We all love turning up to an exhibition and experiencing that buzz that tells you that this will be a good one. As you experience the exhibition, you absorb and reflect the emotions contained in the art and you are excited about what is around the corner or on the next wall. The carefully chosen moments interplay with your own values and memories to enrich your experience.
Anyone who has been to even a handful of art exhibitions is also familiar with that sense of disappointment and boredom that occurs when we turn up to a bad exhibition on opening night - guiltily downing your free wine and making a hasty retreat.
Putting on a good show may seem like an easy task but it is the product of an immense amount of work, knowledge and vision. Who is the person who does that work, contributes that knowledge, and provides that vision? The curator.
What is a curator? And what does a curator do? In light of Art Pharmacy’s upcoming exhibition ‘Desert Stars’ (an exhibition of stunning contemporary Aboriginal art, curated by Nichola Dare), it seems like a good time to try my hand at demystifying the role.
Firstly - and probably most importantly - why does a show even need a curator? Can’t the artist do it themselves? The simple answer: we need curators to give an exhibition direction and a sense of visual and conceptual coherency - to make a connection between the works. Yes, artists can be their own curator, but we need curators to add layers of coherency and connection between works when they are displayed together - whether they are all works by the same artist, or a collection of various artists or mediums.
The role of the curator is a considerably complex one, as they take on the job of balancing the many elements that go into an exhibition or collection - a great curator is great because they have honed this ability through years of experience.
Curatorship is not a new thing. The concept has roots in ancient history, but the connection to art and museums began more recently, in the eighteenth century. Modernism launched a wave of curators as the revolutionary art styles needed an equally exciting approach for their presentation.
Curators embraced the concept of the ‘white cube’ from the 1930s, turning the gallery space into an entirely white room, removing outside influences and showing the works on a clean slate. It was the perfect way to present the ideas of both curator and artist free of irrelevant context such as elaborate furnishings and staging. A white walled room places a viewer in a timeless void ready for a new experience.
In a similar vein, the fact that the work of the curator often goes without obvious attribution is not really a negative within an exhibition - the works, and their story told through thoughtful curation, is what should take centre-stage.
One of my favourite curators is Hans-Ulrich Obrist - I am a total fan. He is an incredible example of how great curatorship is not a vehicle for self promotion, but something that can support great art. He began his career at 23, curating a show of contemporary artists in his kitchen, of all places! His career developed rapidly, and he curated numerous exhibitions across Europe.
But what’s most striking about Obrist is that he has published extensive writings, most notably his interviews with artists, architects, curators and other creatives that span great lengths of time. These creatives not Obrist himself, are the focus of his practice.
“It was important to be close to artists and not subordinate their work to the curator's vision. I've realised that the curator's role is more that of enabler.” - Obrist
The steps involved in producing an art show followed by Obrist and other curators can vary but here are the basics:
The concept is an essential starting point. It is either decided by the curator or by a commissioning gallery.
Significant research is then conducted into relevant theories, historical precedent and previous exhibitions, which provides another layer of context to the selected works and give an idea of how the show will be received.
Art works are then sourced and acquired, often borrowed from collections, private collectors or the artists themselves. Their positioning, display method and lighting is then determined by curator to ensure both their ideas and the ideas of the artist is realised.
A single work of art can make me feel totally excited and can be so amazing in it’s own right, but I absolutely believe that a good curator can make you see art in a totally new and different way through their vision and expertise.