The roles and responsibilities of the 21st Century UK gallery curator, and how they fit in to the broader economy and art community.
What is a curator?
If a cursory glance at mass and social media tells us that magazines, radio programmes, digital files, food and experiences can be curated, does that mean that we are all curators since we have all done at least one of those activities?
The Cambridge online dictionary defines curation as “the selection and care of objects to be shown in a museum or to form part of a collection of art, an exhibition etc., the selection of films, performers, events etc. To be included in a festival, the selection of something such as documents, music, or internet content to be included as part of a list or collection or on a website.”
The phrase “to be shown in a museum or to form part of a collection of art, an exhibition etc. “ tends to indicate that, in this definition which marks the current use of the term, it is a specific occupation, exercised in specific arenas, with specific intent and with an implied specific audience. It could be argued that this makes the occupation exclusive, meaning it does not apply to anybody.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, in his book Ways of curating, gives ‘to take care of’ as the meaning of the Latin verb ‘curare’ from which the English verb to ’curate’ is derived. He states: “the curatores were civil servants who were responsible for overseeing public works, including the (Roman) empire’s aqueducts, bathhouses and sewers.” (P.25). He goes on to say how, by the Middle Ages, their functions had shifted to caring for the souls of the parishioners and then, in the eighteenth century, they took on the role of looking after museums’ collections of objects.
In the current century, we have extended that meaning to encompass the consumption of new and recycled ideas, raw data, information, images, specialist knowledge and material products like never before. As such we make our own personal / aesthetic selections of those elements which, some may say, may make us ‘ curatores ‘ but not ‘curators’ as we know them, even if, at times, we collect in order to show, for our benefit or for that of others.
The realisation of the need for galleries is reflected in a 2007 review for New Contemporaries by David Barret who wrote: “ There was a time when the annual open studio was about the only prospect for young artists to exhibit their work, now Britain is a place where small towns like Walsall have magnificent public galleries of contemporary art … and there is an abundance of small galleries hungry for new artists”. (galleriesnow.net) How many of those small galleries still exist is an impossible question because there is no register of those galleries. “In 2007 the market reached unprecedented highs with global revenue doubling that of 2005.” (imgpublic.artprice.com) How did we get to that point?
The summer of 1988 changed the perception of the young artist at the exhibition ‘Freeze’, held in a derelict warehouse in Docklands and organised by “a group of exceptionally talented, cocky and determined art students from Goldsmiths College, led by Damien Hirst. … They did something that nobody else had managed to do, which was to puncture public consciousness.’ Says Peyton-Jones.” ( Fullerton P.8 &10)
Having dispensed with the traditional gallery and museum curator model, the group started a chain of events which would bring in to play and raise the profile of collectors and dealers in contemporary art. Advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, who had up till then only exhibited German and American contemporary art in a time when British art was considered an embarrassment, started collecting and exhibiting the work of what were to become known as the Young British Artists (YBA).
Almost thirty years later, in 2007, Damien Hirst made his diamond and platinum skull For the love of God costing £50million, making it the most expensive artwork ever made. It did not attract a buyer and was sold to a consortium consisting of Hirst and two
others. Commenting on the work, Greyson Perry stated that the work embraced ‘what his work is all about, … commodification’ (Fullerton P.253) In 2008, Hirst took 223 new works to Sotheby’s auction house which brought him £111 million. Not only did the event break sales records making more money in 48 hours than “all the art by the artists hanging in the National Gallery fetched in their lifetimes”(Fullerton p.253), it also coincided with the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers.
Ironically for art and artists, that 2008 record-breaking art auction, coinciding with the economic downturn following the bank collapse, marked the start of the shrinking of art galleries and curators posts as government funding for art galleries in the UK was reduced year on year. The Impressions Gallery, Bradford, for example, was staging ten exhibitions per year in 2010. In recent years that has shrunk to four annually, similarly, Temple Bar Gallery in Dublin, stages five. This reminds us of the status quo of the early 1980’s when young and emerging artists battled to show their work and get known. As a result, fewer and fewer artists are now commissioned to produce work and exhibit it in conventional galleries where exhibitions are planned three years ahead and where the work can be a commissioned piece or which has been developed from an earlier commissioning. Each exhibition is a collaboration or co-production with the artist.
Exhibitions manager Helen Warburton is of the opinion that today more and more artists are eschewing the traditional in favour of ‘creating their own frameworks within which they operate.'(See appendix 1) ‘ Could this be a return to a Freeze-type scenario?
In 2019, the art gallery euphoria of 2007 is a distant memory as Brexit, the new challenge for, inter-alia, curators, takes its politico-financial toll on galleries and museums yet
again. “Although the Brexit white paper states the UK will seek a culture and education
accord with the EU, Bernard Donoghue, the director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, said cultural organisations believed the government was unlikely to replace European Union funding for museums and the arts in the event of a no-deal. … It’s difficult to imagine how the whole cultural sector will not be affected detrimentally.”(theguardian.com)
There have always been private and public galleries but how they affect art and artists cannot be accurately quantified. When asked about the value of having private and public galleries, Lara Goodband, modern art curator at RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) in Exeter said that, in her experience, private and public galleries have a history of working together to enrich, often on a temporary basis, each other’s exhibitions and collections.
Helen Warburton, BAFTA exhibitions manager, had a fuller but similar response to this question: “If by private, you mean selling/commercial galleries, I have experience of working in both, and have found it incredibly valuable to learn how both spaces operate and position themselves. Until I started working in galleries, this is something I knew very little about and I have found it interesting to realise how closely they are entwined and how much impact this has on an artist’s ‘success’, visibility and career. Interesting but not surprising I guess, just as artists and art dealers have worked together for centuries, commercial and public galleries seem to feed off and perpetuate the other and vice versa.”(See appendix 1)
Dr Pippa Oldfield and Gallery Director Anne McNeill of the Impressions Gallery, Bradford, maintain that that not all galleries have the same raison d’être: some are private, exclusive, while others are public or inclusive; some have a commercial while others a non-commercial ethos. To them, The work curators bring in has to be critically engaged with its time and relevant to the viewers.
Given this disparity in how different art galleries or museums function, it follows that the people who organise the exhibitions might have multiple roles and that they might be part of a bigger or smaller team. Apart from curators like Susan Bright or Val Williams, there are commercial gallery directors like Christians Monarchi and Laura Noble; public gallery directors like David Drake and Anne McNeill; exhibitions managers like Helen Warburton who emphasises the importance of having a team of people around you who work together
well. Rather than curators, some galleries have an administrator or manager who displays work rather than a curator who organises and exhibits work under a given theme.
People could, therefore, agree with Obrist, given the complexity of institutions like art galleries and museums, that there might be a need for a new word for curators. Yet the function of a curator has changed in the past without the need for a neologism. Lara Goodband and Helen Warburton agree that there is no need for a new name. Helen Warburton clarifies this with: “To me, in a practical and very simplified sense, the word means the bringing together of objects or happenings with thought and intention – so I don’t see why people can’t curate their breakfast or magazines or why the popularisation of the term necessarily means it should now be avoided by art criticism, art education or by art institutions.”(appendix 1)
What do curators do?
In the most superficial terms, they collect, select, take care of and list objects, data, documents, music, films, objects and images in order to produce a themed exhibition or show with the myriad practical considerations associated with that. At a deeper level, they embody the art of the preservation of a culture’s heritage, researching and sourcing its new expressions, engaging audiences through some form of show or exhibition, and ultimately, educating those audiences regarding those new ideas. Before they do that, it could be argued, they appraise the sustainability and potential legacy of the work on show, both of which are difficult to predict.
A look at a job description for a curatorial post at a gallery in Dublin, for example, shows how extensive the skills-set requirements are in 2019 for a full-time curator.
What form exhibitions take is determined by many factors, some, beyond the control of the curators but French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has highlighted the feeling that exhibitions are a way of “keeping the visitor in the art moment a little longer” (Obrist
p.24). For Obrist, curating exhibitions, as in making art, time is important: ”Fly-in, fly-out curating nearly always produces superficial results.”(p.24). That could be seen as a generalisation which could be refuted by artists and curators alike. Pop-up shows might lack that element of keeping the viewer in the moment but it also lacks the more considerable financial outlay involved in hanging a conventional exhibition.
Bradford Impressions Gallery, curators Oldfield and McNeill, fleshed out their functions. The considerations which determine which work is sourced for exhibitions were audience, gallery and photographer. To Helen Warburton, the audience, the purpose and the space are of foremost importance, while to Lara Goodband, a curator’s honesty, integrity and enthusiasm determine what and how work is shown.
It is important to the curators that they establish different points of entry for the viewers coming to their exhibitions. To that end curators at Impressions present material for young audiences like puzzles, books and drawing materials which prepares the children to access what they can from the exhibition.
The “interpretation “ in the gallery is minimal so that their (curators’) views do not dictate to the viewers what to think about he work presented. As curators, they present an accumulation of all the details of the work and how the individual elements are
displayed. The vitrines are used to extend the scope of the work and to present other relevant material. For example, in the Chloe Dewe-Matthews exhibition, one vitrine had copies of the book, with all the different covers, ‘In search of Frankenstein’ which had seen various publications 1846. It was this book by Mary Shelley which had inspired the photography.
On the gallery’s website, there were links to different talks which online users could access which gave interviews not only with the photographer herself but also with related work. For example, there was an insightful interview with Professor David Higgins, Associate Professor in English Literature at the university of Leeds who gave his findings on research on British Romantic Literature and climactic catastrophes, which neatly brought together the work by Dewe-Matthews and Shelley.
The exhibition also had photographs of extracts from the original Shelley manuscript and printed on a scale which almost dwarfed the images of the landscape and the bunkers – viewers can make of that what they will.
For Helen Warburton, that interpretation is more nuanced: “If the venue has a house style or approach, for example the Tate or the V&A, there will be a certain baseline level of information required (both for the crediting of the artwork/s or artefact/s but also their context) and I imagine that consistency in language and tone is incredibly important, especially across displays of disparate art forms and media. … It is about finding a balance between having enough information to facilitate a meaningful engagement with the works on display and not overloading audiences, about providing enough context alongside the work but not detracting from the artwork itself, and indeed about negotiating the environment and the actual technical requirements of the work or installation (eg, lighting the text panel in a dark projection room like in Artes Mundi). “ (App 1)
To Lara Goodband, it is important that the public talks about the work on show and the opportunity to discuss it depends on the information they are given. As a minimum, viewers need to know who the artist is, when the work was produced and the title of the work.
Understand how the role fits into the broader economy and/or arts community.
On a global scale, according to University of San Francisco Professor, artist and former curator John Zarobell, in one generation, “the art world has blossomed into a global economy”(Artsy). Zarobell has questioned “the tendency to measure and justify culture as an economic force , and asks what the current vogue for cognitive capitalism means for the arts and the artists themselves.”(Artsy)
In the white, black and grey markets related to art, Zarobell maintains that it is not at all possible to analyse the full extent of the sums that are involved as some transactions are not reflected in accounting ledgers while others are involved in ‘grafting ‘ which is the donation of works of art donated in lieu of payments, still others are involved in bribes in the form of gifts of works of art from one country to another to secure the staging of prestigious events like the 2018 FIFA World Cup or the Petrobas scandal in Brazil (Artsy).
At a local level, it is not uncommon for an artist to ‘gift’ a piece from his/her exhibition to the curator who handled the commissioning or development sponsorship for the work. It is not uncommon that this transaction does not get reflected in either party’s books. It is a form of gifting which ‘cements the social relations of the art world. They are based on a generosity that cannot be measured, and there is an argument to be made that they should not be.’(Artsy).
There appears to be a dichotomy between national and global art economies where one is shrinking, the other is expanding but the two do not appear to be related. The curator exists in both scenarios to a greater or lesser extent. In both cases emerging and established artists are overtly and covertly part of the cultural/cognitive capital merry-go-round.
The contents of this essay seem to suggest that the role and responsibilities of the 21stCentury UK curator are wide ranging and at the mercy of political expedients. The perpetual cycles of feast and famine, determined by fluctuating economic trends, affect not just artists but also the whole gallery and museum industry as well as the multifarious posts involved in it. It was surprising to discover that the national and international art markets do not work in sync with one another but, conversely, seem to be going in opposite directions. The 1988 Britart Freeze revolution not only made the public acutely aware of the artist-curator and the collector, it also enabled many of the original sixteen artists to become global icons who have ridden the economic merry-go-round and are still practising today. Whether their work was good or bad will continue to challenge viewers but nobody questions the impact that art has made not just nationally but globally. The roles of preserving the nation’s heritage, disseminating its culture and finding and fostering new artistic talent, confer on curators great responsibilities. Perhaps the original meaning of the word, to take care of public works, with its far-reaching ramifications as outlined in a 2019 curator’s job description, bya civil servant who is not concerned with recognising culture as an economic force, is the most apt.
1. Responses from Helen Warburton to my questions:
Interviews and meetings with:
curators Dr Pippa Oldfield and Anne McNeill who is also Director of Impressions Gallery, Bradford;
Lara Goodband modern art of Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter;
Helen Warburton BAFTA exhibitions manager and photography .
Fullerton, E. 2016. Artrage!. The story of the Britart Revolution. Thames & Hudson.
Obrist,H.U..2014. Ways of curating. Penguin Books.
http://www.newcontemporaries.org.uk https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/sep/22/archaeologists-and-curators-leaving-uk-over-brexit-fears http://www.templebargallery.com/content/files/TBG+S_Programme_Curator_Job_Description.pdf
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Quotes: 780 Total word count: 2046