“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part One

This past Saturday, my lovely and talented wife and I made our weekly trek to the local farmers’ market in Union Square, Somerville. It is, I think, the best market in the Boston area, and draws not just local farmers, but all kinds of craftspeople. You never know who you’re going to meet there. And this weekend I met a mobile museum and it’s curator. Union Square already boasts one museum, so it was even nicer to have two museums for a day. And talking with the curator about her project brought together a number of ideas that had been battling in my head since the latest wave of “How to properly visit art museums” articles crashed over us. I talked about them here and here.

So what I’d like to do is beg your indulgence while I touch on some of the recent articles about museums’  use/abuse of participation in traditional curatorial preserves, unpack their premise of curation and participation as dialectically related principles, problematize that concept a bit, and then in the next post look at two recent examples of museums that embody (some might say appropriate) the best ideals of curation in ways that don’t look like traditional museums.

Oh, and in case you missed it, both museums were located at my famers’ market. Two! How’s that for awesome?!

Curation – Fad and Fact

Curator Anne Pontégnie at Kelley Walker's exhibition (Wiels contemporary art center, Brussels, B). CC BY-SA 3.0 image fr Wikimedia Commons by Marcwathieu

Curator Anne Pontégnie at Kelley Walker exhibition in Brussels
CC BY-SA 3.0 image fr Wikimedia Commons by Marcwathieu

The sudden rise in prominence of the term “curation” over the past few years has been both amazing and distressing to many in the museum field. What was once the arcane domain of a privileged few is now open to seemingly everyone, especially on the Internet. And that raises some interesting existential questions about that core museum activity. What does curation mean in the 21st century, who gets to do it, and why is it OK/not OK?

The word “curator” (and its back formation “to curate”) comes from the Latin verb curare “to take care of” which points at curators’ original roles as the persons primarily responsible for the collections under their care. As museums have institutionalized and professionalized, large parts of those tasks have moved to specialists. We now have registrars, conservators, handlers, security staff, and more who all “take care of” museum objects. What’s left to curators? Acquistion, research, exhibition and more. If I had to characterize the essence of present-day curation, it would be “sense-making”. Curators assemble collections and contextualize them to tell us something important. In a world so full of information and inputs, making sense of it, ordering it, and deciding what is important to focus on and what isn’t, are valuable skills to cultivate. So, I’d think that teaching visitors the importance of that skill, and giving them practice in doing it would seem to be a clear winner among the opinion renderers and arbiters. Not so…

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse

Outsourcing  CC BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user icanhascheezburger

Outsourcing
CC BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user icanhascheezburger

“Not an art expert? Not a problem. Museums are increasingly outsourcing the curation of their exhibits to the public—sometimes even asking the crowd to contribute art, too. The institutions produce quick and often inexpensive shows that boost ticket sales. As crowdsourcing initiatives go mainstream, the roles of the museum and the artist are getting rethought. It’s no longer only the highly trained professionals who decide what belongs on the gallery wall, but the audience, too.”

Thus begins Ellen Gamerman’s Wall Street Journal piece called “Everybody’s an Art Curator” which provoked me enormously, as we’ll get into below, but also really put into sharp relief the mindset of people who are upset by different (read, non-mid-20th-century) models of how museums might engage in creating the things they exhibit to visitors. And Gamerman’s paragraph hit the nail right on the head in the way it uses the term “outsourcing” when it’s really talking about “crowdsourcing”.  And that idea, the idea that letting visitors engage in that part of curatorial process is the same as not having any curatorial involvement is, I think, at the heart of many of the complaints lodged against participatory projects. Outsourced=getting somebody else to do it for you, and also carries all those icky financial perjoratives of trying to not pay somebody skilled when you can pay somebody else who’s willing to do it for less. In everyday English, I can’t think of a context in which outsourcing is used in anything other than pejorative way.

Everybody’s an Art Curator?
Well, no. But everybody could learn about curation.

My problems with Gamerman’s article are many, but they break down into a few large clumps. There’s this false tension between scholarship and popularity/financial gain, a ton of generational baiting, and lastly, some fascinating observations about the museum industry today.

Scholarship versus popularity

Left: "EL Sukenik 1951" by Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem CC BY 3.0 image via Wikimedia Commons  Right: Doll popularity contest CC BY 2.0 image via Flickr user West Vancouver Archives

Left: “EL Sukenik 1951” by Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem
CC BY 3.0 image via Wikimedia Commons
Right: Doll popularity contest
CC BY 2.0 image via Flickr user West Vancouver Archives

One of the most damaging insinuations of the piece is that visitor involvement equals curtorial absence. In discussing the MFA’s recent “Boston Loves Impressionism” exhibition, where the museum’s curators handpicked a pool of Impressionist works for the public to look at and choose their favorites, Gamerman chooses to frame the process in terms of the MFA deciding it was “acceptable” because of this curatorial involvement. Not that it was a good idea, and an opportunity to raise public awareness of how the museum does its work. Just “acceptable”, like a vegetable offered to a balky child.

To support this, she asks Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles whether this was an acceptable idea. “You’re left with 10 paintings that may or may not make sense together, or may or may not be interesting together, or may or may not teach anything about the history of art—it’s not the stuff of knowledge or scholarship,” This of course assumes that the curator at the MFA did a terrible job of choosing the 50 works selected (from which 30 were selected) and that nobody at the MFA did anything other than hang those works wihout any attempt to provide context. I think there is a valid concern about how *much* scholarship goes into exhibitions deemed to be blockbusters, but Molesworth’s position strains credulity.

Former MAH curator Susan Leask quit because “she grew discouraged after the director asked for more ‘spontaneous exhibitions’ rather than shows that took deeper thought and up to a year to develop”. The kinds of shows director Nina Simon wanted more of included an exhibition on collecting “an event so popular she hopes to repeat it” but rather than discuss the merits of the concept, Gamerman informs us that it “featured contributions from residents that included an array of historic American flags and an assortment of dryer lint.” Get it? Curators=scholarship+thought. Participation=dryer lint+popularity.

This is by no means an isolated view. This notion that *any* audience involvement means complete loss of curatorial control is supposed to be widespread. According to Molesworth, “When museum crowdsourcing is raised privately among curators, she said, the subject prompts a reaction of ‘silent dismay.'” And there’s a big problem – the silence of the curators.

The silence of the curators

Silence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Alberto Ortiz

Silence
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Alberto Ortiz

If you’ve read any of the opinion pieces that have come out in the past few years about the state of museums and their attempts to stay relevant, you often find traditionalists pitted against progressive practitioners. On the traditionalist side you find commentators, usually outside of the field but allied to it – art critics, journalists and the like – sneering at projects that upset traditional practice. And on the other side, you will usually hear museum directors, and other staff with weird job titles with words like “engagement” “audience” and “digital” in them.

Where are the curatorial voices in this? All too often, they are silent, or only talking amongst themselves. Molesworth and Leask, two curators interviewed in Gamerman’s piece are such exceptions, that Judith Dobrzynski goes so far as to call them “brave” in a recent Real Clear Arts blogpost for standing up to the juggernaut of political correctness.  Projects like Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One is a clear outlier, where they mobilized staff from across the institution to conceive, develop and interpret an ambitious attempt to interact with their audience in new ways, and then act as spokespeople for the project and museum. Would that were more of them.

If you have any good examples of curators out in public engaging with these issues, I’d love to hear about them.

Let’s be clear, though. Molesworth’s and the silent curators’ dismay is not entirely unfounded. I think if you were to look at a large sample of museum projects with participatory elements, you’d find plenty that had poorly thought out and articulated goals and dubious educational value. Which is something that the field as a whole could stand to look at closely. If the debate about the value of participatory projects is to be answered, it has to be answered with evidence that these projects achieve institutional goals as well as, if not better than, traditonally produced projects. And that evidnece is hard to come by, in my experience, in anything other than really coarse measures like attendance, and anecdotal reports of “engagement”.

Send me studies, if you know of them.

A little ageism, anyone?

Get Off My Lawn by Deviantart user Karkan

Get Off My Lawn
by Deviantart user Karkan

I have to say I was particularly dismayed that the author chose to introduce Nina Simon as, “a 33-year-old former engineer with corkscrew hair, a treehouse tattoo that matches her husband’s and a 14-month-old daughter named Rocket” when no other person in the article was treated to the same kind of physical scrutiny. The implication seems to be that her age, and non-mainstream appearance means she’s “not one of the club”. It is worth noting, that the only time age gets mentioned by Ms Gamerman is in the discussion of MAH. Simon is 33. Her new curator is 32. An artist who clashed with Simon is 55, and Susan Leask, the former curator who quit rather than work on Hack the Museum is 66 and “has worked as a curator for 25 years”. Why aren’t we treated to descriptions of anyone else’s hair? Nina’s hair is indeed very, very curly, but it’s a needless bit of snark more at home in a Buzzfeed or Jezebel article than the WSJ, and does nothing to advance the argument of the piece.

Oh yeah, and the illustration shows a chaotic, messy gallery full of people not silently communing with individual works of art. It’s a salon style hang, too. Many of the people look young, too.

I know that has nothing to do with the author and is a job assigned to a graphic designer by the paper’s editors after the article written. I had some back and forth with Dobrzynski about an earlier Times op-ed she’d written, with a similar kind of illustration. Her defense was that she had nothing to do with the image and it didn’t represent her writing. That may well be, but I also know that if people closest to the story and the author figure that it’s an accurate representation of the piece and publish it, then it’s fair game.

What does it say about us?
Probably the biggest takeaway a novice museumgoer might glean from the article is that there’s this conflict going on in museums between curators and people interested in art and learning on one side, and young popularists, interested in…something… on the other side. The dominant narrative is that proponents of participatory projects are only interested in getting bodies in the door.  The existential threat of declining participation in cultural organizations like museums is real and many institutions struggle. A director might be forgiven if she prioritized keeping the place open over scholarship, but the implication is clear that the pendulum has swung too far towards visitors in too many museums, such that curators are rendered speechless and impotent to change it. The less charitable frame the whole thing as a scam or a sham put over on gullible publics by heartless administrators who only want to cash in and don’t give a hoot about any of the rigor or scholarship that has defined art museums in the 20th century.  They seem to be the most active unfortunately.

In Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post piece, among other gems that he offered the museum going readership was the exhortation not to “waste your time with educators who indulge the time-wasting sham of endless questions about what you are feeling and thinking.” This was merely one of the “deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture”.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and blogger Lee @culturegrrl Rosenbaum recently tweeted at each other about  the “scam” that participation really is.

I’ll leave it to your imaginations to guess what Judith Dobrzynski thinks of this.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this (aside from disbelief that educated, career museumgoers could have so little understanding of how museums actually function) is that the field has done a lousy job of making the case for or against participatory projects as educationally valid experiences. The proponents of involving visitors need to be driving the conversation past talk of popularity, and “engagement” and the alleged cohort of silently dismayed curators (and others) who view this as a betrayal need to press hard for evidence that these projects deliver.

And maybe I need to read fewer op-eds…

If I’m missing important work that’s being done, do let me know. This stuff deserves some real discussion.

I’ll try to wrap it up tomorrow. This was getting too long for a single blogpost, so stay tuned for a more upbeat look at curation out in the wild.

17 responses to ““Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part One

  1. I think there’s actually another path out of this mess.

    My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.

    The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.

    Just as I’d like a science museum to have a strong opinion on vaccination, climate change, and evolution, the art museum exhibits I enjoy most are those whose opinions are strongly held and effectively presented – even if they are confronting.

  2. Even more disturbing, Gamerman had evidently made up her mind on exactly what she wanted to say before she researched the piece. The reason I say this is that she interviewed me, and I made many of the points you cover, Ed. Note she didn’t include a single quote (or example) drawn from our pretty extensive conversation.

  3. Reblogged this on UCF History and commented:
    Hmmm….some interesting points to think on. Any thoughts?

  4. Thanks, Ed. You hit the nail on the head of some of the thoughts swirling in my head post-experience, especially as they relate to generational bias and commodification of community involvement. I’ll be writing about the piece on Museum 2.0 next week.

    I do agree that we have to continue to build our ability to make our case–succinctly, clearly, without jargon. I spent hours with Ellen Gamerman both in person and on the phone. I found myself floundering several times; falling into her frame and context instead of sticking with my own. I would love for someone linguistically-minded, inside/outside the field to develop some clear framing language. Like what George Lakoff did for Democrats with Don’t Think of an Elephant!… only for community-engaged arts practice. I wonder who could do that.

  5. The conflict is not new but is in my opinion now very relevant since we have been consistently losing audience and funds. I do get that there is some discomfort with everyone’s a curator approach. But unless we, art museums, change our model of operating and start talking with and about things that matter to people in our communities we will be out of business. We are finding success in adding more focus and investment on programming and arts experiences. Inviting others to partake in the creative process in some way is very engaging to a much wider range of audience. We are also looking very closely at our process of how and why we choose exhibitions. We are big fans of Nina Simon and love Museum 2.0. Keep it coming my curly haired sister!

  6. Hi Ed, Thanks for your interesting reflections on current debate around contemporary curating. Characterising the current role of curating as ‘sense making’ makes good sense to me. Readers might like to read and comment on this post too. http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/insidethecollection/?s=art+curating

  7. Seb
    Not sure if your solution solves the dilemma entirely ie to take a stance and curate and argue forthrightly from that perspective (eg re vaccination). The dilemma? Which and who’s opinion gets funded? Maybe a more wholistic and open approach, where multiple voices and opinions have an opportunity to participate without fear of violent or disruptive redress, would be challenging and stimulating?
    A-M

  8. Pingback: “Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two | Thinking about museums

  9. Pingback: Where’s the Community in the Crowd? | artexhibitsarchitecture

  10. Pingback: Reading for January 20 | uncghis626

  11. Pingback: The culture wars | Thinking about museums

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