In defence of the curator

Originally published on Apollo, 30th September 2013. 

Last week, Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak had a letter published in the Guardian in which he argued that contemporary art was in need of a revolution – one that would see a permanent end to the power of the curator and ‘put artists back at the centre of the art world’. Januszczak was responding to an article published three days earlier by Deborah Orr, who was, in turn, responding to Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture. Twitter, predictably, was polarised.

Some of Januszczak’s points are simply silly. ‘For 5,000 years,’ he says, ‘art survived perfectly well without curators.’ Yes, and it also survived without photography or the internet. But, at the risk of over-analysing a 200-word letter, there is one aspect of Januszczak’s argument that is worth examining, because it’s an opinion that is by no means unique: his simplistic dismissal of curators as ‘the pirates who’ve taken over the ship’.

The first clue that things may be a little more complex than Januszczak implies comes in the very image that the Guardian has chosen to illustrate the letter: a venerable-looking, gilt-framed landscape being escorted through a gallery by a white-gloved art handler. Of course, Januszczak isn’t objecting to art handlers (he acknowledged as much on Twitter) but the image points to the proliferation of meanings that the word ‘curator’ has come to be saddled with in recent years. At Tate, which Januszczak singles out for particular blame, every job title seems to have the word ‘curator’ in it somewhere.

Stemming from the Latin verb curare, curating traditionally involves the management and day-to-day care of a collection or archive. But contexts change, and words with them. There is no single art-world ‘ship’: the oligarchal yacht, the corporate speedboat, the artist’s raft and the publicly funded aircraft carrier (carrying no aircraft due to budget cuts) all sail more or less awkwardly side by side.

In these multiple contexts, the term ‘curator’ encompasses different roles – from the public figurehead that is Sir Nicholas Serota, and the fund-raising machine that is Julia Peyton-Jones, to the ‘lower’ level of curator (often also the gallerist or another artist) who dreams up exhibition concepts, develops ideas with artists, secures loans from museums or private collections, discovers disused spaces, arranges delivery times, unpacks artworks, and sits happily in an empty gallery every day.

The chief of these roles is the creative initiation of an exhibition concept: using imagination, knowledge, and experience to say something new and draw out connective threads. The second most important aspect is ensuring that the work of the artist(s) is presented in a context that allows it to speak in as many ways as possible.

Just as the word ‘curator’ has followed that of ‘editor’ into near-meaninglessness, so are there similarities between the two roles. The relationship is not based on opposition or competition, but on mutual respect. Like an editor, the curator can help the artist to fine-tune their work, or draw out unseen elements of that work by placing it alongside others in a particular context: as for a book or magazine, so for an exhibition. Nobody, in this scenario, is a pirate or a gatekeeper. Nobody is privileging their own creativity ahead of anyone else.

This is not to say that Januszczak does not have a point. As in seemingly every other area of contemporary life, the bureaucrats, consultants and administrators continue to proliferate and obfuscate, whilst those on the ‘front line’ (nurses, teachers, legal interpreters, and, yes, artists) are rendered ever more disposable. That those who actually produce are often the least well remunerated is a sad indictment of this age of management.

But the reasons for that are far more complex than Januszczak is able to acknowledge. At a time when the accountant is king, only the willfully blind can blame the curator.