Curator with a capital C or Dilettante with a Small d

A response in The Exhibitionist issue 4, to Greenhouse Tomatoes and Outdoor Tomatoes by Maria Lind in issue 3, in which she discusses the conditions and tendencies of curatorial education. Published 4th May 2011.

A convenient generation divide in curating is easily observed, or at least frequently invoked, between those who began curating before the emergence of curatorial programs and those who did so after. Curators advanced in their careers are often heard pronouncing in panel discussions that they never undertook a curatorial program, with the implication that they are proof positive of the superfluity of curatorial education. What is rarely asked in these situations is, had curatorial programs been available at the sprouting of these careers, whether at least some of them might have given it a go?

Maria Lind’s text in The Exhibitionist no. 3, aside from giving me the novel experience of thinking of myself as a tomato, recalls various hallmarks of my experience in the de Appel Curatorial Programme in Amsterdam. The urge to be a Curator with a capital “C,” the feeling that one must perform curatorial “pirouettes,” and the force of political correctness (which often plumps for what Lind calls “overcollaboration”) were all somehow present. The hothouse metaphor is especially important to consider, as one of the most resounding elements of curatorial education is intensive access to high-placed contacts, research material, and, through a form of institutional endorsement, artistic trust. This privilege is an essential career ingredient, but it does not entirely make for a high-toned defense of curatorial education.

What does this hothouse constitute? At least with de Appel, it involves intensive periods of travel; personal space replaced by the constant presence of five ambitious strangers; a blistering who’s-who schedule of meetings and tutorials; and a body of resources and obligations (contacts, local officials, assignments, base budget) from which to develop a project. The project is to be collectively curated, responsive to an alien geographical context, and done in a very short time. While any of these conditions can individually crop up in a curatorial career, to have them all happen at once is a perfect storm of curatorial artificiality.

The hothouse, then, is not entirely a shelter, but also a place of unnatural exposure. This crucially leads to a point that Lind omits: that the kind of curator you are during your curatorial program (quite possibly a “narcissistic apparatchik”) is, thank God, most certainly not the kind you are in more sensible contexts. This means that many of the conditions she describes — and particularly the dreaded final project itself — are not necessarily indicative of the value of curatorial education.

The question, then, is what is? The same question is frequently aimed at art education, where it is also particularly difficult to answer. As one potential response, I want to offer a tentative defense of a description often leveled at (implicitly, graduate) curators: in Lind’s words, that they have “intellectual and artistic varnish rather than profound capabilities.” To recast this description, perhaps the curatorial program in its stone-skimming approach doesn’t produce well-rounded intellectuals or artistic experts, but is at least a multiplier of the best aspects of the dilettante. That is, someone whose unusual, enthusiasm-driven capacities in artistic and intellectual fields has a role besides virtuosity; in the case of the curator often the priority is in working out diverse aesthetic and conceptual connections between leading practices, before attempting to lead those practices themselves.

Ironically, the dilettante is closely allied with the position of the amateur, so it is paradoxical to defend a professional education program on this principle. However, an accepted, almost definitive aspect of the curator is the ability to mine and reference the theorists of certain fields, typically in but not always limited to the social sciences. Curators are (rightly) not expected to be experts in these fields, which correspondingly relieves them of the territorial certainty of the proper boundaries and languages of a field of study. Rather, and quite crucially, it enables them to develop witty, mercurial, occasionally fascinating projects with artists and others. While this can be enormously problematic, it strikes me as far more essentially proper to the figure of the curator than the themed exhibition curated by the academic expert, which often is so watertight that one imagines the distinguished curator defending her thesis all over again through artworks. Exhibit A.

The spectacularly earnest, intellectually poseur-ish, messy propositions of end-of-curator-school projects are the product of a set of experiences that probably leave you farless expert than you thought you were before, but possibly more open. As for more profound experience — given the immense oddity of the role itself, we can only hope that our glittering post-curatorial-education careers will offer us that.