When Attitudes Become the Norm
– The Contemporary Curator and Institutional Art
Since curators first appeared on the horizon of institutional art, they have been a source of controversy among their collaborators. Some voices, coming mostly from artists who are convinced that they and their art have been exploited by curatorial concepts, state almost hostilely that curators do more harm than good. Others, meanwhile, believe that working with curators has made the lives of artists much easier by freeing them from the mundane tasks of logistics, promotion and communication. Neither of these sentiments is more valid than the other, of course, and the extremities of emotion reflect the ways in which the advent of curators has so fundamentally shaken up the positions of power in the institutional art sector.
It is important to stop for a while, every now and then, to grab a bird’s-eye view of what is actually going on. This is what Slovenian art historian and theorist Beti Žerovc has done – her book, When Attitudes Become the Norm (published in 2015 and 2018 by the Igor Zabel Association), is a collection of essays she has written, as well as interviews conducted with renowned artists and curators between 2002 and 2012. The title is a reference to the famous exhibition Harald Szeemann curated at Bern Kunsthalle in 1969, When Attitudes Become Form, which is now regarded as marking the beginning of the curatorial turn in art history.
In her introductory chapter, the author states that her aim was to examine curatorship in a broader context, taking social, political and economic aspects into consideration, as these are key factors influencing how art institutions operate these days. It is important to note upfront: Žerovc’s book is immensely provocative. She fearlessly addresses some of the ambiguous phenomena that members of the art scene often discuss over a beer or a fancy cocktail, but without any serious intention of actually tackling the issues at hand.
She also reflects on her own position: she straightforwardly confesses that she only interviewed white men, such as Charles Esche, Harald Szeemann or Daniel Buren, to mention just a few. This may seem distorted given that the curatorial scene is notoriously female-dominated – at least when it comes to numbers. She adds, though, that if we take a closer look at the people occupying the most influential positions in the art world, it may seem appropriate only to ask the opinion of these men.
One of the main recurring motifs in Žerovc’s book is the almighty figure of the curator. Based on her findings, she claims that today’s curators are not merely creative professionals with art historical and theoretical knowledge, but operators in positions of substantial power. The author raises plenty of questions about the figure of the curator, each of which would deserve an article of its own, but here I focus on five problematic tendencies Žerovc also analyses:
- the curators’ artist-like behaviour
- the changes in exhibition design brought about by the experience economy, and the role of curators in this,
- the power of curators in distributing money,
- the importance of networking, and
- the ways in which curators incorporate (leftist) political theory in their work.
Are curators artists?
“I see myself functioning much more as an artist without being an artist.” So said the legendary curator Harald Szeemann in his interview with Žerovc. This kind of argument is commonly cited against curatorial positions and is very controversial among artists themselves, especially when it comes to group shows, in which the concept of the curator is supported by a certain number of works by different artists – the emphasis here is on support, as in these cases, artists’ works are judged not on their own merits, but on how they contribute to the central concept of the exhibition.
I believe that there is an immanent conflict of interest in these cases: while artists, understandably, thrive best when working on their own solo shows, curators derive greater excitement from group exhibitions, where they can showcase their own concepts and curatorial abilities. Of course, even when curating group shows, there are different approaches: some curators choose existing works from artists’ portfolios that fit into the framework of their curatorial concept; others approach artists based on their previous work and commission them to create something fresh for the curator’s upcoming show. Such a scenario puts the curator in a position similar to that of a producer, and this is the most common source of criticism, since artists usually favour topics for a reason, and they also have ideas of their own on how they want to approach them. These ideas may correlate with the commissioning curator’s requirements, but not necessarily.
Where does this all leave art critics, and what role do they play in the ecosystem of the contemporary art scene? According to Žerovc, not much: she claims that what used to be done by art critics has now been taken over by curators. The approval of influential art critics, once crucial for success, is no longer as important as it used to be. The more exhibitions an artist puts on, and the more prestigious institutions they can enter, the greater their chances of success. And the doors to these institutions are opened by curators, who meet artists at networking events and portfolio consultations, and not (or at least not only) via the art press.
Žerovc also mentions is that it is now extremely rare to write about individual artists or works – the primary medium is the exhibition, and this is also the focus of contemporary art critics. Of course, if an artist puts on a great solo show, there is a good chance of receiving coverage exploring the details of their work, but it is more common to write about group exhibitions and how certain works support the central topic – critics therefore interpret works in the context of the exhibition. And the concept comes from the curator.
Inspired by these scenarios, in one essay Žerovc discusses what freedom of art actually means in the 21st century. She claims the romantic ideals of creating art and being an artist are still very vivid in people’s minds: this anachronistic notion assumes that artists are inherently good people whose aim is to educate others and to fight against inequality and injustice – basically to make the world a better place. For this reason, art has to be created out of true freedom, without any financial or institutional pressure. Needless to say, this is not how contemporary institutional settings work, nor does it provide artists with the means to make a living.
Are museums the ultimate leisure centres?
Curators are not only artist-like creatures, they also have to be great experience designers. This, at least, is what today’s experience economy expects from museums, which often look more like leisure centres than institutions for presenting art. While I would never wish to define a museum as a temple dedicated to artworks, I do think we ought to stop and assess what is going on when certain museums host more yoga classes, wine tastings and Beauty Festivals than guided tours, film screenings or lectures.
Žerovc compares the evolution of the curator to the similar path of the theatre director: for a start, they both carved out prominent places for themselves in media that had been getting along just fine without them. She also states that a theatre performance is somewhat similar to a thematic group show in the way that all the little details and the efforts of different actors or artists merge into one common goal. Of course, just as there are leading actors and outstanding performances, there are always some artists and works that surpass the others, but in general, everyone’s contribution is important for the show to succeed. Žerovc also highlights how the curator establishes a sort of dramaturgical guideline for the viewer to help the central idea unfold. As if that were not enough in itself, catalogues, guided tours and other related programmes help audiences immerse themselves even more deeply in the topic.
The greatest similarity between theatre performances and exhibitions is the popularity of their ephemeral, event-like nature. This in itself sounds weird: an exhibition consists of works installed in an exhibition space which can be visited from the exhibition’s opening until its finissage. But in our experience-driven society, to attract visitors, exhibitions need events – not just on Facebook (though that definitely helps) but in the exhibition space itself. No wonder, then, that even though most people do not particularly enjoy opening speeches, most invitees show up for the occasion, and what is more, they would be baffled if the exhibition did not have a formal, ritualistic opening.
So even if exhibitions and the exhibited works are somewhat static, the audience seems to need something more event-like – programme organisers and curators therefore tend to come up with the weirdest event ideas to draw people to their shows. Of course, this is not only motivated by the changing behaviour of audiences but also by the unpredictable nature of funding. Institutions need to find ways of standing on their own feet, and this involves making compromises, either in the programme they devise for attracting visitors, the sponsors they persuade to invest in them, or the state itself, which might require institutions to operate in certain ways, not all of them naturally desirable. To understand the complexity of this question, we need to take a closer look behind the scenes at the finances of an art institution.
Where does that money come from?
This leads us to another aspect of the powerful nature of curatorial positions: curators are the ones who either receive institutional budgets or who have the know-how to reach potential sponsors. This means they are the ones who decide how money is distributed. This is not revolutionary in itself, for everyone manages their budgets in accordance with their professional goals and tastes. But in a sector that is so accustomed to recarious work, this is an extremely powerful tool in the hands of curators. When curators have the power to choose who to collaborate with and how to support their work financially, artists become extremely dependent on their curatorial connections.
Žerovc examines if there is any difference between the various sorts of commissioning: are commissions from curators better or worse than those from art dealers? Or to put it another way, is it better or worse to rely on an art dealer or on the capitalist companies and investors who sponsor art institutions and, via them, the curators? Here we should pause for a little regional perspective: the dilemmas of capitalist sponsorship are more keenly felt in Western countries than in the post-Soviet bloc, where it is still not unusual for institutions to be fully reliant on state funding, and so artists and curators here face a different kind of dilemma when it comes to collecting and distributing the money for implementing projects.
On the British and American scenes, following the infamous cuts in the 1980s and the ensuing financial restructuring, institutions became far more dependent on private sponsors, so they are already fully acquainted with the uncomfortable truth that Eastern European countries are just beginning to confront: that money sometimes comes from “dirty places.” There are many companies who try to offset the negative impact of their business by supporting ventures as seemingly pure as art. There is even a term for it: artwashing. This kind of partnership may result in paradoxical situations where sponsors contribute to art projects that ultimately criticise capitalists and their activities – just like the sponsors themselves.
Žerovc claims that this does not deter sponsors, for they invest in institutions, not individual artists, so even if certain exhibition themes or works go against their values, what they gain from their association with art sponsorship still outweighs any loss they may suffer from indirect criticism. That being said, the prospect of receiving valuable sponsorship might still persuade some art professionals (e.g. directors or curators) to censor their own shows to avoid disappointing the source of their money: at the end of the day, control rests in the hands of those who provide the funding.
Albeit through different financial setups, Eastern European institutions have also learned this lesson the hard way, although in these scenarios, the sponsors are state bodies. If, for whatever reason, ministers of culture are not satisfied with the leadership or direction of an institution, they can replace directors or revoke funding in an instant. To illustrate the relevance of this, I just need to open any Hungarian news site reporting on the turmoil generated by a new proposal from the Hungarian governing party, which aims to take full control over cultural institutions, their leadership and funding. The implication is that positions and funding will only be kept by those willing to play by the government’s rules and represent the nationalistic cultural agenda.
Where does that leave curators? Even though they decide on budgets, they also have to make compromises, whether dictated by sponsors or by the state. Žerovc outlines the twisted dilemma curators need to face. They have to devote a lot of energy to networking with decision-makers so as to ensure they have enough funding to implement their projects. But in those projects, they often have to be committed to representing forward-thinking ideas – ideas that often contradict those represented by nationalist state leaders or capitalist sponsors.
In situations like these, it is no wonder that the cultural press is increasingly dominated by news items about boycotts and withdrawals by artists refusing to participate in or allow their works to be part of certain exhibitions, institutions or biennials. Artists and curators have to be more conscious about what they can stand behind and what goes beyond their capacity for compromise. They therefore need to be constantly vigilant (especially when it comes to international projects and unknown cultural contexts) and act like investigative journalists to trace the roots of where the funding comes from. And then they have to draw the line between what they can tolerate and what is not worth the price. Easy as that.
Is it OK if I exhibit my friends?
There is no question that networking is crucial if you want to make it on the art scene. But networking with sponsors is just one ingredient. Connections with artists, gallerists, writers and – most importantly – curators are also vital for success. It is therefore no surprise that international artist and curator residencies are on an unstoppable rise, aiming to enable ever more people to build valuable international connections with which to further enhance their careers.
Žerovc takes a look at the importance of friendships in the art scene and tries to investigate whether or not exhibiting artist-friends and making objective and scientific observations are mutually exclusive in curatorial practice. In her interview with Charles Esche, the director of Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven talks about his friendships with artists: “I also want to get to know who I’m dealing with. So, the friendship, the politics of that friendship come out of the work that I see and the work that interests me. In that sense, friendship is not a blind emotional reaction but grounded in my interests.”
What Esche points out here is very important: art does not exist in a sterile vacuum, out of which curators pick certain works without context or further discussion. In a good artist-curator relationship, deeper mutual understanding arises from getting to know each other – and each other’s work – more closely, which in some cases inevitably results in friendships. That is no crime, of course. But the reason for Žerovc’s preoccupation with this question is the aspect we discussed in the previous section, namely, that curators decide how to distribute institutional budgets. As with any other position that comes with financial stakeholdership, it is very important to avoid any friendship-induced partiality.
By examining the power of networking, Žerovc brings another very interesting aspect into play: curatorial education. She is especially critical of Western VIP curator trainings, such as De Appel Art Centre in Amsterdam, whose programmes, she believes, have no intention of questioning the anomalies in how the art scene currently operates, but are designed to train young people in finding their place in the status quo as soon as they can. The curriculum does not prepare these people to find alternative methods for making exhibitions when funding can be so uncertain – on the contrary, the greatest value of these programmes is personally introducing students to the prime movers of the art scene, so they can start building their networks early on and follow the same, tried-and-tested path up the career ladder as those before them. Žerovc’s criticism is that while these young people may become efficient networkers and sponsor finders, they are not given the theoretical knowledge needed to build better systems for dealing with and presenting art. They are not provided with the tools to become engaged researchers, which is sorely missing if they want to create deeply political and theory-heavy shows that aim to initiate public discourse.
But seriously, how “leftist” is political art?
When we talk about contemporary art being involved in politics, we do not mean in the sense of liaising and networking with politicians (a subject that would deserve a chapter of its own). It is more about the overt political ideas that can be so easily recognised in many curatorial and artistic concepts. As Žerovc puts it, these days it seems to be in “a curator’s standard job description” to have leftist sentiments and, even more importantly, to incorporate these ideas into their work. As absurd as this may seem on first reading, we need not search long to find relevant examples in support of this statement.
One of the most notable and extreme examples is All The World’ Futures, the 2015 edition of the Venice Biennale, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor. One of its main attractions, the staged daily readings of Marx’s Das Kapital, generated mixed feelings among audiences. While it resonated with the zeitgeist of the art scene – after all, building concepts around leftist philosophical works is rather trendy at the moment –, it also felt slightly ironic to greet the collector-billionaires arriving on their superyachts with a performance of this kind.
This is investigated by Žerovc in her respective chapter, asking how committed curators actually are to the social and political projects they build. She does not question whether they mean well or have a genuine interest in these topics; her focus is more on the infrastructure, vocabulary and accessibility of art institutions and events. How honest can an installation be that provides a critique of capitalism when it is presented in an exhibition sponsored by an artwashing company? How can an exhibition claim to be bringing ideas closer to the masses if the language of its concept is sometimes too difficult to understand, even for people who are actively involved in theoretical works? Is it realistic to expect curators to explain the theoretical backgrounds to their exhibitions in lengthy catalogues that are not only expensive but also hard to understand? Does the audience have the time and vocabulary to read these texts to make sure they get the whole picture? It is a commonplace to say that art is only for a small group of people who speak and understand its language, and while members of the art scene assert their commitment to improving accessibility, are they really doing everything in their power to work towards that goal?
There is another important factor to take into consideration with publicly funded institutions. In his interview, Charles Esche relates his experiences as director of the Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven: “I think there is a social democratic position of working in an institution with public money, where we have to find justification for why you received that money. It is certainly not in order to flatter board members’ collections or support the value of an artist.”
This statement targets two groups: evidently, it is important to avoid any sort of corruption, as I previously noted in the section on the distribution of money. While it is important not to fund a project simply because it is initiated by a friend of a curator, it is just as important not to exhibit certain artists simply because some board members happen to have purchased a few works by those artists. Esche’s words are also indirectly targeted at exhibition making itself: how a museum, funded by public money, should never forget to speak the language of its visitors and to create valuable experiences for them.
In Central Eastern Europe, voices that are critical of leftist institutional practices grow ever louder. (Often labelled as “liberal institutions”, these notions are quite mixed in political speeches, even though they mean very different things.) Increasingly frequently, (extreme) right-wing governments are choosing to replace directors of public institutions who fail sufficiently to represent the nationalist narratives promoted by the government. The latest such incident took place in Poland, where Piotr Bernatowicz was appointed new director of the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle. Agnieszka Polska, the influential Polish artist, wrote an article criticising this decision: she claims that Bernatowicz is known for exhibiting openly homophobic and misogynistic artists, and has also collaborated with anti-Semitic authors in his radio show. She believes that his appointment is a blatant reaction to what the Polish government regards as the “Marxist cultural mafia”, a first step towards giving greater visibility to artists whose practices reflect the government’s nationalist endeavours.
This political framework of condemning forward-thinking and inclusive artistic approaches and substituting them with xenophobic and retrograde theoretical views has also become all too familiar on the Hungarian scene, where multiple institutions have been “brought into line” by political decisions, and where theatres now seem to be the next target.
So to sum it all up:
does this mean that curators are bad?
Obviously, no. Or at least not worse than anyone else working in any professional field. One thing that should be crystal clear by now is that contemporary art institutions are extremely complex organisations that need trained professionals who are capable of running them. What is also apparent is that the duties of curators involve far more than coming up with ideas and picking out the artworks they fancy. Their tasks stretch to financial, political and theoretical work, and they need to find the right balance when juggling all these responsibilities.
Even though Žerovc’s book is extremely critical, it never morphs into pointing an accusatory finger at the curatorial scene. Her questions and observations could serve as great conversation starters for anyone dealing with contemporary art on a daily basis, and may also induce some much-needed self-reflection on our own work.