Exhibiting Ourselves

Curating’s shift from art specialty to digital pop shorthand

Never before has our relationship with material culture been so tortured as now, in the 21st century. We have the capacity to buy more consumer products than ever before, and so we do—while simultaneously bemoaning our burgeoning closets and bewildering array of choices. Then, as we tire of our toys, we are encouraged to make sense of it all by entering the world of art, where we encounter a farrago of names, canvases, sculptures, installations, performances and concepts of all shapes and sizes. It is part of what arts journalist David Balzer calls “curationism,” and, apparently, it is taking over a whole lot of the world beyond the gallery walls.

Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else is a compact book with a rather large thesis. As the subtitle argues, the profession has evolved and mutated into something much more grandiose than the fusty, scholarly activity of yore. The word itself, recounts Balzer, comes from the Latin root cura, meaning “care.” In the Roman Empire, curatores were literally caretakers: bureaucrats who oversaw public works, such as roads, but also guardians who were appointed to oversee the interests of minors. In the Middle Ages, the role of the curatoure was much like that of a parish priest, or what in today’s clergy is called a curate. Eventually, it became the nominative description of institutional caretakers of fine old artifacts and artworks, who usually acquired a great deal of knowledge of the objects’ compositions and backstories in order to “care for” and present them properly.

Throughout most of history, it has not been a particularly glamorous profession. Even 20 years ago, many a grammarian would admonish people for employing the term as a verb: for a long time, there was no action of curating—one was simply a curator, or not. An exhibition was not curated; it contained an assembly of various objects that had been researched, selected and strategically juxtaposed by a curator.

“The job description may seem complicated from afar,” writes Balzer, “but it can be reduced to what the twentieth-century curator has always done: parse, manage and thus act as a type of midwife for the avant-garde, the new.” So the contemporary curator is rather like the curatore of ancient Rome, except instead of roads and aqueducts, he or she is managing esoteric concepts and the mixed media that serve as vessels for such concepts. “The curator remains in charge of stuff—and since the turn of the millennium, it’s more stuff than ever.”

As associate editor of Canadian Art magazine, Balzer is in a privileged position to observe the art industry’s orgiastic sprawl. The quiet, reverential spaces of museums and galleries have been upstaged by the boisterous, media-saturated trade fairs of High Art. One such example is Art Basel, the annual Miami Beach extravaganza of showing, telling and selling. Art Basel was founded in its namesake city in Switzerland, but set up a kind of branch plant in Florida several years ago to lure the moneyed collectors in the area. “Since then,” reports Balzer, “around two dozen fairs have cropped up alongside Art Basel Miami Beach, most within walking distance—to say nothing of the myriad of parties, pop-up shops and ribbon cuttings that have come to comprise what is now Miami Art Week. South Beach is not transformed so much as intensified: more preening, more plastic surgery, more partying, more celebrities. Contemporary art seems put there by a production designer.”

Balzer cites the phenomenal rise and influence of Swiss-born curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist is one of a number of successful curators who owe much of their rise to Europe’s investment in culture during the 1980s. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan was busily slashing arts funding and growing the free-market economy, which meant a dearth of curatorial positions but a plethora of art dealers. Balzer argues that Obrist now represents the “new feudalism” of the contemporary culture industry, in which a small number of older, established and very lucky curators enjoy the spoils of celebrity while underpaid or volunteer interns toil anonymously in the world’s avant-garde galleries. The newly elevated status of curating is itself part of this, as the author notes: “we have created a trap for ourselves, one reflected in the very professional conundrum that is the curator: more want to do it than can make a living doing it.” How meta: the world’s unwieldy oversupply of curators needs to be curated. Still, not even the world’s most famous curators—Obrist included—command the kind of kitchen-table name recognition of top players in other cultural fields, such as film and literature and art itself. Balzer asks a lot of good questions in this book, but ignores the obvious one: if curating is taking over the world, why aren’t its star practitioners the subjects of mainstream media attention?

The book’s larger argument deals with the shift in the very nature of the curatorial process. The old-fashioned act of curating has been a slow, methodical process of research and direct collaboration with artists and art. As the curator’s workplace moves from the dusty archives to the klieg lights of Art Basel and the Venice Biennale, the shift threatens the profession’s traditional sense of honest inquiry. Now that curators are acting in a more public capacity in a competitive marketplace, they have become newly powerful ambassadors for their institutions. Their work has become more self-consciously about perceptions of art and less about art itself. This, as the author notes, is territory first gleefully reported by Tom Wolfe in his 1975 book, The Painted Word. Although snootily dismissed by the upper strata of the art community, Wolfe’s screed touched upon a then-new truism: contemporary art was more about the script than the stuff. And now, more than ever, what matters about art and artifacts on display is not so much their material presence but the way they are presented and talked about and what story the curator manages to craft about them. Often, as Wolfe had pointed out, it is the most important aspect.

Curationism, argues Balzer, has also seeped into our lives and our workaday sensibilities, infiltrating not just our Prosecco-soaked evenings at the local white-cube gallery but also our everyday world of pop and consumer culture. Just as blogs and desktop publishing have quintupled the number of people calling themselves “writers,” the same has now happened with curators. It is the new catch-all term for what used to be called art dealers or collectors—or, for that matter, waiters and bouncers. Not content with curated exhibitions of sculptures or performance art, the new social order now inflicts upon us such linguistic curiosities as curated guest lists and hors d’oeuvres trays. These used to be grunt jobs in the public relations and hospitality trades. Now they are positions on a linguistic par with the black-suited crew at the Tate Modern. What this all means is that the term “curated” has lost much of its currency and meaning, like Calvin Klein dresses at middlebrow department stores.

About two thirds into the book, the author gets to the primordial question: what do professional curators—real ones—actually do? Here he gives the floor to Vancouver curator Karen Love, whose 2010 online Curatorial Toolkit runs through the modern-day curator’s prosaic tasks, which now almost always include fundraising and grant writing along with the non-glamorous task of project management. “First is researching a concept, which requires having a strong sense of purpose and a strong knowledge base as a curator.” From there: artist selection, proposal writing, venue procurement, timetable scheduling, arranging loan agreements, crating, framing, shipping and overall responsibility for the implementation—in other words, damage control when something inevitably goes wrong. “Long hours of work may be required,” writes Love, in an unintentionally hilarious understatement. “A positive problem-solving approach, determination and humour, and sometimes a boost of adrenalin, are required!” Not to mention a bottle of something strong, especially when dealing with the gargantuan egos in this new curationist economy.

Balzer is most engaging when he discusses these tangible realities. His narrative sometimes loses steam when he rummages too long in the inner circles of the art world. For a good many pages, the narrative is saturated with art-world names and events that will mean little to mainstream readers. Yet when he does venture out of the rarified art industry and into the street to contend that curating is taking over the world, he is somewhat stingy with details. He cites Madonna’s “curating” of a 2013 online exhibition of art for Vice magazine, focused on the subject of human rights, with “guest curators” such as Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. It is hard to imagine Madonna or Miley rolling up their sleeves and poring over catalogues raisonnés, and they probably did no such thing. “Obviously, Cyrus’s and Perry’s powers of connoisseurship and contemporary-art know-how are not the main reasons they’ve been selected,” the author notes dryly. They are examples of “the curated celebrity curator.” Sure they are—but if your point is that ersatz curating is taking over the world, let’s delve a little deeper: exactly what—if anything—did these presumed dabblers do for this project? Did their publicists do all the choosing in the end? Did the dilettante curators at least visit the artists’ studios, a requisite minimum in the traditional definition of a curator’s role? If we are to sigh in high-minded presumption that these pop singers are indulging in what Balzer calls “curator porn 2.0,” let’s find out precisely how much or how little they actually did in their brief curatorial micro careers. If nothing else, it would reconfirm the value of “real” curators.

If you stretch the semantic tendons of the term, you can make it fit just about every act and gesture. “How much curatorial work did you do today? You got dressed, perhaps laying out various options in the manner of an installing curator,” writes Balzer. “Perhaps, for lunch, you went to Chipotle, Subway, Teriyaki Experience or one of any number of food chains that now ask you to select ingredients to compose a meal. (Subway got in early on curationism, calling their sandwich-makers ‘sandwich artists’ in an amusing, telling marketing of the artist-curator relationship as parallel to that of the server-customer.)” Okay, hold on there: the concept of composing—aka curating—your own meal has been around for decades, arguably millenniamost famously trumpeted by Burger King’s 40-year-old slogan “Have it your way.” And is the term “sandwich artist” really such a complex societal transformation of the server-customer relationship, or is it just a way to make fast food sound better than it is, the way Starbucks has long called its counter clerks “baristas”? Maybe it is both. But I would be more convinced if Balzer provided a little more context, including a perfunctory call to the corporation or its ad agency, and at least a cursory glance at the overall industry. Incidentally, earlier this year Burger King officially changed its slogan from “Have it your way” to “Be your way,” whatever that means. Does this make Burger King more “curationist,” in the sense that customers now want to feel they are creating something grander than a checklist when they order a Whopper? Or is it just shorter and zippier? What would this book conclude about Burger King and the other fast food joints that do not quite fit the curationist theory timeline? Where’s the beef?

A bit disingenuously, the author cites Gwyneth Paltrow’s separation from husband Chris Martin as somehow figuring into this evolution, by way of Paltrow’s dubbing it a “conscious uncoupling.” Yes, for a week or two she was mocked here and there for it, just as Elizabeth Taylor and other Hollywood stars have been, ever since the invention of the tabloid press. Balzer refers to this micro moment as one of the “cultural phenomena” that emerged while he was writing this book, that “appeared to express dissatisfaction with the power imbalances created by curationism.” Right. Or maybe it just expresses the PR industry’s enduring love of stilted euphemisms.

This book deals with two parallel but separate issues, which are never clearly distinguished. The first issue is the seismic shift in the influence and the actual role of a curator (a real one, who does the kind of stuff outlined in Love’s Curatorial Toolkit). The second issue is the semantic loss of meaning, as every small act of choosing can now be called curating. The sporadic interweaving of pop trivia within the more elaborate discussions of machinations in the high art world is often jarring. You could argue that the increased status of the first has led to the second, but aside from that, these are two strands of argument that perhaps require two different books.

This book is a good conversation starter, and an insightful survey into a once-arcane job category that is apparently part of every job. Balzer has seen much on the frontlines and Is a radical economic overhaul our best hope to save the climate? has a slew of conjectures and observations that demand a strong narrative spine and more unpacking and clarifying—in the spirit of the time, let’s just say it needs a good curator. Balzer himself notes that “what a curator is ‘supposed’ to be often leads to more interrogations than assertions.” But in the same way that you leave a challenging exhibition with more questions than answers, maybe that is not a bad thing.