Do you qualify as a curator?

Lately I’ve been pondering the question, “Who qualifies to be a curator?” I suppose I’ve been thinking about this issue since I first walked into a museum as a child, looked up at a dinosaur mount, and thought, “I want to get my hands on that!”

Michelle Kasprzak’s post “Agile and open – DiY Curating” renewed my interest in grappling with this issue. Kasprzak observes that “the very definition of ‘curator’ is certainly more open than it used to be,” and points us toward an article, “Do-it-yourself curators create art opportunities in out-of-the-way places,” in the October 10 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The article in the P-I shares the stories of several young freelance curators who have mounted exhibits in places as diverse as a university gallery, bars, Second Life, and the back of a U-Haul truck.

Reading the article, I was particularly intrigued by a comment by Fionn Meade, assistant curator for public programs and outreach for the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery. “We have to be flexible,” he said, “about where we organize shows and what kind of shows they are. I’m thinking about a publication as a project space, not for reviews but to create an arena of provocation and response.”

Democratizing the exhibition for viewers and curators: rethinking exhibition spaces

I’m a big believer in setting up exhibits in such a way that people view them on their own terms, in the context of their everyday lives. That may mean creating exhibits in places where people stumble upon them, say in a doctor’s office waiting room, while waiting for their number to be called at the local Department of Motor Vehicles, or even setting exhibits into the hardscape as was done with two installations related to the life of Angeleno Biddy Mason, House of the Open Hand and Biddy Mason’s Place: A Passage of Time. For that reason, I love the idea of staging an exhibit in the back of a U-Haul truck.

I also like the concept of producing an exhibit in publication form. No, it’s not a substitute for standing before an actual painting, 3D work of art, or historical artifact, but being able to take an exhibition with me to page through at my leisure really appeals to me. I’d consider it an exhibition catalogue without an exhibition site.

In such a view, the Internet becomes a legitimate space for an exhibition. Collectors, or anyone with photos they have th right to publish, can set up virtual galleries. One particularly well-done example of this phenomenon in blog format is Artists and Ancestors – A Miniature Portrait Collection. In its organization, this exhibit mirrors ones in the physical world: it has an exhibition catalogue, an explanation of the collection’s focus, and historical background on miniature portraits. However, online curators need not be tied to the traditional, relatively linear or room-by-room progress of exhibits.

Another fine example of online curation is the Los Angeles Conservancy’s exhibit Curating the City: Wilshire Blvd. Although this exhibit explores a place that is physically linear–Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard–it allows visitors to explore locations along the street in the order than makes sense to them. It also provides a search function for people wanting information on a particular building. What I especially like about Curating the City is that although it’s evident a lot of technical resources went into the making of this online exhibit, it provides a model for freelance historians (if there are such beasts) that is largely lacking in the coffeehouse and bar contexts of the freelance art curators profiled in the Seattle P-I article. Anyone with a camera, a bit of Web savvy, and access to a library, historical society, or residents could curate an exhibition on just about any urban, suburban, or small town street.

Who gets to curate?

As I mentioned in my previous post, at a recent conference I heard Christiaan Klieger of the Oakland Museum of California talk about challenges facing curators who aim to represent as broad a sample of their constituency as possible. Klieger declared that this project will only be successful if curators are willing to give up some of their authority to “facilitators,” community stakeholders who have more lived knowledge of the group being represented than do the curators.

There is already a history of museums allowing community members temporary authority to select the objects for an exhibition. A recent example of this is Gems of the Collection: Community as Curator at San Antonio’s Witte Museum. The San Antonio Express-News provides an explanation:

Everything on display was selected by community curators — everyday folk who answered a Witte survey.

Opening Saturday, 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.

The most popular items, however, are more palatable, truly historic and include a bejeweled ivory elephant, Fiesta gowns, swords, American Indian artifacts, ceramics, Jose Arpa’s Rose Window, a ghost dance dress from Wounded Knee, stuffed birds, extinct mounted animals and much more.

It’s all about nostalgia, revelation, enlightenment and wonder, according to organizers.

Whether such an exhibition qualifies as curation is up for debate. Curation includes more than merely selecting objects or asking people to nominate pieces for an exhibition. I do like the sense of serendipity that arises from such a method of assembling an exhibit, and I wish I could visit the museum myself. That said, is the Witte’s process really curation? I’m not convinced it is.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I think community members shouldn’t be involved in creating exhibits. Far from it. In fact, I’d like to see more community participation, especially in the form of freelance curators like those described in the Seattle P-I article: people who are on the margins of their professional community, who may have alternative views of art and culture, and who have a tremendous energy and passion for their work.

What makes a curator? And could you be one?

Traditionally, a curator has been someone trained to acquire, identify, assess the value of, and catalogue objects as well as present a selection of these objects in exhibitions. Curators may (and usually do) have additional administrative responsibilities as well.

At heart, however, a curator is simply someone who is, or has the ability to become, an authority on a subject or a connoiseur of a class of objects. The best curators are passionate people with research skills and a knack for storytelling.

Do you fit this description? What might you curate? And who would be your audience?

Further online reading:

/seconds issue on curating.

Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems by Joasia Krysa.


  1. I have researched and created a museum program and created an exhibit for a small historic house museum; I will leave the name and place anonymous so that my lack of credentials does not cast aspersions on the institution. The former, as a docent, involved researching a paper on tcard playing in the colonial period and in particular, the game of whist. THis evolved into the inerpretation of one room in an holiday program under the direction of our museum director. The latter, as a board member, involved the introduction of an heuristic device, non-period, into our collection. I developed a timeline exhibit for a gallery space. Aside from determining the proper way to display this new object (a dried and sealed tree cross-section) I determined what I felt was the best way to display a timeline in our space and the events and photos to be included. Academic historians and other board members checked and edited my work. I also sourced, purchased and installed the exhibit last June and it will come down this Spring, prior to the opening of our regular season. I spent well less than $150 on the entire event.

    Snce we are a small museum, lacking in funds and staff, it is possible for me to be able to do something like this. In fact, as a person who was unaware in good time that one could choose a career in curation or museum studies, and who enjoys museums as a favorite pastime and pursuit, it was one thing that attracted me to this particular place.

    I would recommend that, under appropriate supervision, all museums set aside a place where the dedicated can engage in such pursuits. Both of my events have been highly praised. THe timeline is one of the first exhibits we have had to go outside of our strict interpretive period.

    Having this kind of activity can only increase public engagement in a museum and can foster teamwork that can carry over to other events. It increases comfort levels in docents as they take ownership in their interpretive abilities and factual knowledge. In short, with the “right help” I cannot see a downside other than a line of prospective volunteers lining up down the block to have their turn.

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