Chicago Ideas Week, which began on October 14th and ended today on the 20th, is a week full of talks, discussions, and interactions meant to stimulate the intellect and share ideas and inspirations. Topics range from arts and culture, to social entrepreneurship, to the environment and the hosts and speakers are notable people in their particular field of employment or aspiration. I was able to attend two events on the Creative track, the first and the one this post focuses on, was “Design Cloud: Open to the Public: Why The Role Of Curator Is No Longer Limited To Fine Art.”
At Design Cloud, a co-working studio space and art gallery, there were five panelists discussing the role of the curator and the meaning of curation. Where did the idea of “curating” come from? Who started it? What is the role of the curator? Can you curate anything? If so, what is the standard? Who can call themselves a curator? What is good and bad curation? What is the difference between strategy and curation? How about the difference between being a promoter and a curator? These are what I thought were some of the more important and more interesting questions of the night. Panelist Angela Bryant, curator and founder of Abryant Gallery, enlightened everyone in the room by telling us that curating actually originated from the Catholic Church. The priests would “curate” the parish. Curating was then taken on by the art world, with the traditional curator being an arts administrator who would curate by selecting artists and artworks to display. Nowadays, the artists often curate their own works themselves.
A large part of curating is telling a story. If one is just selecting works to display and no story is being told, no strong theme present, is one really a curator? Most of the panelists that evening would say no. One can call themselves a curator, but if there is no story among the works presented, then the show hasn’t been curated. This brings us to the question of what is good and bad curation. It’s a bit easier to say what is bad curation than good curation. If there is no experience felt within the viewer as the viewer is walking through a show, the curation is bad. If there is no story, nothing that can be taken away from the show besides gazing at the works itself, the curation is bad. Good shows share a perspective, have somewhat of an organized focus, hopefully allowing viewers to think more about a subject or more deeply about particular works of art. This, according to panelist and event producer Joe Luchesse, requires high emotional intelligence. Context, audience, and emotion need to be taken into consideration. A good curator needs to understand what types of objects and subjects can evoke certain types of emotions and when to evoke these emotions in a show’s layout. Good works of art should stand alone, but good curation should enhance the art.
A discussion between Joe and panelist and fashion stylist, April Francis, occurred on the difference between strategy and curation. They agreed that curation occurs with “inanimate objects, not people.” The organizing and managing of people in a setting is strategy. April doesn’t believe that there is one opinion on the matter and doesn’t believe that these terms are things we need to agree on. While we may not all have to agree on certain terms and their definitions, I think that there has to be some form of agreement on what is curating otherwise there is no standard and actual curatorial work is diluted. It no longer has meaning. So what is the standard when everything can be curated or considered curation? I’m not sure. I don’t know if anyone can really say what the standard is, but I think—I hope—that we can agree on what the standard is not. During the discussion, the host, Mike Carpenter mentioned online music radio stations like Pandora and Last.FM and that they are curators of a sort, bringing you the music they think you’d like. Thankfully, panelist and medical illustrator, Vanessa Ruiz brought up the word “tastes.” What happened to tastes? Aren’t online shopping sites and music sites just providing the customer with what suits their tastes? Indeed. Pandora and Last.FM are not curators. Amazon.com is not a curator. An online shopping experience is not curated. I think there is a big difference between curating objects to enhance each individual object and to tell a story and tailoring products and music to one’s tastes, one’s preferences. The latter is basically called “marketing.” This is also the difference between being a promoter and a curator. When one gathers a bunch of artworks to place in a gallery setting without paying attention to the details of the actual layout and story the pieces are telling, one is promoting the artists and their works. Again, when one places the works in a way that tells a story and provides the viewer with a particular experience, one is then a curator.
An interesting point was brought up from an audience member about curators outshining the artists and their works. Angela believes that curators can make or break an artist. There are times when the curator becomes the well-known individual, but Angela believes in finding a balance. The artists should be recognized for their work, while the curator should be recognized for their curation, their selection and storytelling. She mentioned that some curators are now calling themselves “platformists” in order not to place all of the attention on themselves. Curators select artists and their works, purposefully lay them out in a gallery, provide an experience to the viewer in order allow viewers—the public—to benefit from these works of art. They do provide a platform for the artists and are a bridge between the public and the art. Artists and curators are not higher or lower than each other; they simply have different roles. When they come together, they allow the public to share in their work. The public also plays a role; without an audience, curated exhibitions have no meaning.
In the end, while anyone can call themselves a curator and can consider anything curated, this doesn’t make it so. We should pay attention to language so as not to diminish the value of one’s work.