana

cubaIt is useful to remember that there is a place, not far from here, which makes our Wall Street worries look like luxury problems. The average salary in Cuba is around $20 US dollars a month, which is the equivalent of a regular dinner in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. Economic contrasts border on surrealism, and yet Cuban society manages somehow to survive through a system of inventive informal businesses and exchanges that involve outsmarting the government and permanently playing a game of intrigue and paranoia.

The Cuban situation in the art sphere has always been equally perplexing: Cuba doesn’t have private galleries, art magazines or independent art foundations. Internet access is heavily restricted if at all available. Only a handful of artists (who normally live outside of the country) actually get to make a profit of their art. And yet over the years Cuba produced as many or more consequential artists than other countries who may boast of far stronger infrastructure and support system for the arts. Which leads me to ask: amidst all this soul-searching after the fall of the markets, can the Cuban example help the art world re-envision itself?

In Cuba it is really hard to get quick answers to anything, though, as reality is so complex. For starters, the meeting of the art world and the Cuban reality is an awkward one. The Havana Biennial, which just opened its 10th edition last week, is an event that best exemplifies the contrasts and ironies of today’s art world. Officially entitled “Globalization and Resistance,” one could see the event as the ultimate anti-Dubai, anti-Chelsea event. Yet, there was a parallel show precisely entitled “Chelsea,” comprised of New York artists who show at Chelsea galleries. The event seemed to be quite successful, no one seemed to think it was a contradiction to the curatorial premises of the biennial, and everyone seemed happy. The biennial per se, however, as well as the theoretical forum I attended, were much more true to form. Continue reading

New, newest, now, next

It’s the dawn of a new age. No, not another,tate-triennial-01 deeper stratum to the credit crunch, but a new era of art is upon us and it’s called the ‘Altermodern’. So says French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who was also responsible for that other recent frisson of novel art-speak, Relational Aesthetics, which – for better or worse – is now firmly established in our repertoire of recognized terminology.

The ‘Altermodern’ is more contentious, not only for being launched by a showy exhibition at the Tate, but also for being far more numinous and complex. Put simply it posits a post-postmodern situation in which modernism is fractured further and has no central geographical focus. These ‘other’ modernities take place simultaneously through an international network of production, with a constellation of ideas pulsing through various media and means of communication. Altermodern artists are nomadic flañeurs and the work is characterised by translation and heterogeneity.

Is any of this terribly new, however? The post-colonial diaspora of artists and the ‘glocal’ proliferation of biennials has long been a point of discussion, Jonathan Neil recently cited Noel Carroll’s definition of the ‘transnational’ and notions of the ‘other’ have been around for decades in Derrida, Kristeva, Said and others.

Even though you can’t all see the Altermodern show (which I liked despite its flaws), you can watch the video, read the manifesto and join the debate, in which most newspaper critics have waded in with a mixture of incomprehension and vitriol. Personally, while another impenetrable ‘ism’ is not necessarily the solution to tidying up the art history books of the 21st century, I appreciate that it does at least take some courage to usher in any kind of movement that doesn’t have an easily marketable model like the YBAs or the Chindian set.

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.

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Virtual museum tours: Time for an upgrade?

Kunstmuseum Basel, lobby, virtual tourSpinning off last week’s discussion of catalogs in the age of digital production, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities (and limitations) of visiting shows online. So I spent some time clicking on the virtual-tour links in Ian’s post from Beijing’s National Art Museum of China. (“360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.”) More locally to me, there are examples such as Zurich’s E. G. Bührle Collection, the Kunstmuseum Basel and Le Louvre. That’s a very random sampling. But of these four, I like the Buhrle’s best, if only because one can click on each image and get a full descriptive text, and then click again for a screen-size image.

Still, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential here. Because as with digital art, the standard by which we judge virtual tours is set less within the artworld than outside it – animated movies, console videogames, virtual worlds/MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), etc. My closest friend is writing her PhD dissertation on Second Life, and I used to do a lot of videogaming, so maybe I’m over-demanding. But these museum virtual tours would benefit greatly from being true walkthroughs (not just 360-degree views from fixed positions). Also the images often pixelize into near-abstraction as soon as you zoom in. And the viewing screens tend toward the tiny. (Yeah, yeah, I know, bandwidth issues. But museums could just offer users different bandwidth options, as do many streaming-video sites.) Now, I’m not a museums expert, so I’m betting that there are some best-practices examples out there and I’d love to see them. If you know of any, drop me a line (marc@artworldsalon.com) and I’ll update this post with links to the best ones.

On a related note: A friend of mine was stunned to witness a major international curator sprinting through a huge retrospective in a few minutes with a video camera in hand. Sometime later that day, during an apparently dull conference, that curator was spotted “visiting the exhibition,” already downloaded onto on the de rigueur white MacBook. Maybe what’s needed here is a sort of MuTube, where people upload their walkthroughs of museum shows for those who can’t make it in person.