Freelance curators enjoy a degree of flexibility in their work, but are often also in precarious positions when working with large organisations. A clear example of the difficulties faced by curators working in a freelance capacity emerged last week when the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto issued a statement saying they were "disassociating" from artist Reena Katz, that they had commissioned through curator Kim Simon.
According to the statement, the core of the issue for the Koffler Centre, which is an agency of the United Jewish Appeal Foundation of Greater Toronto, is that artist Reena Katz publicly supports activities which reject "... the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and promotes historically inaccurate comparisons between contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa, in order to delegitimize Israel." The artist and curator dispute this interpretation of Katz's views.
The project has been under development for over a year and its launch is imminent. As the statement from the curator and artist put it, "...twelve days before the scheduled opening of a project involving over seventy participants, we attended the meeting. We were shocked to learn that the Koffler would be dissociating itself from Katz and our project solely on the basis of her political affiliations they said they had discovered on the Internet." That the organisation would choose to 'disassociate' itself at the eleventh hour is already indicative of a lack of professionalism, and the situation becomes even more perplexing once it is further noted that it is Katz's publcly-stated views that are the issue here, not the content of the commissioned project, which in fact uses Jewish culture as its bedrock and inspiration. The fact that Katz's views were uncovered on the web adds a twist to the tale as well (though again this is disputed by the curator and artist, who contend that the Koffler was aware of Katz's political leanings all along). The fact is that with the advent of web 2.0 and push-button web authoring, any artist or curator can make their views known on anything at any time, offering an unprecedented window on the ongoing fluidity of thought and personal opinion. The fact that this is essentially about Katz's personal digital traces underlines how unfortunate this turn of events has been, wherein an art centre would consider anything other than the work its business. The work, in effect, has been delegitimised here, subjugated to an attempt to pin down whether or not this artist's thoughts permit her to be legitimised by an established institution.
What can a freelance curator do in such a situation? Simon has stated that she is "appalled and heartbroken", and rightfully so. Without co-operation, courage, and support from within the organisation that was to present this work, the curator who is external to this structure has few options. Simon is doing all that she can to ensure that the show goes on, but the sudden lack of support from a well-resourced and branded institution is without a doubt an unwelcome and unhelpful development, that also then becomes a public example which might further dissuade curators from working freelance with large institutions (Simon is working freelance in this case, and is also employed as a curator for Gallery TPW).
It appears that the offer to fund the project fully still stands, so that it can still go ahead, which shields the Koffler from accusations of outright censorship and also from possible litigation. This action distills the problem to the core power struggle that freelance curators and independent artists face, because it's rarely ever about the money. Funding can be obtained without the intervention of an outside institution. The Koffler took something away that is far more valuable, and that's their seal of approval. Unfortunately for them, 'disassociation' in this case denies the rights that artists have to their own views, stifles debate on the subject in the Jewish community, and separates itself from what will surely be a wonderful project that celebrates Jewish culture and heritage in a historical district of Toronto.
Official project website: Each hand as they are called
Toronto Star story: Kensington Market exhibit stirs controversy among Jews
Globe and Mail story: Centre 'disassociates' itself from artist
Update (May 15, 2009):
Reena Katz and Kim Simon have issued a statement indicating that the exhibition will not open as it was scheduled to, due to the loss of the support of one of the project partners, following Koffler's disassociation. Katz and Simon will continue to work toward opening the exhibition at a future point in time. The latest updates are always available on the project website.