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The Curator is Present

The nature of the curator is changing. As I am about to embark on a Masters in Art Curating, I want to explore what these changes are and why they are occurring. The rise of the celebrity curator, the death of the museum and the movement into the digital are central issues into why this area of the creative arts is struggling to define itself.


Kohei Nawa, 'We can make another future: Japanese art after 1989', GOMA

There has been much discussion over the past few years about the changing role of the art gallery/museum structure in a move towards greater ‘visitor engagement’ and a larger digital presence. This has led to a global restructuring of how museums and galleries use digital media, marketing, philanthropy and education as a means to increase visitor numbers whilst maintaining cultural relevance and vital funding. With a focus shifting towards new audiences who are often referred to as the ‘general public’ (or as a former colleague called them: ‘civilians’) we are beginning to see changes in the way art is exhibited, discussed and mediated in major museums and galleries around Australia. One of the most evident examples of this shift is observed through the role of the curator.

The curator, once considered a pedagogical, scholarly, specialist enlightening audiences on an artist or period, is now a force for collaboration and audience engagement. These transformations are resulting from or correspond to changes within the institutions. Changes within curatorial departments have occurred for a number of reasons, particularly internal pressure to raise visitor numbers (which are a current means of calculating cultural relevance and hence translate into cultural funding), and the move into the digital. Curators have always been responsible for supplying written content available for audiences within exhibition and research spaces but the demand to present quality content online, for free, is becoming increasingly relevant. How then does the institution get visitors into the gallery and provide content to peruse at home? There are a few notable examples where integration of technology, content and exhibition experience are equally significant; the one that comes to mind consistently is MONA which is successful for many reasons but particularly because they have an insurmountable amount of funding and are a private collection therefore eliminating the need to constantly convince shareholders and ambassadors to take risks.

Beyond the curatorial positions within gallery/museum institutions the very nature of curation is seemingly complicated and often misunderstood. Particular kudos is due to celebrities being appointed curators when their role is to promote, advertise and select a range of products orchestrated by marketing companies. Kanye West, the god-father of celebrity curation announced, "If I had to be defined at this point I'll take the title of an inventor or maybe curator." Though I doubt he has ever done any actual curating, his aggrandized statement is indicative of the way curation has replaced creation. This has been translated further with the advent of social media sites like Tumblr and Pinterest where people can post creative images and ideas. Whilst I admire the template of allowing democratically, accessible, creative avenues to large audiences I worry that most of their creative images and ideas are not their own. When they are putting found images on a webpage, they are most certainly not ‘curating’ as much as they happen to think that they are.


Hans-Ulrich Obrist Instagram with Kanye West's words of wisdom

(This is the first thing I found when I googled, "Kanye West Curator", which is rather a case in point)

When Glenn Barkley left the Museum of Contemporary Art as head curator of collections and Australian art he stated his surprise at how many offers of work he recieved from other institutions around Australia. Rather than moving into another similar gallery position, he decided to become a freelance curator. Not unheard of, but what was surprising was that he established a small collective called, ‘The Curators Department’ with Holly Williams (Hawkesbury Regional Art Centre) and Ivan Muñiz Reed (Museum of Contemporary Art) . Quoting their website, ‘The Curators Department’ was set up to, “explore the potential for new models of creative production, cultivating ethical relationships alongside cultural and environmental sustainability.” Sounding like a future utopian manifesto it will be interesting to see how successful this ideal curatorial concept will be in practise. Their first major attempt is the exhibition at the National Art School Gallery, ‘TURN TURN TURN: The Studio Ceramics Tradition at the National Art School’ where the idea of collaboration and curation is very much a focus.


Opening Night of Turn Turn Turn, courtesy of The Australian Ceramics Association, NAS Gallery

Considering these new, diverse areas of curation have made me very mindful of the choices that a curator makes and the greater implication curation has on a social and cultural level. Curators are now making connections rather than teaching history lessons and are facilitating collaborations between institutions, artists and the public. It is no wonder that the popularity of curatorial studies and practise is in such demand with so many interesting areas to explore. It is however, more important than ever to showcase and celebrate thoughtful and engaging curation rather than curation for curations sake.

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