In the past few years, “curation” has become one of the most overused buzzwords, entering the lexicon of industries far removed from the art world. Its rise in popularity is undoubtedly due to the nature of the modern era and the unabating daily avalanche of information. Whatever the reason, the ability to curate—to analyze and filter through the material, recognize important connections, and present the resulting story in an engaging way—is a skill that has been elevated in significance, increasing the value of curatorial programs in tandem.
Whether you are conceptualizing an exhibit, considering a career as a curator, or have an interest in applying the curation process to your own field, there are certain key skills to hone. MA Art Business Program Director, Jenny Gibbs, offers her advice on the heels of the Hebru Brantley show she curated at the Elmhurst Art Museum.
Curatorial staff at the Whitney Museum; Photo: Nic Lehoux, 2015
Location, location, location
From understanding the core tenets of the craft to conceptualizing the idea and choosing the artist to highlight, the road to curating a show is one of many parts. But even the most thorough effort will prove to be futile if formulated without a specific location in mind. First and foremost, a show must be site-specific. As Jenny says, “Think about the four walls around your show. Where are they? Who has control over those walls? Where are the gaps in their programming?” It's vital to know all there is to know about the location before you proceed with the concept and the execution.
Hebru Brantley with his work in "Hebru Brantley: Forced Field" at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 2017
Know your market
Along with educating yourself on the space and its needs, familiarize yourself with the potential audience. Who are you talking to? What is their interest in the topic and degree of knowledge? The curatorial approach can fall more on the didactic or the interactive side of the spectrum, and the choice should be made after a careful consideration of the audience in your market. From Jenny’s own experience at the Elmhurst, the shows that resonated the most were more experiential in nature and used a local hook, whether it was in the form of Chicago’s famed pinball machines or the characters from local street murals. But what works for some, may not work for others. Do your market research first.
Hans Ulrich Obrist in his office at Serpentine Galleries; Photo: Robbie Lawrence
Adaptability is key
There is a circulating misconception that the position of a curator is a glamorous, leading role. But in reality, a curator is the one working tirelessly behind the scenes, very often covered in paint, all in the service of the artist and the work. Even Hans Ulrich Obrist has said that the most important job of the curator is to be an effective facilitator – to help the artist tell the story and connect the viewer with the art. The key to success in the role is the ability to put aside one’s own preconceptions, and focus on serving the needs of the institution and the exhibit. As you continue to develop your curatorial practice, keep Jenny’s words in mind, “you’re the director. You’re not the star of the show.”
Featured image: Hans Ulrich Obrist at Sir John Soane’s Museum