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Friday, February 24, 2006

News Flash: Curators Are Not Artists

Everyone knows the old line, "Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, teach phys ed."

There's plenty of opportunity to edit that syntactical construction for use in the artworld. Let me try it this way: "Those who can't paint-sculpt-draw-make prints-take photographs-assemble installations-perform-film-conceptualize-or otherwise create art objects or environments, curate. Those who can't curate, curate art blogs."

So now that I've taken a dig at myself, let me give a well deserved poke to the curatorial class.

Everyone wants to assume that his or her job is important. The smarter the people are who tend to hold a job, the more important the job tends to become in their own eyes. (I've seen this at its worst; I used to be an academic.)

I don't know why it's happening all of a sudden, but lately I'm starting to get tired of curators who become so enamored of their own process that they stop thinking about the art they are presenting for display and viewers' engagement with it.

I'm sure lots of you have stories about cases where this has happened, but the most visible manifestation of this tendency is the press release. At least one annoying one arrives in my inbox every day. You can tell that the release has been written by a striving curator when it spends paragraph after paragraph explaining the lofty theme behind the show but never quite gets around to describing the work that's going to be shown.

The show that's so important that it gets its own logoBut the one case of curatorial self-aggrandizement that has caused me to raise my eyebrows especially high recently is the Wrong Gallery's contribution to this year's Whitney Biennial. The trio of Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick were given the Gilman gallery on the museum's mezzanine level. For the space, these three have selected works from the Whitney's collection (with a few outside additions) that show representations of the outlaw in American culture.

OK, you get what's going on here, don't you? With this installation, the Biennial's curators have defined curating to be an artistic activity.

Sure, curating is creative work. No question about it. The best curators are incredibly creative people. But the act of curating is fundamentally different than the act of creating a work of art. I'm all for expanding the bounds of what constitutes artistic practice, but this goes too far. Call me old school if you want, but I'll stick by my guns on this point.

I shouldn't be so surprised, though, by the decision to self-justify in this way. This year's Biennial curators, Chrissie Iles of the Whitney and Philippe Vergne of the Walker, pretty much completely embarrassed themselves by admitting to Artforum that they've invented an imaginary friend to validate their labor while they've been working on the show. She even gets a catalogue credit. (But she's now got more than just a catalogue credit. Their admission has given rise to a spritely blog where the jokes made at their expense tend to be so esoteric that even I don't get most of them. But I do dig the site's soundtrack.)

Fortunately, though, I sense that there's a backlash developing. SITE Santa Fe announced the line up for its biennial this week, and curator Klaus Ottmann made sure to be quoted in the first paragraph of the press release with a very sensible statement, "I want this Biennial to be about the artists, not about the curator." That he felt the need to do this says something about the state of the curatorial profession today.

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