“Curator,” one of the commonest words in the art vocabulary is hardly mentioned in the art handbooks. According to the Oxford Dictionary it’s derived from the noun ‘curate’ — officially “the assistant to a priest or a clergyman appointed to take charge of a parish during the incapacity or suspension of an incumbent.” In historic law a curator was a guardian of “a minor or a lunatic.” These days it’s the person in charge of a museum or art gallery. In our business we generally think of the curator as the chooser of what’s going to be seen by the public.
This license to choose implies that a certain amount of specialized education — perhaps even a curatorial degree — might be necessary to do a proper job. In addition to having a wide-ranging knowledge, some curators are said to be “talented.” For many artists a curator is rather an educated non-artist who is appointed to an institution in order to jury taste. His or her job is to keep the unacceptable stuff out and see that the acceptable stuff gets in. In order to accomplish this, some curators like to help their favourite artists with their vision.
We artists either love ’em or hate ’em — often based on how much we’re curated “in” or “out.” The general public generally doesn’t know what to think. Because of the mystique around art they tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. Like the guy who does the house cleaning and straightens the chairs at the municipal hall — somebody has to do it. Opinions of the usefulness of the position run the full gamut. Some see curating as the fettering of the creative spirit. As my friend Joe Blodgett says, “When truly bad art is to be found, curators will be the ones to find it.” Joe and I punch each other into the wee small hours about this one. I find there’s plenty of bad art to be found without benefit of clergy. And wonderful stuff, too.
What’s going on? Our world is democratizing. Artists and the general public are now having a more effective input into what’s being seen. Commercial art galleries, with their wide-ranging tastes and their inability to stage public entertainments, have become the beating heart of art-making. We and our collectors provide our own curatorship. Like it or not, look out, we lunatics are taking charge of the asylum.
PS: “Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed, or flourish, in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.” (William Blake)
Esoterica: Public entertainment has become one of the territories of today’s curator. This is a useful service. Performance art, for example, jogs sensitivities and preconceived ideas, re-aligns conservative neurons and creates a buzz of possibilities that might not have been previously seen.
by Victoria J Roberts, Nevada, USA
Museums need researchers and people looking up correct detail, delving into legal authenticity stuff. Artists usually don’t like curators, but the top ones really know their stuff, and a museum or art gallery is a place to bring people in — not a mutual admiration club. The new Asian in San Francisco would be a good example. The point is there are endless arguments on dates, locations, time spans that only a top reference person can find.
by Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
If the curator is the one to find the bad art — what do they do with it? Do they know it’s bad art and they just want to see how much power they have to convince the public it is wonderful? Or do they want to see how ignorant or intelligent the public is in regard to the art? It’s got a lot to do with the bottom line.
by oliver, Houston, TX, USA
Curators and gallery directors are usually business people. There is only so much risk they can take and survive as a business. Museum directors have a similar problem; they ultimately must be responsive to their donor base. At the end of the day it’s chicken and egg, what comes first — the stamp of approval by the public and willingness to pay large sums for work, or the stamp of approval by the galleries and museums which need the approval of the public?
by John Ferrie
For the life of me I cannot figure out why these individuals (curators) have been handed such a responsibility. Are they just not capable of making their own art or is their voice just that right tone to sooth the question of what is and isn’t art? It all boils down to opinion. The argument of “I love it, I hate it” is what generates the spark of interest from the masses.
Curated fiber arts show
by Anne Copeland, California, USA
Recently I curated the first full online fiber arts competition, and then curated live venues for part of the entries. I was not formally educated as a curator, though I have helped curate other shows. But what I did have was the desire to test the idea and the belief that I could do it. The live venues would educate the public, provide exposure for the fiber artists in a different geographic area with a minimum of shipping costs, and offer a potential for sales.
I believe that if you have an idea, you should try it even if you are not formally educated in doing it, for you never know what wonderful things might occur if you take that chance. And I also don’t believe in the word “failure;” if you got out there and tried something, you learned a lot about yourself and whatever you were trying to do, and that can never be a failure. Different exhibits will appeal to different groups of people, some very knowledgeable about art, and some in areas where people barely know the meaning of the word. There are different standards in art and different disciplines–no single one that is more “correct,” “professional” or “better” than the other. But as artists, it is a good thing to continue to expose the public to art. Let the public be the judges, and allow them to learn what is good and what is not, for in the end, much of that is subjective as well.
Success or Failure
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany
I watched a TV Program about art collectors and curators this morning. The gallery owners and collectors on today’s program all started their personal pursuit of excellence fairly modestly, but they had enough instinct, perspicacity or sheer luck to pick winners. I doubt whether they alone could have influenced the flow of modern art or the general swings in taste as it was possible in prewar USA, but they stuck their necks out, promoted the “right” artist and reaped the rewards. And who knows, they may have contributed to the course of art history. I can warmly recommend Tom Wolfe’s book The Painted Word for an astute view of this topic.
I don’t know, and I suppose no one does, how many curators have failed or why, but one of the reasons for the success or failure of artists is these days certainly their (self) promotion and support from the people who connect their art with the art consumer, whether it be a gallery, museum, or a greetings card manufacturer.
“Abstract art” question
by Stuart James Burgess, Bruce Peninsula, ON, Canada
Recently I saw a phone-in program on public television on the purchasing of art. Two guests, one a vice-president of an auction house, the other a gallery owner, fielded calls from the public about general “collecting” dilemmas. The hostess was, seemingly, an uninformed (art-wise) person who got stuck on the whole “abstract art” question. Why is it that the public can accept all sorts of “abstract” things: dance, music, mathematics, theology, for example, but when it comes to visual expression of the intangible, the knee jerk response of “my 5-year-old could do that” surfaces? (I am not an “abstract” artist, although I may be somewhat abstract in my thinking.) I do appreciate the fact that a non-representational painting can evoke certain tangible sensations: look at the work of Arshile Gorky, some of his works are definitely creatures, probably human, in an enclosed space. Matisse painted his studio wall and floor, some of his canvases leaning against said wall, then negated the space by painting everything in the same colour of bright red. In a way, he “abstracted” the space by eliminating shadow and dimension. He “flattened” the illusion whilst complimenting it (with leaning canvases for example).
Conceptual art, installations, performance art have raised many questions too. These are not my cup of tea, but I wonder why people seem to be so afraid or repulsed by what they don’t do, or know about. There seems to be a fear that for some reason, we’re being ripped off, or having the wool pulled over our eyes, that some-one is having a laugh at us by doing something completely inane, and we’re taking them seriously. Well folks, if ya don’t like it, don’t buy into it. But don’t deny it. Everything that has ever been “new” in the human history has probably run into the same resistance. Not all development is linear. Sometimes the Picassos fall from some other planet.
Makes paper from grass
by Helen Gordon, Myaree, Western Australia
It is my wish to touch people’s souls and bring them to life. I am not into social comment but rather the beauty that resides in nature and the human soul. I do this because I feel it is my gift, not something I have earned through hard work and my own thinking. However it takes personal effort to make this gift manifest. When you are meant to do it somehow you are guided to the next step and it is a wonderful process of discovery about life, about your own self and a joy to those who connect with what you are doing. My latest venture in art is to make paper out of spinifex grass in a very safe way out of soda ash. The paper is a light golden colour, acid-free, and requires no sizing or additives to make it an excellent paper to paint on. I use numerous media which reflect the area I live in – a desert mining town in the centre of Western Australia. I use red sand on glue, iron ore dust made into paint, charcoal, gold leaf, oil pastels, gouache, acrylic.
Cigar paint box
by Jan Dawson
I heard about a guy who has a travel paint box made out of a cigar box. I remember seeing a picture of him in an airplane with it opened and painting. I think I read every letter in every clickback (almost) to find the link. So if you happen to know another link or an article with a photo please let me know? I need a watercolor kit and I’m not interested in big boxes.
(RG note) That reference to cigar paint box appears in the letter Travel tips. I found it by using the Painter’s Keys search feature with the keywords “cigar paint box.” It seems that John and Ellie Clemens’ invention may have gone off the radar as their URL to this picture does not work any more. I’ve made several cigar paint boxes as a tribute to handiness and my previous cigar habit. Churchills and big Cohibas are the best place to start. The mahogany cigar box — full — can cost you a couple of hundred dollars.
Desire to go to Romania
by Nick Swanson
I have hesitated to inquire regarding this, but having come to know the atmosphere surrounding your artists’ community I will venture out on a limb. I have spent a good amount of time in Romania, and have been searching for a way to return with my family (my wife and son) for a couple years’ stay to work heavily on my art, working, developing, learning, etc. My primary hope would be to apprentice, under someone such as Radu Aftenie, who is linked on the web site, and develop some specific projects that have been aching in my mind going on about eight years now.
I dearly love Romania. I want my family to experience the richness of the arts culture there, and to know the language that I think in whilst I’m painting. To glean from and contribute to the flow of conceptual varieties, soak up and learn from people, and hopefully also get to develop a bridge of relationships with the group of artists (and buyers) within my scope from here. I hesitate asking these things for fear that it comes across cheeky and trite, but I have come to a point where I am willing to give it a go whatever it takes. So, humbly and honestly I inquire as to whether anyone has a word of direction or advice or someone to refer me to for further questions? I have only an American passport.
Powerful Internet links
by Brenda Hendrix, Denver, CO, USA
Thank you for your links pages. Your listing is the reason I can now Google my own name and find my own website.
(Andrew Niculescu note) If you’re wondering if we know what we’re doing — try typing Jacinta Madsen, Luis Jose Estremadoyro, Vincenzo Aprile or many of the hundreds of others into google or other search engines. In many cases we’ll be at the top of the pile, or very near the top. Visitors are whisked to the Painter’s Keys Links Pages and then onto the artist’s site.
oil painting by Hua Chen, Beijing, China
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.