Who’d Be a Curator?

Who’d Be a Curator?
Catalogue essay for Oupost project, Edinburgh Festival
Organised by F.A.T.

Who’d Be a Curator? 
Some notes on the power of curation and the lack of power of curators.


The crisis of late-modernism was not just a crisis for artists. Inasmuch as it was a crisis about what counted as art practice and how it could/should be talked about (or conceived) it was also a crisis for curation. Now, the curator is not always considered by artists to be their greatest friend, but the problems and anxieties which the curator faced (and whose force is still felt) were and are real enough. The ludicrous category mistakes, such as framing copies of Art-Language and sticking them on the wall, show the depth of the crisis, not, necessarily, the stupidity of the curator who did it. The trouble with curation is not, in principle, the people who do it, but its constitution by, and role in, the economies of art.

Part of the crisis for curation was an infringement upon its areas of competence by the very work of artists. The curator was threatened with having nothing much left to do: at least, their former area of specialist knowledge (or what would have been considered as such) was overrun by zealous artists. Strands of ‘Minimalism’ and ‘Conceptualism’ curated themselves so to speak; and/or took over the gallery altogether; and/or produced nothing to curate; and/or provided their own commentaries and interpretations; and/or etc. The threat may have been more symbolic or illusory than an attempted usurpation of power (it certainly turned out that way), although, no doubt, some artists sought the latter. The curator’s self-image as a cultural expert, not to mention her job, depended upon being able to cope with this stuff: finding ways to show it, talk about it and indeed sell it. If this involved a shift from displaying middle sized dry goods to include being able to accommodate any manner of installations or collections of bits and pieces or strange ideas and so on, then it did not shift the belief that there was such a (worthwhile) thing as curatorial competence.

The curator always had been an administrator. But if one immediate outcome of the crisis (not that we’re necessarily over it) was sometimes something of a conflation, or fudging of the boundaries, between art and curation, then it’s given the curator more to administer, and thus more power, rather than less. Such are the ironies of history.


So the shift in curatorial responsibility is a change in knowledge or techne (know-how), rather than a change in the condition of expertise. The analysis of bureaucracy is nothing new, of course. Suffice for my purposes to pick out two necessary (and related) functions for the reproduction of bureaucratic structures, which relate to the curator’s practice. The first is the need to justify the bureaucrat’s own activities, which is done through an appeal to expertise or the like. The second is the deployment of an instrumental (means-end) rationality.

Now I’ll apply these, in turn, to curation:

i) It is symptomatic of the bureaucratic hold on art (in curation) that the art is so often described (by the curator and others) in terms of its difficulty to accomplish: think of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’. The voicing of technical problems at all, let alone in the process marginalizing aesthetic and cognitive ones, goes to administration. The post-conceptual curator tends to enable and show technically difficult work; and I doubt it is a coincidence that such work gives the curator an organisational role, and something to talk about. Such work goes to validate the idea of managerial expertise. Indeed, it is exemplary.

ii) The gallery curator (like a manager in any extant organization) is not normally in a.position to question the identity and existence of the gallery and its policy towards showing ‘good’ art (whatever ‘good’ is considered to be). Curators are characteristically engaged in competition to get, show or make the best art within their particular remit. This means meeting predetermined ends, where the skill of the curator is doing this as economically and efficiently as possible.

It is worth noting that the predetermined ends include expectations of how the work will be seen and engaged with, just as much as the gathering of commodities.


My argument, so far, is that it is a social and cultural condition of curation that it be bureaucratic, and as such has to justify its existence in terms of expertise. And it should be clear that this is not an attack on individual curators (not that some don’t deserve it) but rather is an analysis of the impossibility of their task. Nevertheless, I shall now – very briefly – give some choice examples of more general, but typical, curatorial behaviour, so as to give some idea of some of its bureaucratic aspects:

i) Doing Quasi-anthropological work, where the gallery is a cultural ancillary of the museum, in which specimens are displayed: that is, extant objects are gathered together. What is to count as art (let alone how and why) is taken as given, most definitely not being open to question. The curator’s task is one of taxonomy, singling out (supposedly) coherent groupings under some conceptual scheme: for example, shows such as ‘New Art’; or ‘Dada and Surrealism’ for that matter.

ii) The activity of selecting or commissioning work to fit thought up themes. The curator’s skill here is (supposedly) inventing pertinent themes. Such themes impose curatorial (bureaucratic) criteria upon diverse practices, through instigation in the present or reform of the past. So that art serves curation, rather than the other way round.

iii) Organizing outreach programmes and, conversely, attracting greater numbers into the gallery. This is a bureaucratically dependent encounter between art and ordinary people (supposedly). What it doesn’t allow, is the questioning of art as something ‘other’ than ordinary life: in fact, the activity is predicated upon the special, virtuous and enriching qualities of art, as conceived by the curator (and, indeed, a larger culture): a predetermined idea for the relevance of her job. The art is meant to better the culturally underprivileged (or something like that). So the virtue of the curator rests on the supposed virtue of art.

iv) The display of curation itself. This, quite obviously, justifies the importance of curation. This is not detached from (i) and (ii), when a particularly novel, or difficult, or etc., show is advertized and displayed as important for its curatorial insights. Aggressive re-hangings of permanent collections is another aspect; as is the artist being invited to do a little guest curation (a conflation of the creativity of the artist and curator, perhaps). Important, also, is the accomplishment and foregrounding of technical tasks, which I talked of above (II, (i)).

v) Fund-raising. Normally sponsorship. Ostensively a practical affair, the sponsor is in fact buying into a pre-existent image of art’s cultural status: a sign of distinction. The curator must manage that with which the sponsor wants to be associated. There’s no conspiracy. But sponsorship will be effective when the bureaucrat responsible for distributing the sponsorship money, and the one responsible for getting it (the curator) concur over the cultural worth and social function of art (not that either have to be conscious of their beliefs). What they agree over is, in effect, the conventional wisdom of art’s creative, unshackled ‘otherness’.


There are, I think, two immediately obvious implications in what I’ve been writing. The first is that bureaucratic curation will always tend to reproduce the cultural capital of art (and high culture generally). This is to say it’s a predetermined goal of means-end rationality in art to disseminate art as a symbol of elevated experience and cultured distinction. And whatever cultural products are assimilated to this ideal, those terms of conception and projected engagement will be reproduced. And this is to say that critical curation (that is, critical of art) is something of an oxymoron. It is at this point that those liberal arguments which cannot countanence intractible contradictions in social reality tell us that if you don’t like the rules of the game, find something else to play.

But here I’m particularly concerned with the second implication.

The second is that art tends to get to be conceived and defined in its relationship to curation (or, perhaps more generally, to the claims of bureaucratic expertise as these pertain to art). This may or may not be apparent to those involved: certainly there is far from universal assent to the power of curation. But its presence as a defining moment in the distribution of artistic goods provides a focal point for defining aesthetic production. Inasmuch as it is unavoidable it is insidious. The focal point is as much a point for disagreement and dissent as it is for acquiescence. But it is partly just by this being a focus for discontent that curation carries out its defining role.

This defining moment suggests that there is a tendency for art to get produced according to: technically difficult problems; themes that can be easily talked about; pedagogic potential; readily commodifiable potential (stuff that ‘looks good’); and let’s not forget the market chance (nothing new there). All these can be expressly directed against the power of curation, bureaucracy and the gallery, yet in the form such an attack takes, it can conform to, and confirm, the power it opposes.

The variety and intensity of attacks against curation (and its embodiment in the gallery) just as much, if not more so, than the praise for innovative curation, go to confirm curation’s power in defining cultural production (and this regardless of what individual curators do). Art and artists who persistently attack curation and the gallery effectively reinforce the idea that art is defined in its relation to this bureaucratic structure.

But then what? Opposition is merely bluster, which reproduces the emptiness of ideology, if it doesn’t contain a glimmer of how the present situation might be transformed. Emancipation is won (not declared) by negating the constraints on human praxis (and therefore possibilities), the outcome of which, by definition, cannot be thought in advance. An administrated culture is a restraint in need of negation. But it’s not clear what curation free of bureaucracy would be like (or even if such a thing is possible?), nor how artists can avoid their assimilation to its administrative grip. Or even if we should try.