Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility

Proceedings from a symposium addressing the state of current curatorial practice

Review by Pam Gregg Wolkoff, Flintridge Foundation

Edited by Paula Marincola

2001, 163 pages. Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 230 South Broad Street, Suite 1003, Philadelphia, PA 19102, 215-985-1254,

The Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (PEI) — a re-granting program of the Pew Charitable Trusts administered by the University of the Arts — organized a two-day event called Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility in October 2000. The meeting aimed “to assess the current state of curatorial practice, to articulate our professional values, and test the assumptions implicit in them,” writes PEI director Paula Marincola in the introduction to the report of the proceedings. Curating Now is thoughtfully edited and produced for the benefit of a broader audience. PEI's fellow grantmakers are sure to be among the most grateful readers.

The report makes available a high-level conversation among 147 peers — primarily curators and directors, but also educators and a few art critics. Whether the discussion was as candid as it could have been was a subject of discussion (did the media presence work against the creation of a “safe” atmosphere for full disclosure?), but the content of Curating Now is awfully good and still relevant in 2002.

The points of view about identity and purpose — of the curator, the museum, and art itself — provide excellent insights into the questions, issues, conflicts, and struggles that contemporary curatorial practice faces today. Among the variety of subjects covered are the antagonistic relationship between museum architecture and art, the complicated relationship between money and the control of exhibition content, risk and infallibility, the effects of globalization, the state of cultural identity politics, the insidious effects of the culture wars, notions of value dictated by popularity and ticket sales, the quality debate, the relationship of technology and art institutions, appropriate engagement with the public, and the negotiations inherent in various contexts — the curator in an institution or the institution in its community. The following quotes are but a few representative gems from the symposium's two panel discussions focusing respectively on the “private (‘imaginative practice’) and public (‘public responsibility’) aspects” of curating now.

The biggest the notion a curator can exist in the world, and how our practice can engage with our audiences outside of the institution, and how curatorial voices become less voices speaking to each other and ourselves but can speak in a larger context that allows our vision to move in a significant way out into the world.
—Thelma Golden

Museums are not really keeping up with the various interests of artists.... In the most extreme case, the program inside the institution almost seems irrelevant to the public.... Artists recognize that, and,
to some degree, don't want to participate in that kind of venue....
—Paul Schimmel

...I also worry when...the popular is the most significant sign of our success. I'm happy when our numbers are good, but I'm happier when the engagement is repeated and deep.
—Kathy Halbreich

If art isn't central for all of us, we're dead.
—Anne d'Harnoncourt

To give you a sense of the span of discourse about the roles of the curator and museum, here are some analogies participants used to describe what they might/could/should be or not be:

Curator — auteur, editor, translator, broker, mediator, village explainer, situational eater, brain, virtuous money launderer, patron, appointed conservator not elected official, facilitator and practitioner of a secondary practice, aesthetic midwife.

Museum — fortress, temple, town square, library, civic organization versus corporation or entertainment center, laboratory, bridge between art and other disciplines, risk-taking pioneer, refuge.

During the first panel session on “Imaginative Practice,” MoMA's senior curator of painting and sculpture and symposium co-organizer Robert Storr said that he did not believe in “palace revolutions.” “You can have a wholesale revolution, or you can have reform. At the moment, I'm in the reformist's job.” So it was probably in the spirit of having an outside perspective that he and Marincola invited critic Dave Hickey to close the weekend with a response to the ideas of the first day.

Hickey's comments provide another reason why grantmakers will find this report valuable. He offers undiluted opinions about assumptions that inform not only museums but also grantmaking organizations. It took me a while to recognize myself, as a foundation representative, in Curating Now, because the discussion about patrons targets primarily corporations and individual trustees. However, grantmakers join the hot seat by page 137. Read the entire page. An excerpt does not do justice to Hickey's message about why art is not educational. He continues this line of thinking during the Q&A session (p. 143): “The great thing about bad art dealers is that they go out of business. The darker part of great institutions is that they just go on and on. The checks are coming in. The system is rolling. The education department is mobilizing its new projects.” Curating Now is a rare chance for funders to get what we ask for — an honest assessment of our impact. Here is a sampling of Hickey's other comments:

The curator's job, in my view, is to tell the truth, to show his or her hand, and get out of the way. (p. 126)

Let me ask you this, if most people in America don't like art, and museums keep changing until they discover something that most people like, will that be art? (p. 131)

Let's get smaller places with better art. (p. 145) Small is always okay. In a puritan republic like this one, where there is little interest in the visible arts, it's perfectly rational. (p. 131)

The issue today is, how do we keep the art world, created and permanently institutionalized by yesterday's arts, from retarding changes that cannot be suppressed? How do we facilitate our own obsolescence, in other words? (p. 136)

The Q&A period following Hickey's comments was not as lively as I expected, and I wish that I had been in the room to experience the impact of his words on the audience. From the report, it's hard to tell what the participants thought of Hickey's ideas. Questions begged clarification or “how to,” but no one challenged his ideas. Marincola's introduction acknowledged that Hickey responded “in a most salutary and often humorous manner” to “curating's currently espoused orthodoxies,” so maybe everyone was amused. This is the down side of not being there in person, but the up side is that the reader is left with questions: what resonated with attendees, what questions are they still considering, what ideas are they pursuing back at home in their work, what does this mean to my work as a grantmaker? This desire to know more is surely the sign of a successful, provocative event and points to the need for continuing dialogue. I look forward to the next report on the next gathering.