Flying Arts Gazette, no. 90, 2006.
Contemporary-art curators are to art as surfers are to the ocean. We surf the waves of art. Oceanographers and fishermen appreciate the waves in one way, but surfers know them in another. As surfers, we are necessarily fickle. We go where the action is. We are not loyal to any single wave, but to ‘the waves’. When one wave dies, we paddle out and catch another. We walk, hitch, drive, or fly in search of surf. We spend a lot of time in the water, but only moments on the board, but that’s what it’s all about. To do it properly, you need to know stuff. You need to line up some fugitive and ineffable things: the right beach, the right wind, the right swell. Of course, the game itself has changed. In the old days, it was all about running away from the wave’s power, enjoying protracted, slow, arching turns. That was the graceful, long-board Malibu style. Nowadays, it’s our pleasure to linger in the power zone, requiring short boards and a responsive, jerky agility. But some people still do it the old way.
I’m a contemporary-art curator, an exhibition maker. I caught the art bug when my dad took me to the Auckland City Art Gallery to see the touring MOMA Surrealism show some time in the early 1970s. I was about nine, at the time. A lot of kids come to art through surrealism, it seems. I realised I wanted to be a curator when I was in my last year at high school, studying renaissance art history. But, looking back, I wonder if I even knew what being a curator meant. I went to university and did art history plus a few art-school papers. I hung out on the art scene and attended openings religiously. I got a placement as a curatorial intern at Wellington’s National Art Gallery in 1985 and I’ve been working as a curator ever since. I’ve been rather lucky. I climbed on early and stayed on. With just a Bachelor of Arts degree, I am less qualified than most of the guides who worked on the floor at my last public gallery.
I’ve worked as a curator for twenty years now, in New Zealand galleries big and small, in the cities and in the sticks. I was a curator at the National Art Gallery, at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, and at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. I directed Artspace, Auckland’s contemporary art centre, for five years, and then worked as contemporary art curator at Auckland Art Gallery. Now, I’m at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Over the years, I’ve made all sorts of shows with artists from New Zealand, Australia, and all over the world. My international curatorial experience includes organising New Zealand representation for the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 1999, Arte Guarene in Turin in 2000, the Sao Paulo Bienal in 2002, and the Venice Biennale in 2003. I never say no to travel.
Curators are lucky. We enjoy a very privileged relationship to art. Our work combines aspects of what the artist does (making shows, making art) and what the viewer does (having the experience, navigating it all). I love that combination of production and reception, having a foot in each role. I value the ‘show biz’ factor and the ‘feed your head’ factor. I like the excitement of putting on a show that people are talking about, and I like the fact that I can learn so much about art and other things along the way. And being a curator is a great calling card.
When I say I’m a curator, people often ask: ‘But do you do anything yourself?’ Meaning: ‘But do you make your own art?’ The truth is, I never wanted to be an artist. Curators and artists have a lot in common but there are big differences. To succeed, artists need to develop a very particular set of concerns, a focused body of work, whereas curators can chop and change. I prefer that promiscuity, that intellectual freedom. A lot of people complain about the fickleness of curators and of the scene in general, but I think it’s generative. It’s the life of contemporary art. It’s far preferable to stasis and orthodoxy and the canon.
I started curating at a time when curators had got big-headed. The new ideas associated with postmodernism allowed them to imagine themselves as authors. Curators like Harald Szeemann (who called himself a ‘spiritual guestworker’), Rudi Fuchs, Jan Hoet, and Christian Leigh were stars. They split from traditional approaches and the scholarly methodologies of art history to become more speculative, rhetorical, playful. They made curating cool. Szeemann particularly established the idea of the curator as a showman, conjuring with cultural capital. Under their influence, curators everywhere began presenting themselves as cultural mixmasters, as uber-artists who made their own art by juxtaposing artists’ works. Suddenly thematic, issue-based and Zeitgeist-diagnosing shows took priority over retrospectives. For a moment artists were grist to a curatorial mill.
The work I did through the late 1980s and early 1990s was informed by this adventure. I was motivated by the thought: what happens if I hang this next to that? This code-clashing curatorial imperative was aligned with the philosophies of appropriation and image-scavenging current in art at that time. If artists would reiterate and recode other artists’ imagery to their own ends, why couldn’t curators?
For me, this impulse culminated in Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art, which I curated with Bernice Murphy for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1992. A survey of New Zealand post-war art, it remains the most comprehensive export exhibition of New Zealand art ever. But in place of the careful art historical approach one might expect from such a show, Headlands was wilful. We put together works in odd but also oddly plausible ways, leveraged on iconographic affinities and rhymes of style. We read the art against the grain—against the grain of orthodoxy anyway. Back home, the show proved controversial. Its critics included artists in the show.
Headlands was an exercise in deranging the canon, but it was also very curator-centric. You always had a sense of a curator being behind the scenes pulling the strings or pointing. Doing Headlands got that overtly-curated approach out of my system and I’ve never wanted to do a show like that since. It freed me up to do different kinds of projects. Since then I have focused more on solo shows and artists’ projects where the curator’s role is less prominent, less explicit but no less important, and where there’s more collusion. That was especially so in my time at Artspace, where the program was based on a quick turnover of solo shows and artists’ projects.
I like the craft of exhibition making, the intricacies, the problem solving. When I make a show, I have to think about which artists, which works, and how I’m going to articulate them in space. But it’s more than that. I have to think about the design of the catalogue, the marketing campaign, the flavour of the education programmes, who is going to review it (and how). I have to think about the way the show operates within the frame of the gallery’s program, the artists’ practice, and the history of my own shows. I need to take into account everything that contributes to the way the show reads.
For me, curating has always been stimulating—such a pleasure. So, I am surprised that so few art-history graduates want to go on to be curators. When would-be curators start out today, it may seem that there are limited opportunities, but there are lots of ways to get experience without having a museum job and getting that experience puts you at the head of the queue. If you are interested in becoming a curator, I suggest you simply roll your sleeves up and dive in. Infiltrate the scene, get to know the artists and other players, put together some shows for artist-run initiatives, and get your writing out there—establish yourself as a voice. Curating is one of those things you learn by doing. The next wave is yours.
[IMAGE: Robert Longo Untitled (Backdoor Pipeline, Hawaii, Spring 1999) 2000]