Curating.info

Contemporary art curating news and views from Michelle Kasprzak and team

Objects In Mirror May Be Better Than They Appear: Framework - Scotland

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Friday, November 11. 2011 • Category: Musings


Special contribution by Amy Fung

I went to live and work in Scotland (a nation and not a country) for six months this past year on an arts writing and curating fellowship. The food was bad, the people solid, and the best art show I saw was German. The overall experience of being on a writing/curating fellowship sounds better than it actually was; and while I do not regret my time spent in the land of lochs and moors, I would have done somethings quite differently if I could do it all again.

Looking backwards and from across the pond, the bright shining light of Framework stands out as a beacon. Devised by Glasgow-based independent curator Kirsteen Macdonald the first five Framework events came as a response to the perceived lack of international resources and networks for Scotland-based curators. While both independent and emerging curators were encouraged to apply, the majority of participants consisted primarily of emerging curators who were looking more for a sounding board to vent their frustrations. I can only hypothesize that the more established curators refused to apply or excused themselves as too busy to participate, but as a platform for networking with international guests within the scope of your national peers, I walked away with a sense that those curators in more stable positions needed to feel they were not on the same level as everyone else, or that they were also not interested in engaging with these guests out of some sort of inferiority complex.

On the other hand, an easy critique can and should be made at the definition of "international" only demarcating UK and Berlin-based writers and curators like Jan Verwoert and Maria Fusco. But let's go back to the beginning of this text where I am giving a first impression of Scotland and consequently Scotland's art scene.

Coming from Canada, I was and remain blown away by the sheer scale difference of Scotland's wee geography. With only a 45 minute train journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only a three hour train between the central belt and the North East town where I was based, geography does not play a convincing factor in the vastly different attitudes and the general lack of internal dialogue. The town of Huntly where I was working and living could have stood as a microcosm of Scotland as a whole: a wee picturesque place, embedded with traditions and class structures, tolerating and attempting to build a lively and surprising contemporary art scene – producing works that rarely anyone local actually pays attention to unless a ceilidh is on the bill. The common practice is to look south and out for success and inspiration, often bringing people in for their ideas -- but at the end of my six months, I do wonder if the people of Huntly, and by extension the people of Scotland, actually care that an ongoing privileging of foreign value perspectives and systems is being placed onto their sovereignty-seeking selves?

With a population of 5 million, there are actually four sizable art schools in Scotland, and a significant proportion of alumni from The Gordon Schools in Huntly go on to attend these national art schools. I attended (in some variation) all the graduate or undergraduate exhibitions for Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and Gray's School of Art. Mentorship on the production side is visible and lineage is respected, but of the four schools, only one showed any depth in the relatively new field of curatorial studies and arts writing. This is a problem, especially if the solution has been importing in thought rather than focusing on the local production of critical thinking. This may be a watershed moment as now under Creative Scotland's new "talent" pool, artists of all disciplines will be geared to how they fare for international consumption. Like its fine drams and rich shortbreads, goods that few born and bred Scots actually show much interest in, Scottish artists may soon be on the same ship out.

This is not a problem unique to Scotland, but Framework has magnified a contentious issue that it believes (self-consciously so) to be its own. It's true that the void of support and understanding about curatorial work is staggering, especially by its practitioners. Most curators in the field either grab onto the title or are bestowed with it, but few actually fit the definition with confidence. During Framework's finale, in lamenting on her disparate curatorial roles for an upcoming exhibition in London, a curator was asked point-blank: "What do you think a curator actually does?" and her response was only a pause and a stutter.

For the record: curating as a practice for all extensive purposes of this text translates as researching, producing, and presenting a unified and ideally critical/social/philosophical context for a single work or group of works that questions or addresses a facet of history for present-day musing. Under this definition, most curatorial work today is in fact a straight forward commissioning gig, or fund-driven project management, which has confused the role of the curator as someone with power. Most emerging curators who attended Framework were not really curators, but hustlers trying to get ahead in this profession. This assumed curatorial power is directly associated with funds rather than knowledge or ability. This is when curators simply become "gate-keepers", but note even how one-sided this argument stands. The desire to get beyond the guarded threshold takes on celestial proportions of seeking permission and desiring acceptance, which unfortunately, reveals just how elusive and unrealistic the standards of success sit in this cultural profession that is skewered by an inflated art market and where the Hirsts and Obrists make up all of 1% of the art world.

Curators have always been specialists of specific strands of knowledge, but now, according to British Art Show curators Tom Morton and Lisa le Feuvre (who were also guest facilitators for Framework), everyone can be a specialist of the everyday! The sentiment is idealistic and so it is admirable, but the execution requires some logic and an infinite breadth of knowledge that reflects the multifaceted experience of our everyday. The historical definition of a curator has progressed, and rightly so, but the integrity of curating has yet to catch up. I am not arguing for a return or even a favouring of traditions, but I do strongly question the use of this language if the meaning has so drastically shifted. In Fusco's words, we should take the time and energy to "re-caress the art object" -- be it through words or actions.

Based on final presentations given by Framework participants, it became frighteningly clear the presupposed value of calling yourself a curator has been accumulating steadily for the last three decades, but in an economic reality, the precarious state of the curator is doubly duped as the false assumption of power is a reflection of needing to have an expanded practice: that one also needs to organize, administrate, market, and fundraise independent projects in order to be a legitimate arts professional. The hyphenated artist/curator/designer/administrator works in an "expanded practice," a term Macdonald came up with that nobody seemed to question. Working in an expanded practice also became the subject matter for the workshop by Ellen Blumenstein, which was rescheduled due to exhaustion and so became the finale of this first set of Framework events. The end revealed the beginning as an expanded practice revealed itself in an unfolding of collective illness and exhaustion. Soldiering on in a burnt out state of being appeared to be the bane and survival tactic of maintaining an independent practice, and it was a glimpse of a grim future I did not want for myself.

This shroud of taking on curatorial power in an art world where the market value holds all the cards could be seen as a positive turn towards creative and intellectual value. However, like the smoke and mirrors of an absorbing and twisting Nabokov narrative we may not realize we have been spun a yarn of self-convinced fables of social grandeur that in the light of day comes off as a perverse and slightly sad fantasy. There are independent curators like Macdonald and Blumenstein who are doing good work and who are also trying to lay the foundation that they themselves need to stand on, but the more weight you put onto these foundations the faster the whole lot sinks. As a series, Framework quenched the void by facilitating intimate and thought-provoking discussions with a mixture of established practitioners, but the main critique here is that a dialogue must go two ways. I question the small group of curatorial professionals who did not bother applying, and the peers and participants who never spoke -- two seemingly different groups who in their own ways still chose to stay isolated without realizing that this dialogue exists in flux, and in their control to change.

Mix in exhaustion due to perpetual precarity, survival by hyphenation, the rise of internship exploitation, and assuming power where ever and when ever one can get it, the conclusion I come to is that being an independent curator is a fantasy profession both sought after and grossly misunderstood, and that maybe just sounds better than it will ever be. Life goes on, and so must the work, and it is only my hope that round two of Framework this winter will continue this conversation.

Defined tags for this entry: , , , , ,

Dynamic Art Museums in Small Cities

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Wednesday, August 29. 2007 • Category: Announcements

The application date for this opportunity has passed.


The document below, being circulated by the Kamloops Art Gallery in Canada, poses some incisive questions that many cultural institutions, not just museums in small cities, are facing. Input from curators on some of these issues would greatly benefit this study. Full text follows:

Dynamic Art Museums in Small Cities
The Board of Trustees of the Kamloops Art Gallery, a not-for-profit art museum located in the interior of British Columbia in western Canada, met recently to consider its future and to address our considerable responsibilities to various communities.

The Board hopes to develop a new paradigm, an ideal model that emphasizes the compatibility of popular success, scholarship and museological responsibilities that can be used to benchmark our future outcomes and achievements. It also intends to look at the vital and critical role of the "small city gallery" within the global environment.

To these ends, our Trustees would like to know about art galleries in similar small communities with a population between 50,000 and 150,000. It is inviting museum professionals and scholars to define what constitutes a successful small city art museum. How, for example, are historical/traditional and contemporary art programming integrated? What are the inherent responsibilities that come with being recognized as a rigorous institution committed to research and scholarship? What is the potential of small art museums as learning hubs, especially given the opportunities available through the use of new technologies? And lastly, the Board is trying to determine how art museums make a difference in their own immediate and diverse communities and how success is defined in these terms.

The first part of this multi-faceted project is to compile a list of small-city art galleries world-wide that are recognized as leaders in their field. The next step is to refine this list and prepare case studies of 20 to 25 of these institutions for inclusion in a publication about the challenges and possibilities facing the small city gallery. We would appreciate receiving your opinion on the most outstanding galleries based on the objectives of the study outlined in this email. Please forward them to jlmb @ kag.bc.ca

We would also appreciate if you would take the time to forward this inquiry to your email list of colleagues in order to expand the search for outstanding art galleries in small cities. Please include your full name, title and work affiliation for reference and follow-up.

Thank you for your time.
Jann LM Bailey
Executive Director, Kamloops Art Gallery
101-465 Victoria Street, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada V2C 2A9
t 250 3772412 / f 250 828 0662

[Via Christine Castle, on behalf of Jann Bailey. Please respond to her directly at jlmb @ kag.bc.ca. Anything posted in the comments will also be forwarded to Jann.]
Defined tags for this entry: , , ,

Project: In-Site Montreal

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Sunday, February 18. 2007 • Category: Musings

I'm proud to announce the (semi-recent) launch of my latest curatorial effort.

In-Site Montreal is a collection of site-specific art presented on the portal pages of five wireless internet hotspots in the Ile Sans Fil network. Artists Nicolas Fleming, Maria Legault, and Virginie Laganiere have created art works that can be viewed simply by logging in to the Ile Sans Fil network at the selected hotspots. Though the project is best viewed in-situ, you can also view the works produced by the artists for the hotspot locations at the In-Site Montreal micro-site.

I have produced a curatorial text for the project, which I would be grateful for your feedback on, my cherished readers.

The concluding paragraphs of the essay include the following statements:
The virtual spaces that In-site Montreal inhabit are amorphous areas around several accepted gathering places such as cafes, galleries, markets, and bars. They are perhaps places where as an internet user, you may intend to use the opportunity of connectivity to the network to look outward, to read news of distant places or connect with friends far away through e-mails and online social networking sites. The art practice of telematics in particular addresses the creative possibilities when two parties are connected over distance to communicate. In some way, the pieces presented on the portal pages of Ile Sans Fil's network as part of the In-Site Montreal project present something that is almost anti-telematic, in that the works look inward rather than outward. In the case of this project, a connection to someone across the globe is not sought, it is shunned in favour of a further examination and rumination on the details of the local environment.


I'm interested in this idea of the inverse-telematic, the inward-looking, the intensely-local, especially using a tool such as Wi-Fi that we are so accustomed to associate with an outward-looking, nearly-anonymous roaming of virtual terrain.

Thanks to Year Zero One for producing the project, the Canada Council for the Arts for funding the project, Ile Sans Fil for hosting the project, and Rita Godlevskis for designing the map and visual identity of In-Site Montreal.

"Agile and open" - DiY Curating

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Tuesday, October 10. 2006 • Category: News

There is an article on the "DiY curating" scene in Seattle by Regina Hackett in a recent issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The article is fairly long and profiles a number of opportunistic young curators, who have harnessed unique venues to host their shows - ranging from the back of a truck, a local café, and a virtual island in the virtual world Second Life.

Seattle currently boasts a wealth of excellent young curators. While a few have found jobs at major arts institutions, there aren't nearly enough of these jobs to go around in a field that's booming in major urban centers everywhere.

That means curators of Van Nostrand's generation, even with solid academic records (she has a master's degree in contemporary art history from Richmond American University in London), have to make their own opportunities.


I would say this is probably a given for just about any urban center. The demand for professional positions in the creative industries will always outstrip the number of posts available. By highlighting the unusual and innovative practices of these young curators working on the fringes, the author of this article accentuates the fact that though these curators may not have top posts in museums or galleries, the exhibitions they are developing are professional grade.

"What it means to be a curator is more agile and open than it used to be," he [Fionn Meade] said. "Curatorial thinking crosses disciplines. The field benefits from what people from a range of backgrounds can contribute."


The very definition of "curator" is certainly more open than it used to be. At any rate, it will be interesting to follow the careers of these young curators and the artists they are selecting for their exhibitions. These qualities of openness and agility that they are demonstrating now will certainly be assets to them throughout their careers.


Defined tags for this entry: , , , , ,

Public as curator

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Thursday, September 14. 2006 • Category: News

Opening tomorrow at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas is a show that has been curated by the public.

"Gems of the Collection: Community as Curator" was "curated" by local residents by answering a survey that the museum had produced.

...it presents 80 exceptional artifacts — paintings, gems, minerals, textiles, furniture, gowns and one-of-a-kind objects — that have stayed in the memory banks of loyal Witte supporters.

The Witte opened in October 1926. That's a lot of memories for visitors, and some of them are plain weird — from shrunken heads to a stolen diamond. [...] It's all about nostalgia, revelation, enlightenment and wonder, according to organizers.


It's a stretch to call curating by survey curation at all. In this case I think it is more accurate to call the "community curators" selectors or respondents. Naming issues aside, since it is a celebration of the museum's 80th year of operation, it is a PR-friendly move to have a community oriented exhibition.

Read the full article, including quotes from the "community curators", here.

Defined tags for this entry: ,