Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The death of the curator

Are we seeing the slow extinction of the art curator or, at the very least, their removal to the outer reaches of the game park? There are certainly signs that the species is ailing. 

There was a time when art curators ran art museums. The curator director can boast a lineage that includes Alfred Barr (no relation, damnit) at MoMA, Pontus Hulten at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, James Mollison at the National Gallery in Canberra and in NZ people like Peter Tomory, Rodney Wilson, Luit Bieringa and, in her earlier career, Cheryl Sotheran. The expectation that directors of art museums would also be involved in the curatorial development of significant exhibitions has been widespread. It's the vision thing, the idea that great institutions need leaders for their cultural credibility and perspective, not just their management skills.

Over the past two decades more and more of the directors of our major museums - and many of the smaller ones - have dumped their curatorial hats (if they ever had them) and decked themselves out as managers plain and simple. While non-curating directors supported by strong curatorial talent can be successful (the Museum of Modern Art is a benchmark example) the stumbling block is usually good old human nature. People tend to like other people who are most like they are, so management types usually prefer those handy with a spreadsheet and a sound-bite than those who bring challenges and demands to the table. Even worse, non-curating directors bring additional forces to play that are pushing curators further and further to the periphery of how art museums define themselves and their audiences and even in the way art works are displayed. 

These excluding forces include; the ever increasing layers of management between curators and directors; the rise and rise of designers who believe that exhibitions can be better planned with models (and more recently CAD drawings) than in the space itself; the growing rejection of process as part of the development and the experience of art and, finally, the ascendance of a marketing mindset shaped by target audiences and a single-minded propositions. 

So to some specifics of how this is playing out in New Zealand. The Auckland Art Gallery is considering popping another management layer into its structure (it may have already happened) that will put the curators two levels away from a direct relationship with the director. Why they'd do this is anybody's guess as it mirrors the structure currently in place at Te Papa. This model has utterly failed to produce a lively and relevant curatorial contribution. Could the Te Papa system work with great curators? Maybe, but why load the dice gainst them in this way?

In the end the problem is one of scale. Curators might function well enough when they have to deal with one or two of these forces, but they don’t stand a bat’s chance in hell against all four. And, if you like the idea of provocative, lively and experimental curation in public institutions, neither do you.