A London publisher, Laurence King, observed: “How many times have you heard the term ‘curate’ in the past few years? But what exactly does it mean? Curating has been a key concept both in and outside the art world in the past few years, with the role of a curator having changed and expanded with each new exhibition or biennale.”
In the past, the curator’s role was straightforward. It focused on compiling reams of research on a specific work or collection and an immersion in art history. Paintings and sculptures in a museum were placed in traditional categories related to a movement or period. Today, an art curator is less a constrained instructor looking backward, and more an experimental consultant or facilitator looking forward – called to realize innovative approaches, new trends, inspired installations, and emerging narratives.
The idea of the curator as an artistic emissary or catalyst arose in the mid-20th century. King describes, “the late 1960s witnessed a shift from the idea of curating as a caring, meditative, administrative activity toward one of a mediating and performative activity akin to artistic practice.” The florid profession took on its present form beginning 50 years ago and became increasingly like King’s description when graduate degrees in art management and curatorial studies were established in the early 1990s. Since then, the discipline has evolved diametrically.
The ‘old curator,’ so to speak, was the custodian of the museum or art collection, a permanent fixture. The new kind of curator is often independent of museums, a consultant with a contract and an iPad. He or she is expected to have skills commensurate with a myriad of divergent tasks or functions. The ‘new curator’ is part artist’s agent, part public relations expert, part marketing professional, part art historian, part visionary, part fundraiser, part website and catalog designer, part risk-taker, and part business manager. ‘New’ curators cannot simply hold their places on the masthead by researching in the stacks of musty tomes. They must travel seamlessly from one city to another, from one space to another, from one screen to another, as they work on the invention, distribution, nuanced treatment, and support of art exhibits, installations, and openings. As the editor and founder of an online blog where art and business coalesce, Régine Debatty, contends, “while artists push boundaries, curators make ways for them to exist in the world.” (we-make-money-not-art.com, April 11, 2016).
In today’s art world the contemporary curator, in addition to discarding an outdated job description, has jettisoned traditional categories – movements and historical periods - [be consistent with dashes] and moved along the continuum of ideas and mythos. He or she assumes the role of an intermediary between the artist and audience, in order to explore historical resonance, cultural context, and meaning through shows, descriptions, and analysis.
Curators, then, have been transformed from staid figures into people who push boundaries and proffer new ways of seeing art. This positive shift promises a continual stream of fresh and innovative approaches to showcasing artists and their work.