The State of Curating Today

The following paragraphs are an excerpt from a longer essay I composed in 2017-2018 exploring the contemporary landscape of exhibition curatorship. The article picks up on many themes I am concerned with in my own practice and draws on major threads explored in more detail in my on-going thesis.

I recently payed a visit to a local gallery to see an exhibition curated on the theme of music and its representation in art. An area of which I am particularly interested, I was intrigued and equally excited at the prospect of an exhibition dedicated to such a theme. Having seen the advert in a brochure I picked up for the gallery whilst visiting another exhibition in the city, I thought it equally a good opportunity to visit this gallery which I had been meaning to visit for a long time. On viewing this exhibition, the experience has since inspired me to begin a project designing my own exhibitions on the themes of exhibitions and shows I visit. (Please check back to see my response to this exhibition) Anyway, back to the matter at hand.

Having viewed the exhibition entitled; Drawing Out the Sound (the gallery in hand shall remain anonymous) I was moved to write this article in response to a number of observations I made. On further reflection, I acknowledge the depth of my response evoked on viewing this exhibition is down, largely in part to it ringing uncomfortably true with a number of realisations I have recently had as to the current climate of the arts and the wider landscape we find ourselves tasked with traversing as professionals in the industry.

On my initial engagement with the exhibition, prior to even visiting, but through the short paragraph and accompanying image in the gallery’s brochure, I was immediately struck by the lack of ambition and seeming short-sightedness directed toward the project. The text ensured it hit on all the cliché buzz words and turns of phrase one expects to read in such material, yet stopped strikingly short of even acknowledging the vast liminal space, or the cross-over between both mediums were the most exciting and challenging work resides. Perhaps most damning however, was to be found in the choice of image chosen to accompany the text; a Piper sat atop a rock amongst a flock of goats. Despite my immediate response being one of disappointment and profound frustration, I nonetheless resolved to view the exhibition in person. 1.

The exhibition consisted of 11 prints housed in a small side room off the main gallery. The exhibition consisted of prints from the fifteenth century demonstrating the depiction of musicians in various settings through to a number of twentieth century prints exploring a more contemporary approach to the language used in the depiction of the same themes.

Clearly constrained by a number of practical factors, the exhibition nonetheless failed to come remotely close to doing such an exciting and topical theme justice.

It is not the aim of this article to shame and ridicule this particular institution, but to highlight serious shortcomings, as I see it, in the curation, exhibiting and in-turn education in many institutions. Art has a profound power to educate. With the growing threat to art education in the Secondary Curriculum, not only is it becoming increasingly important for galleries and institutions to educate their communities and public about art, but arguably, more importantly, to wield the profound power of art to educate. The most successfully curated exhibitions are the ones that employ art to tackle pressing issues within society and to raise awareness. Artists are not lone, passive beings that create work in a vacuum, but are aware and alert to the themes and matters of their times. Historically, the most important and successful art is that which is politically and culturally loaded, harnessed as a vessel to communicate and raise awareness. In an interview at the end of the second world war, Picasso gave a fiery declaration of what to him, an artist was. Also, acting as a timely reminder to us today the level of integrity as art professionals we should strive for. He said, an artist;

‘is a political being, constantly alive to heart-rending, fiery or happy events to which he responds in every way… Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It’s an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy’.

The identification of this perceived shortcoming in art institutions has come about not only from my visiting of gallery’s and institutions as a member of the public, but garnered from first-hand experience from working and volunteering in various public and private institutions. Too often one witnesses lazy curating of collections, either from the way pieces are presented through the themes and contexts in which they are placed, or through the lack of circulating collections and varying pieces on display.

The worst instances of such occurring unfortunately in my experience in public galleries and institutions, often boasting extensive and diverse collections. There are, no doubt many possible explanations and contributing factors to this, the unprecedented cuts that the arts have faced in recent years from government being foremost. On experiencing such disappointments and shortcomings on a regular basis however, one begins to beg the question; Is the historic downturn in funding, and in a different sense, the good will felt and directed towards the arts, down – perhaps in part, due to the repeated failings and shortcomings of those responsible in managing our collections?

Undoubtedly a little far-fetched, the sentiment retains truth, however. As a curator, responsible for the planning and designing of gallery programmes and the execution of exhibitions, one has a responsibility to be ambitious, to challenge and to educate. Returning to the exhibition in question, this particular institution had a concert hall as part of its resources. The scope then that an exhibition exploring music and art as its major theme offers an institution equipped with a concert hall and all its accompanying networks and resources is unlimiting. A quick flick-through the pages of art history uncovers numerous individuals with concerns in both a musical and visual context. More recent twentieth-century movements such as Minimalism and Fluxus have exponents working the movement in both artistic and musical ways. And a trawl through twitter quickly identifies any number of contemporary practitioners once again working with interests in both camps.

In the digital, Post-Post Modernist, eclectic world we today inhabit, there is simply no excuse to lazy, unimaginative and unambitious work, or the harnessing and showcasing of that work. As arts professionals we have a responsibility to challenge and to educate as to the power and importance of art, and through our actions demonstrate the integrity of our discipline. It is unfortunate however, that many of those in the positions of trust and responsibility do not share such lofty ambitions.

  1. It is worth noting here that in defence of the institution at hand, the exhibition was curated from prints in their own collection and was clearly limited / dictated by the gallery space available. The shortcomings as identified in this article and the criticisms directed towards the curation of the exhibition remain justified, however in the context of the piece.

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