The Curator’s Power

Sylvette Babin
The presence of a curator at the origin of an exhibition is now accepted in the art world. Nonetheless, a flurry of discussions, symposia and debates regarding the discipline shows obvious commotion around issues of curatorial practice.1 1  - For instance, one thinks of two recent symposia in Canada: Manufacturing Exhibitions, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in March 2011, and Are Curators Unprofessional?, at the Banff International Curatorial Institute (BICI) in November 2010. Sometimes mercilessly criticized, other times played up to a fault, the curator endures in various forms: from professional curator to cultural practitioner occasionally taking on the role, independent curator to institutional curator, curator-author to artist-curator — the role seems to adapt to every kind of exhibition and artistic event, and of course, to various institutional settings. After forty-odd years punctuated by the arrival of several star curators, what has become of curatorial practice? We thought it appropriate to take a closer look at some of these recent happenings, whether from a historical perspective or in view of current artistic preoccupations.

We need to clarify some terminology before engaging with the texts in this issue. While the English term “curator” (from the Latin curare: to take care of) denotes both the curators of museums and collections and the creators of exhibitions, in French, different terms are used. In France, influenced by the English, the terms curateur and curatrice (and sometimes even curator) are employed to denote the creators of exhibitions, while in Quebec, we use commissaire. Elsewhere, preferring to avoid anglicisms, esse has favoured the latter in all texts published in French. In this particular issue, however, we’ve chosen to respect the diction of each of the authors, who’ve opted for one or the other term according to context.

This issue’s objective isn’t to provide a detailed overview of curators’ various exhibitions, nor is it to profile the trendiest personalities. Rather, we are presenting thoughtful reflections that propose critical readings and analysis, along with texts by curators giving a more intimate look at their approaches and realizations. The proposed essays naturally raise questions about the strategies of curators and institutions, and are not above criticizing some of the less “honourable” manifestations. On the other hand, everyone appreciates the work of those “ants” who strive to develop a reflection on the exhibition of artists’ productions. Might there be good and bad curatorship? It is all a matter of perspective. Let’s remember that one of the most enduring criticisms directed toward certain curators is that of substituting themselves for the artists and of using their work for their own ends.2 2 - It would be appropriate to direct the reader to issue 57 of esse, on the “Signatures” theme (Spring-Summer 2006), where texts by Anne-Marie Ninacs and Jérôme Glicenstein dealt specifically with the curatorial signature. To this effect, to complement this issue, we have decided to republish both their essays on our website. History repeats itself to such an extent that, as Jean-Philippe Uzel points out, “the argument hasn’t aged a bit” since the 1970s.

Whether in response to this situation, or simply as a logical conclusion to the opening-up of disciplines, we’ve seen a proliferation of curatorial figures over the years, including artists who occasionally take on the role. This certainly shows they are fully capable of reflecting on the staging of art practices other than their own, but their status as artist does not free them of the conceptual obligations of their curatorial mandate, nor of the economic and organizational imperatives tied to the events and institutions hosting them. The same applies to all the art historians, critics, or cultural practitioners who regularly or occasionally conceive exhibitions. As for the institutions that invite them, might they have a role to play in certain curatorial tendencies? Several aspects of the functions and challenges of the curator are explored in this issue, whether through their presence and role in these institutions alongside museum or corporate curators, or through the different strategies they employ, leading to occasional excesses. Criticisms directed at them are closely examined, enabling us to better understand the system in which they revolve. Some exhibition arrangements are also examined, particularly through the curatorship of ephemeral works.

The visual documentation of a thematic issue generally rests on works by the artists examined in the essays. Here, the topic leads us, above all, to show “works by curators,” that is, exhibition setups and curators at work. The Portfolio section has also been revisited. Since it made no sense to add artists’ works related to the theme, we instead proposed that a young Quebec curator conceive a portfolio especially for this issue. Going beyond a simple selection of works, Marie-Eve Beaupré draws inspiration from the authors’ texts as a premise for a reflection on the curatorial act, while commenting on sampled excerpts. Thus, one may go back and forth between the authors’ essays and Beaupré’s comments by virtue of page references adjoining the excerpts (in red).

By putting the curator centre stage in this issue and in the portfolio, have we, too, used the works to our own ends? Aware of this problem, we presumed to push the examination of the curator’s power—and, in this case, that of the publisher, since we are somewhat acting as curators of this edition—a little further, by giving our graphic designers free reign to fragment, superpose, or process the images and texts to take the layout to limits that might seem irreverent to some. Just this once, and we’ll not make a habit of it.

Sylvette Babin
This article also appears in the issue 72 - Curators

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