Art Seen: Chicago

THE DELINQUENT CURATOR // CAA 2014

by Stephanie Cristello

We begin with the provocative question: has the curator failed contemporary art? This is the topic of The Delinquent Curator, a panel at the CAA Conference that took place yesterday morning. It is perhaps better phrased as: has the curator failed to better contextualize and present what it means to be contemporary anymore than other institutional figures in the the art world? This question is impossible to address in a singular response. The question of what makes a good curator is even harder to address, while various existing problematics have been a popular topic as of late. This panel was not geared towards answering the question, but rather to expand on how fitting into the model of the “contemporary curator” – museums, galleries, biennials, programs – too perfectly or too congruently seems to be a negative for scholars, thinkers, and intellectuals within the field alike. It appears that more and more, the discourse surrounding what it means to be a curator focuses all too often on an abstract idea of the figure itself, not the exhibitions curators have presented, are currently presenting, or could potentially present. Surely, the act of questioning this role is valid and necessary – folded into how we question and shape our consciousness of contemporary exhibitions. However, I question if this challenge or call to action is a new concept. It is too easy to focus on the shortcomings of the accepted institutional structures of exhibitions, when many are challenging this form through exhibitions themselves. As a result, there has been a focus on the shortcomings of “curating content” online, instead of the focus on the possibilities of using online interfaces as an additional valid outlet to the traditional museum. Many of the MCAs, certainly Chicago, have also adopted a rigorous program that is not necessarily groundbreaking to the idea of exhibitions themselves, but  are inventive, challenging, and above all exciting. Is that a fair judgement for “failure”? Hardly. After all, not every exhibition can be radical, in a political or social sense, since it remains entirely subjective on whether a political or social agenda is the point defining contemporaneity.

Image from "Curating the Curatorial" International Summit.

Image from “Curating the Curatorial: An International Summit,” Organized by Steven Henry Madoff & Jovana Stokic, 2013.

John Conomos, co-chair of the panel, ignites a challenge to what he perceives as a product of cultural amnesia, or a dire lack of critical thinking, where a large portion of curatorial practices have failed to question the idea of contemporaneity itself. Although, one has to also ask – what are the terms with which curating has failed, and in relation to what definition? Has it really failed at all?

Perhaps a better formula is to not so willingly accept a passive model of what curating can be. While it is certainly progressive and helpful to question the role of a curatorial figure (they are certainly part of the institution) they are not the institution. Despite the push for more action-based practices – or the search for an influence of exhibitions toward holding some sort of responsibility of a more politicized or socialized agenda – conferring a political framework onto current artwork for the sake of a revolutionary context would be an equal, if not greater, disservice to the ideological progression of contemporary exhibitions. You cannot responsibly curate content that is not there. Alternatively, we cannot also accept, as panelist Jovana Stokić, deputy chair of MA Curatorial Practice at SVA, suggests a “hollow, but well-publicized, illusion of the avant-garde.[1]

How can we navigate more experimental processes that extend beyond their contemporary conventions? Or, as Conomos suggests, how can we locate the possibility of discovering “another world present, in our present one[2].” Bruce Barber, Chair of New Media at NASCAD, suggests we are all delinquents – curators being no exception. However, if the art world hinges on capital, as Barber suggests, curators essentially become hedge fund traders of that model. Let’s pause here for a collective “no.” Curators don’t make anywhere close to that profit. But like many figures in the art world, the position of the curator exists both within and outside of the market structure. Interrogation, discomfort, and disobedience are elements of curatorial practice that exist not to turn a profit, but to challenge modes of display and context. Being defined as a “bad” or “good” curator within this panel does not hinge on ethics, but rather a qualification that evades a moral code, or quality. The importance of affect becomes ever more present in a world that depends on overly processed and produced thematic contexts as a basis for showing work. Does an exhibition have to be comprised of specifically political and targeted works in order to be “political”? Likewise, is an effort toward a more subtle and nuanced sensorium more beneficial to work that is already affected by our world by simply existing in the current moment?

Stokić suggests yes to the latter by attacking bad curation as exhibitions that promote the “terror of the new,” or the fetishization of currency, while they do not engender new practices, or new theories – simply a re-hashing of history. If the curator is visiting studios, actively engaging with a community of local, national, and international artists, constantly on the search for new work within their field of research, they will know what to do. Certain concepts are in the air. The metaphor, of favoring affect and research-based, experiential conclusions, over a forced curatorial regime, might help focus some imperatives that escape this nebulous umbrella of ideas that raise more questions than they provide answers.



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Stephanie Cristello is a Staff Writer for ArtSlant, and the Chicago Contributor for New American Paintings.


[1] The Delinquent Curator, Jovana Stokić, CAA 2014

[2] The Delinquent Curator, John Conomos, CAA 2014

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