University of Cambridge Museums

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Art & Science of Curation: Curated by…

The Art & Science of Curation is a project which explores ideas around Curation and the role of the curator. Over the coming year, we will be inviting people from both within and outside our museums to share their thoughts on curation.  We want to build a body of writings which articulate and explore the many different ways in which a curator can curate, and each week we’ll be posting a new piece of writing here on our blog.  If you feel you’ve something interesting to say, do please get in touch about contributing. Find out more about the Art & Science of Curation on our website.

Itha O'NeillCurated by…
Itha O’Neill is Curator at the Amos Anderson Art Museum, a museum of contemporary art in Helsinki, Finland. A new museum building is currently under construction scheduled to openin 2018.

Traditionally a curator is a keeper of a cultural institution like a gallery, museum, library or an archive.  A decade or so ago the word curator took on an additional, more general meaning. From being a dusty olde-worlde occupation, it is now a cool and contemporary job. Google the word and you’ll find headlines like “curator of your own career” or Curator the software “a fast and visual tool for collecting, organizing and presenting your ideas. Tailor made for visual thinkers. Now also on the iPhone!” Nike commissions curated window displays for its brand. Curation has generally come to mean the visual organizing of ideas, but is that true of art curation?

In the museum sector there are huge variations in curation practices. As a curator for a medium-sized privately funded contemporary art museum in Helsinki, Finland, I find myself curating different projects quite differently depending on the project at hand. At times I am the sole generator of content and visual look and at other times the artist takes the lead. With living artists the curator is a facilitator who listens to the artist’s needs and tries to make his/her vision a reality. It is important that an understanding or some sort of trust is established between curator and artist, it is team work after all. However, museum curators are rarely in direct contact with the really big names in the industry. I curated (or did I really?) an exhibition with a world-renowned conceptual artist. His studio decided on everything, but hey I got to wave to him via Skype – and he waved back. Connection established.

Artists often have a very clear vision of the artistic and technical aspects of an exhibition. As I curator I feel that the artist’s vision is key, so I take their lead. The curator can also help the artist – who is sometimes blind to his/her own work – to find the Ariadne´s thread.  What I bring to the table is my practical knowledge of organizing exhibitions, editing catalogues, producing texts and my specific knowledge of our museum space as well as my art historical expertise. Wall texts and labels are considered a necessary evil; less is more, let the art works speak for themselves seems to be the general consensus among artists. But I have to weigh artistic integrity against accessibility issues. My task is to try to stay true to the artist’s vision while making the work/s accessible to all sorts of visitors. Finding that perfect balance is a continual struggle.

On occasion I have had to hold an insecure artist by the hand throughout the entire exhibition process. A newbie sculptor who shall remain unnamed was under the impression that he had to do literally everything from transporting and hanging the works, to producing texts etc. He became audibly nervous when I asked if he had had time to think about what kind of plinths and display cases should be made for his works (which were still unfinished). He didn’t have time to make them, he said. Another debutant artist insisted on oversized posters to be distributed to museums and libraries, and didn’t back down until I showed him the biggest available postal tube, his rolled up poster and the obvious size-difference.

Themed exhibitions, group shows or exhibitions with deceased artists require a firmer curator’s hand. There is, for me at least, always an underlying concern that the theme may override the individual work. The curator has to keep his/her ego in check and ensure that the narrative doesn’t crush the display or vice versa that the display isn’t too thin for the narrative e.g. The Garden City Movement cannot be summarized with a plough and a portrait; the subject requires more. Also, the curator should not confuse a good subject for a book with a good exhibition theme. Books and exhibitions handle knowledge differently. Exhibitions should produce knowledge by showing – put three objects in a room and it should kick-start a story-telling process in the visitor. Curators are mediators of knowledge.

On the bi-annual Ask a Curator-day I was asked what the most important qualities for a curator to possess were. I answered, without hesitation, ingenuity. When organizing exhibitions things will always go tits-up at some point, it is inevitable. We never know which bit of the puzzle will go missing, but we know one or two will go missing and it is the curator’s job to work around that problem area and see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.


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This entry was posted on December 8, 2014 by in Behind the Scenes, News and tagged , , , , , .
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