How to do things with curatorship / step 3

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step 3: don't be a snob

Text of How to do things with curatorship / step 3

  • step #3 : dont be a snob


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    'I grew up in New York City, a place with a great access to many museums and cultural events. When I travelled around the country, I found my experience wasnt the norm, and I became obsessed with how to bring rich encounters to other places and people (Thea 2009: 20). This testimony by pioneer socially engaged curator Mary Jane Jacob represents one of arts biggest challenges as a tool for wide social influence the elitist barrier.

    One of Mary Jane Jacobs first attempts to bring art to the

    people was The Michigan Artrain exhibition in 1975. A six-car train travelled the countryside of United States stopping in each town for a week. Jane Jacob at the time was a student on an intern-ship. Her curatorial purpose was to make art more accessible and she chose the travelling format to do that, an innovative strat-egy for that time. In terms of the development of socially engaged curatorship, Jane Jacob recalls that in the 1970s in the United States there was a feeling of a ripe moment for ushering in new

    "The best dialogues I have are with people who dont have art degrees, those without preconceptions about art... they will often say I dont know anything about art, but then find themselves talking about art in ways that are very meaningful Mary Jane Jacob

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    audiences to participate in what had been considered an elitist experi-ence. Jane Jacob later became famous also for inclusive strategies working with artists outside the mainstream. In her curatorial choices she promoted women, emerging artists, diasporic communities and experimental media (Thea 2009: 20). The Artrain mobile museum that gave her the first experience of socially engaged curatorship is still

    traveling around the country (


    You must keep that elitist barrier in mind when you try to do things with curatorship. Many curators do that by breaking from the institu-tional exhibition format (like Mary Jane Jacob did in 1990s with her community projects). Exhibitions are one of the first things that come

    into the conversation when you try to explain to those who are not familiar with the term what curatorship is. Curating does not neces-sarily mean exhibition-making, it can be practiced in many other formats: creating platforms, organising events or meetings, interven-tions, publications or games. In this step you will find various inspir-ing curatorial projects that have opened up endless possibilities of curatorial spaces, formats and participants.

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    You should consider an exhibition as a format carefully with the meanings it brings, that are not neutral as it might seem. The exhibition format is being questioned today also in conservative art circles for its old-fashioned form of presenting art. Exhibitions seem to not catch-ing up with the innovation development in the art making practice (Hoffnann and Aranda 2008: online; von Hantelmann 2010: 10-11).

    The elitist image of the institutional exhibition format, as described in Mary Jane Jacobs testimony, makes big parts of the public feel intimidated by museums and this reality must be acknowledged by you (Rabens, 2011: online). This makes it hard for an exhibition (and its associated space of a museum or a gallery) to be socially engaged. An effort needs to be done to bring the audience to the gates of the institution in the first place. If you are interested in using curator-ship as a tool for social change, consider if that task would be easier achieved outside the exhibition format, or at least outside the institu-tional exhibitions.


    On the other hand, their unique place in society grants exhibi-tions in general, and institutional exhibitions in particular with their strength. And you can use it if it suits your curatorial purpose. Exhibi-

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    tions in general, and international mega-exhibitions like the Venice Biennale in particular, serve as laboratories for artistic experi-mentation and exchange (Thea 2009: 7). They also provide a rare space in privatising societies that is autonomous (to some extent) from the democratic market logic. In todays consumer socie-ty some museums still remain as non-profit-driven sanctuar-ies, like schools and hospitals used to be before privatisation; and exhibitions act as publicly open non-commercial cultural events.

    The World Press Photo is an example of curatorial doing strat-egy in the format of exhibition. The yearly travelling international exhibition of photo-journalism is aiming for audiences larger than the museum goers. The exhibited artists are chosen by the Dutch founda-tion in a contest, open to independent photographers as well as those representing news publications. The prize-winning photographs are assembled into an exhibition that travels to dozens of countries over the course of a year. According to their site, over two million people go to a hundred different venues to see the same images. The exhibi-tion serves the curatorial purpose of creating a united humankind

    Exhibitions in general, and international mega-exhibitions like the Venice Biennale in particular, serve as laboratories for artistic experimentation and exchange

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    experience that is expressed in the content (images taken in various parts of the world by photographers from many different countries) and in the way it is communicated (the travelling exhibition where a visitor in Moscow sees the same exhibition as a visitor in Tel Aviv, and they both are aware of that globalising context, like McDonalds ( and my correspondence with the foundation).

    You can learn from the The World Press Photo example also how to use the format of the good old exhibition to do another thing with curatorship it is honouring photojournalism as an artistic medium.

    Because form of expression is naturally found in cheap and dispos-


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    able newspapers, a curatorial decision to present news photographs in an exhibition gives photojournalism a stamp of higher art.


    When you try to be inclusive in your curatorial doing, remember that the space where your curato-rial project is held is not a separate real-estate related decision, but an important extension of the core of the project. By approaching it as an extension you should try choos-ing the space that expresses the intentions of the project and the values behind it.

    Dont go searching for gallery spaces automatically, but stop to think which space will suit your purpose in the best way. It does not necessarily have to be an official

    art space. It doesnt even need to be a defined or physical space.

    Remember that spaces come with various associations that you must be aware of and use in the benefit of your purpose. A space gives artwork

    a context and contributes to its meaning.

    stop to think which space will suit your purpose in the best way. It does not necessarily have to be an official art space. It doesnt even need to be a defined or physical space

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    The meaning of space when curating art is well illustrated by The Washington Post experiment in 2007. The famous violin musician Joshua Bell performed in a Metro station while hundreds of pedestri-ans ignore him. Usually Bells concerts are sold out, but here very few stopped to listen to him for free (Weingarten 2007: online). They were affected by the space of the performance, not expecting good music in the public. Bells experiment highlights how no space is meaning-free and reminds you to be fully aware of the baggage that comes with spaces/locations.

    At the same time museums and galleries do play an important role in conserving art as heritage and stimulating its production. They just have a certain image that needs to fit to the projects aim. If you are

    an institution-based curator, working for a museum or a gallery, ask yourself what would be the best use of that space and its meanings. Artist JR, for example, treats the world as his gallery. He mainly chooses to exhibit his photographs on the streets and other locations that are chosen to reveal the meaning of the pictures he posts. He does exhibit also in cultural institutions, but only when they can provide him an added value to the project (Foam 2007: online).

    An added value of an art institution to a curatorial project can by validating something as fine art, just like The World Press Photo you

    can give a non-conventional artwork a status of fine art. The South

    African National Gallery, for example, uses its status as an authority on local fine art to validate works that did not necessarily get the

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    fine art stamp during the apartheid regime. In 2005, for example,

    the Gallery held beads art exhibition (Intsimbi Beadwork from South Africa). That is an aware curatorial use of a space and its meanings.

    Spaces that express exclusivity, whether by image or by charging entrance fees relate to a wider perception of public. That is expressed well by