Art Appreciation and the Need for Curation

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A curator’s primary responsibility generally includes the acquisition, care, presentation, and interpretation of works of art in a museum’s collection. But curators also play a vital and essential role in our understanding of the art and culture of both past and present times. They challenge existing perceptions and also shape the discourse around art that is to come in the future. Through the selection of artwork and the juxtaposition and interpretation that follows, curators are able to generate dialogue between the artwork, audience, and the institution. It is clear that the curator’s role is certainly a wide encompassing one that is concerned with the entire physical and intellectual experience of an exhibition. But does this necessarily mean that curation is essential to art appreciation?

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Rossen Ventzislavov, in his essay Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator, argues that curating should be considered a form of fine art. He structures his defense of the curator in three parts. He begins by discussing how the curator creates artistic value by the very act of selection and by introducing new “custodial narratives” (V, 83) The importance of selection in the curator’s work is evident in Ventzislavov’s discussion of Henri Matisse’s The Dance and its placement by a stairway at the MoMA. He cites Walter Benjamin, who believes that the placement of The Dance embraces the tradition of “pre-museum spectatorship” by favoring an environment where visitors can have a more intimate experience with the work. (V, 86) Marcel Duchamp’s well-known gesture of artistic selection was simply placing a piece of common plumbing in a gallery. Ventzislavov writes, “Duchamp’s work saw the beginnings of regarding gallery space as dialogically related and/or equivalent to the art it hosts.” (V, 87) His works redefined the limits of what it meant to be an artist-curator. Ventzislavov then moves on to respond to the arguments proposed by those who disagree with him on the issue of whether or not curators create artistic value, contextualizing his response by discussing our evolving definitions of artists and artworks. Towards his conclusion, Ventzislavov examines the problematic normative structure that favors the strict division of labor between artist and curator and considers their respective roles as they have been traditionally assumed: “The artist makes art in the primary and naked sense of thrusting something new into the world, creating value ex nihilo, as it were. The rest of the art world engages in art in the secondary, mediated sense.” (V, 84) He concludes that as long as normative hierarchical structure exists, the divide between the artist and curator will also persist.

In Curator as Auteur, Steven Lubar writes on the curatorial philosophy of Richard Rabinowitz, who is one of the leading public historians in the United States and the curator behind the Slavery in New York exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in 2005-2006. Rabinowitz believes in interpretive exhibitions and the curator as an auteur. He sees his job as creating stories around the objects so that they inspire visitors to invent stories for themselves. (L, 72) Exhibits need to be about stories and narratives, which can have many dimensions. He sees two dimensions to time, writing that “to interpret is to imagine one cast of historical actors stepping out of the document, and another set of modern-day visitors coming across it. Historical time and exhibit time flow together. (L, 72) He insists on the importance of narrative to interpretive design, disparaging exhibition designers who do not appreciate historical narrative and vice versa. Rabinowitz is also in support of the opinion that objects, regardless of whether they are encased in glass, “still invites visitors to adopt a kinesthetic relationship to the story, to extend their own senses.” (L, 73) Objects are “sticky,” according to Rabinowitz; meanings stick to them. But it is the curator’s responsibility to tell stories from those meanings. Towards the end of the article, Lubar questions whether Rabinowitz’s model of exhibition development is a feasible one. He concludes that though the curator as auteur is an appealing possibility, it seems unlikely to be widely adopted because the stakes are simply too high: small museums don’t have the resources and large museums have a corporate culture that prefers the security of a successful exhibit by remaining within the confines of the bureaucratic structure rather than taking their chances on one person. (L, 74) Lubar concludes his essay by suggesting four ways in which exhibition designers and curators can learn from Rabinowitz’s model: understand your audience, understand the content of the exhibition, understand design, think like a dramatist. He believes that although Rabinowitz’s philosophy may be idealistic, there are skills that are essential to curatorial work that in most museums are found spread across multiple departments.

Both Ventzislavov and Lubar write optimistically on issues that pertain to the question of whether curation is necessary to fully appreciate a work of art. Ventzislavov firmly believes in the curator’s claim to artistry and claims that those who reject this view typically cite division of labor as the means of distinguishing curatorial work from artistic work. Lubar sees the curator as an auteur, “a creative mastermind.” (L, 71) He sees no sharp line distinguishing the objects in a museum from the interpretive and physical interventions made by curators and designers. Of course, a work of art is still a work of art even if it is sitting in storage in a museum, packaged in cardboard and bubble wrap. The decisions that a curator makes or the opening of an exhibition does not ‘activate’ the work—the hanging of a painting or the display of a porcelain tea set inside a plexiglass cube does not suddenly make what would be an ordinary object “art”. But what Ventzislavov and Lubar are arguing is that one’s experience with and relationship to the object is undeniably influenced by the work of curators and exhibition directors. Often, certain curatorial decisions and design choices made regarding the exhibition space offer new ideas and concepts that one would not have thought about otherwise. And so, curation, in their opinions, is a necessary step to fully appreciate artworks, whether that means deliberately selecting artworks that, shown together, can create an entirely separate work of art in a conceptual sense, or arranging objects and stories so that they move visitors to create their own.

Works cited

  1. Ventzislavov, R. (2012). Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator. Art Journal, 71(3), 82-91.
  2. Benjamin, W. (1999). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In M. Bullock & M. W. Jennings (Eds.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (Vol. 4, pp. 251-283). Harvard University Press.
  3. Duchamp, M. (2002). The Creative Act. In R. Lebel (Ed.), Marcel Duchamp: Les Dessins du Musee National d'Art Moderne (pp. 429-430). Centre Georges Pompidou.
  4. Lubar, S. (2008). Curator as Auteur. Curator: The Museum Journal, 51(1), 67-75.
  5. Rabinowitz, R. (2008). Slavery in New York: The Curator as Auteur. Curator: The Museum Journal, 51(1), 59-66.
  6. Duncan, C. (2010). The Art Museum as Ritual. The Art Bulletin, 92(1), 1-25.
  7. Hein, G. E. (2000). The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective. Smithsonian Institution Press.
  8. Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1992). Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. Routledge.
  9. O'Doherty, B. (1986). Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. University of California Press.
  10. Pearce, S. M. (2016). The Museum as Process: Translating Local and Indigenous Knowledges. Routledge.

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