Curating Art Now

Lilian Cameron offers a bold appraisal of the curatorial field, in a “now” so current as to consider the 2019 Venice Biennale as its starting point.

What a curator is, and what a curator does, has been an evolving discussion over the past century, with the role and reach of curation developing in concert with the changing landscape of museums and how visitors interact with art. The last thirty years have seen a proliferation of biennials and art fairs, and explosions in the financial power of commercial galleries and auction houses. Curators have, in some ways, stepped out of the dusty back rooms of museums and into the spotlight – a spotlight of searing intensity and contradiction. This rise in the visibility of the curator in the 1990s parallels the import of DJs during this period, their brands becoming sometimes more foregrounded than the musicians they were playing. These über-curators, too, became – often reluctantly – more prominent than the artists they showed. Curators have been increasingly called upon to make sense of changing models of exhibition, readdressing the inherent deficiencies of representation in collections while decolonising and decentring practice from a Eurocentric starting point. This has taken place against a phenomenal rise in the visitation of exhibitions, and the intrinsic raise in stakes required to fund an increasingly hungry machine of cultural production, soft power, and pervasive capitalism.

Lilian Cameron’s new “curatorial text,” Curating Art Now, situates itself firmly in ideas of the now, and how the now has evolved from traditional notions of curating in the recent past. It traces the fundamental definition of curation from its beginnings, as linked to the care and conservation of objects, through to the rise of independent curation. It also considers the dilution of the term “curating,” recently hijacked to capriciously encompass individuals’ or organisations’ efforts in “curating” diverse offerings, from social media profiles to playlists, in attempts to associate themselves with the rarefied cultural prestige of the moniker.

The text begins by looking at the 2019 Venice Biennale as emblematic of a temporal shift in the definition of curating, and indeed of curators. The 2019 edition of the Biennale was delivered against the backdrop of Brexit and growing urgency around climate change, as well as discussions around elitism and the relevance of this most celebrated of exhibitions. This exhibition was profoundly interrupted, too, by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also led to the delay of the most recent iteration of the Biennale. The 2022 Biennale was then framed by the war in Ukraine, with its Pavilion of the Russian Federation dusty and closed in the heart of the Giardini – an unintentionally poignant artistic intervention of absence. The 2022 Biennale also saw the Nordic Pavilion given over to a wide-ranging First Nations curatorium led by the Indigenous Sámi people, and renamed the Sámi Pavilion – this gesture a direct interrogation of the concept that ideas are born in nations, as opposed to communities bonded by commonality.

Rather than explaining recent changes to the role of curators and curating as solely the result of geopolitical conditions, Cameron looks at several concurrent elements of change in recent times, including access to knowledge and diversity of participants, curatorial education, changing roles in museum structures, decolonisation, artists obtaining curatorial agency, and the rise of the digital, fuelled by the dislocation of the pandemic. Instead of bemoaning the early 2020s as a period of uncertainty and chaos, Cameron looks to the opportunity that these uncertain times have brought to redefine the nascent field of curating.

In analysing the history of curating, Cameron takes as her starting point the definition of the word and its Latin root, “curare” (“to take care of”). This definition is a ubiquitous starting point in curatorial education worldwide. The etymological reminder could be read as a subtle way of defining a noble responsibility of caring for artworks and, it follows, for artists, on the part of the curator. It also sets up an eternal argument about the way that a curator cares: objectively and passively, or subjectively and actively. How much should a curator allow their voice and their creativity to influence an exhibition, in both its development and realisation? Cameron points to Harald Szeemann as a curator who exemplified a push into the subjective presence of curators in exhibitions, while highlighting the scholarly writing of eminent curators such as Okwui Enwezor and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. These curators rose during a blurring of the nature of exhibitions between the mid-point of the twentieth century and the present, where curators were called upon to curate exhibitions outside of institutions and into commercial galleries and art fairs.

Curating Art Now is a bold and engaging attempt to examine the fundamental contradictions and pressures faced by the field of curating in an increasingly fractured post-truth world. It is a balanced and nuanced take on the current curatorial landscape, with equal parts pragmatism and idealism. It is of its time: an undefined “now.” Cameron concludes this text with optimism, positioning curators as the consciousness of this wider art world – change agents held to a higher standard proportionate to their power, influence, and learning. The text is equal parts a celebration and a challenge to increase efforts towards an undefinable goal: a clarion call to care.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62
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