Curatoriality is a concept I was first introduced to in 2017 while participating in the Second International Conference on African Culture in Harare at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. The concept was introduced to me by independent radical scholar, political analyst, and decolonial theorist George Shire who described it as the power inherent to curation. As someone who was, at the time, enamored by the notion of curation (I am significantly less so now), this idea appealed to me as something that deserved interrogating.
In my initial investigation, written as a part of my 2018 curatorial residency at Bridge Productions, I wrote,
Admittedly, I found no fault with Shire’s offering then and I find no fault now. When I have had the opportunity to observe the curatorial process in close proximity, or when I sit and speak with my artist colleagues —even when the final product is ad opus magnificus— it is inevitable that I either witness or am informed about at least one, if not several instances of, misuse of power. The positive stories are, regrettably, fewer. To be clear, artists do not expect perfection. They do, based on feedback I have received, expect professionalism and to be treated like a human, not a product.
Unfortunately, the misuses of curatorial power abound. These often manifest when curators treat living artists as if they are deceased and canonized. For example, a curator might promise to fund certain aspects of an exhibition, and after contracts have been signed attempts to renege on that promise more than halfway through the planning stages, thus derailing the entire process. Or this may constitute a promise to include a series of works from the outset of the planning and in the weeks leading up to the opening, state it is impossible to include the initial agreed-upon works.
2018 and 2019’s investigations, both casual and immersive, have reinforced the ways in which some curators do an impoverished job of balancing the responsibilities of their role (which is inherently facilitative) with the need for attention and recognition. Recent observations of problematic curatoriality included:
the lack of due diligence conducted about an artist with whom the curator has scheduled a studio visit, which is revealed consistently throughout the studio visit, without any regard for the level of disrespect shown towards the artist who has set aside time to dedicate to engaging with someone who is allegedly a professional;
the grouping of artists solely based on race (or minority status) without also incorporating a critical lens which considers the artists career achievement (emerging versus established), visibility (what volume of visibility does an artist have or not have), and the quality of discourse present in the work;
giving repeat visibility in multiple iterations of the same biennial to a single artist (or group of artists) as opposed to offering a slot to an emerging artist or even an established artist with less visibility. This suggests preferential treatment on the part of the curator or internal politics that allow artists with visibility and a thriving career to curry favor and influence unjustly;
refusals to consult known and accessible subject matter experts that would offer a more expansive visual narrative and rigorous public discourse. Instead, remaining within the confines of reductive ideologies that serve only to push forward the myopic western, heteronormative storyline;
attempts to shift the spotlight when the artist (and the art works) whose work a curator has organized into a succinct, clear, and rigorous exhibition gets more attention than the curator;
refusals to create original texts based on research conducted by the curator him or herself, generated through literature review, interviews with the artists, and/or interviews with scholars, colleagues, and acquaintances of the artist, and where sources are publicly cited; and
creating exhibitions around non-artists solely because of their pop-culture world affiliations and the potential amounts of people said exhibition may bring to the space not because they possess any rigorous thinking or output about a given topic;
As I recall these instances, I return to the Latin root of the word curate, cura, which means to take care. While, I am not so hopeless as to believe most curators eschew the role of caretaker, the fact remains that when I speak to artists they tell me stories rife with poor treatment and negative experiences doled out by curators. There is a dearth of care and further, the offending curators are rarely taken to task neither by their institutions nor by the artists whom they treat so unprofessionally.
The vicious cycle that is the art world promotes siloed silences so that instances of problematic curatoriality appear to be isolated events and the artist is either an enfant terrible or immature and naive. While some artists are indeed these things, most truly want an opportunity to show their work and have generative conversation surrounding it. Often, the price they pay for that desire is being subjected to the whims of curators and other art professionals who expect deference they haven’t earned, who know precious little about their work (and are unwilling to research and/or engage the artists), and for whom curation is simply an opportunity to glean attention without the offering of actual skill and meaning.
The role of curator is a service role: it offers opportunities for knowledge creation, audience engagement, and to uplift art and artists without whom curators, nor any other professional working in the visual arts, would have work. When performed well, it generates an insightful historical record, creates points of departures for new analyses and bodies of work, and brings communities together. The artist establishes his or her prowess for making aesthetically compelling and conceptually rigorous work, and the curator establishes himself/herself as a champion of artists. This is the type of curatoriality I want artists to experience more frequently and that I want to hear about more often. I hope museums and other arts institutions are holding their curatorial staffs to these standards and course correcting when they fall short.
Wishful thinking? I hope not.
Negarra A. Kudumu
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