Positioning in the curatorial field

Unlike Denmark, where not many academic researches on curatorial practice are performed, New York seams to be one of the international platforms where the complexity of the role of the curator is being articulated and discussed the most. I was at the New Museum to attend a lecture – a conversation between Terry Smith and Paul O’Naill, organized by ICI – Independent Curators International. Both of the speakers have written books on curating. Terry Smith wrote Thinking Contemporary Curating and Paul O’Naill wrote The Culture of Curating, the Curating of Culture(s). Their approaches to the field of curating is very different, as the moderator Johanna Burton said in the very beginning of the session, so there was a good precondition for an interesting discussion.
It was obvious that Terry Smith had an art historian point of view on curating, driven by the fact that the articulation of the substance of curatorial thinking is lacking. Paul O’Naill on the other hand, talked about how the curator is becoming more and more visible as a protagonist and cultural producer. They both looked back at the history of curating mentioning the 60’s (Lucy Lippard and avant-garde exhibition models) and the 80’s (postcolonial discourse with Third Text and the professionalization of the curating as a field), as turning points that redefined the role of the curator. They of course also mentioned the late 19th century and the birth of the spectacle exhibitions and articulation of the idea of the globality that still exists in the main structure for international biennials and recurring festivals of today.One of the very interesting discussions was created around the question: Is curating embedded in art history or is it an object in a bigger cultural field? At some point during the discussion Paul O’Naill said that he felt objectified in the book of Terry Smith. This could be explained by Terry Smiths’ wish to define curatorial thinking in a art-historic discourse, where he looks at curating as history within the contemporary, as if the history was taking place now and we are looking at it from above. This eye from above (that Paul O’Neill felt objectified by) seams necessary if one wants to acknowledge curating as a profession and category, equal to art-criticism, art-production etc.  At the same time, there is a necessity of practical discourse on curating that Paul O’Neill pointed out when he was describing the educational methods being used at Bard College where he is the Director of the Graduate Program, Center for Curatorial Studies. He mentioned teaching strategies for research, power relations, mediation and curatorial praxis, which an academic curator with the art historian background would be lacking.
The discussion finished with Johanna Burton pointing out that none of the two books have a conclusive ending, but an open closer, with panel responds from artist Liam Gillick and with Paul O’Neill final comment saying that he wrote his book because he never again wants to be asked what the role of a curator is and that he thinks that there are many different types of curators. Even though there was no conclusion, I still found the discussion interesting because it clarified different standpoints that somehow, as two stakes, helped me better navigate the field of curating today. Attending what could be seen as a battle for the curatorial terrain, definitely made me think about my own positioning in the curatorial field – am I an academic curator or a practical curator? How do I deal with the accountability and responsibility towards the artists as well as the audience? And finally, what is a good curator…one focusing on the artwork (creating the ideal display for artists’ production) or one focusing on a good exhibition (for whom an exhibition almost becomes their own work of art)?

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