• When curators have to work with art fairs

  • February 6, 2014 | February 7, 2014

    My meeting with Asher Remy-Toledo, the founder of Hyphen Hub (NYC) this morning reflects my yesterday reading in such a way that the theory seems to become true overnight in Asher’s house.

    In his article The Great Curatorial Dim-Out [in Thinking about Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, published by Routledge, 1996, p487], Lawrence Alloway brought up a deep analysis on curators’ position in Modern Art, in the United States. The part of the article is occupied by the issue of the curators’ role, and the pressure they receive from multiple layers. They include collectors meanwhile the Trustee members of the museums that the curators work for (or work with), dealers’ intervention in the selection of artists and exhibitions’ organisation, the request of the market led by galleries, and the galleries’ intervention in museums’ selection and exhibitions’ organisation…

    “The curator is subject to numerous pressures, some of them welcome and some of them not recognised perhaps, to keep within safe zones of activity. The pressures include:

    1 The desire to get along with the artist or artists.

    2 The necessity to keep good relations with the artist’s main dealer or dealers.

    3 The necessity of maintaining collector contentment.

    4 Taste expectations emanating from the trustees and director.

    5 Taste expectations of other members of the curator’s peer group.”

    [12 The Great Curatorial Dim-Out | Part IV: Curators or Caterers, in Thinking about Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, published by Routledge, 1996, p224]

    The above-mentioned pressures are confronted by those Modern Art curators working for museums such as Whitney and Guggenheim, which means that they still have a stable job, but with hard tasks. What would be the situation for curators to work at freelance, and in art, science and technology in our time?

    In my meeting with Asher, who himself had to surmount dozen of obstacles working as an independent curator in the past fifteen years, proposed me to work with him on a large scale fair in Silicon Valley, SF, as I was proposing my Curating Process project to him. As one of the main fair contractors, Asher will be in charge of a large section of the fair space, which is supposed to be rented by international galleries, institutions, and academies, with 100 sf space offered for each renter, to show both conventional and technological works. My past experience working with the 2008 ShContemporary Art Fair seemed very appealing for Asher to refer to.

    We discussed on a couple of options to work together within the fair context. Asher’s idea was that I brought in numerous galleries from Asia-Pacific zone, took certain percentage from each gallery’s participation fee as commission, in addition to this, a special section would also be preserved to run my Curating Process project. I provided other options that were similar to the recent UNPAINTED fair’s (Munich, Germany) working model with curators. The organisers can keep special sections for curators, having their sponsors to rent the spaces to run thematic shows with access to sale, or may the organisers offer these sections for free to the curators, and take a certain percentage as benefit when there is a sale happen. Otherwise, no sale no benefit.

    We both found our conversation appealing enough to propose to the fair organisers. In the meanwhile, we also realised that curators are no longer having the same identity, role and function in our time as before, especially in art, science and technology.

    “Curators are, above all, the institutionally recognised experts of the art world establishment, whether they operate inside an institution or independently. More than art critics or gallery dealers, they establish the meaning and status of contemporary art through its acquisition, exhibition, and interpretation. The highly commodified status of contemporary art and the institutions that support it in both First and Third World societies, in turn, have placed the curator at the service of elite audiences or specialised groups. To a greater extent that other art world professionals, curators additionally depend on an established infrastructure to support their efforts. This infrastructure included institutional networks, such as those provided by museums, galleries, or alternative spaces; financial sponsors, whether public, private, or corporate; and teams of technical or professional experts. Curators are the sanctioned intermediaries of these institutional and professional networks, on one hand; artist and audiences, on the other. Curatorial function is, thus, inherently restricted by the interests of larger or more powerful groups and constituencies. To pretend that any type of alternative field of action exists of the web of market or institutionally dominated interests is a fallacy.”

    The above-cited description coming from Mari Carmen Ramirez’s essay, Brokering Identities: Art Curators and the Politics of Cultural Representation [in Thinking about Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, published by Routledge, 1996, p22], seems to me the most accurate definition for curators in contemporary art field I’ve read so far. The responsibilities that curators had to assume in the 90s only become harder today, in the time of technology. They need to explore all opportunities possible to make a living first, keep a harmonious relationship with people from multiple layers, meanwhile make something interesting and meaningful happen, and make sure that this “something” makes big sense to the prolongation of art history also to the evolution of human society. Curators can especially not only curate, but must also have a good sense of business, with excellent knowledge, experience and skills to handle it, and make it happen with success.

    In this sense, we are no more “curators”, but “business providers”, or why not the big “context providers” that has been assigned by Margot Lovejoy, Christiane Paul and Victoria Vesna in their co-edited book, Context Providers: Conditions of Meaning in Media Arts [published by Intellect Books, UK, 2011]. Only, the “context providers” mentioned by I and Asher might not be exactly the same as in their book.