Monday 3 November 2014

Is Giselle a curator?

Giselle Ciulla, Clark Art Institute (image taken from the website)
Is everyone who feels dazzled by medicine, follows the news, marvels at the advances registered and shares them with other people, a “doctor”?

Is every person who is fascinated with the stars, reads about them, has a telescope and does observations, an “astronomer”?

Is every person who likes art, has some favourite pieces and wishes to share and discuss the feelings and ideas these works provoke a “curator”?

What distinguishes an amateur from a professional and an interested person from an amateur? This is not exactly an original question, but the context in which museums operate today puts it once again on the table.

When I first read about the project uCurate of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, USA, I was thrilled with the idea. I wrote at the time that this is also the role of museums in society, a role that allows for involvement, active participation, which recognizes that there are more than one versions of the ‘truth’ and creates a place for them to be shared. There was one thing, though, that I felt very critical about: the fact that Giselle Ciulla, an 11-year-old whose proposal won the 2012 competition, was mentioned on the institute´s website as the “curator”.

Is Giselle a curator? Does the fact that she is a young person with interests, ideas, needs, opinions, who chose a number of works from the Institute´s collection and put them together into an exhibition make her a curator? Or rather a curator is somenone who – together with the ideas, needs, and feelings – has got the technical knowledge that can help shape ideas and needs into interesting, relevant, inspiring exhibitions, open to discuss more than one truths, nowadays with the help of the people who wish to be involved? The Wikipedia is an impressive collaborative project, where people may contribute and share their knowledge. Behind the entries, though, there are “curators” who make sure the information shared is accurate, otherwise the project would lose its credibility. What kind of analogies to the world of museums and their crowdsourced projects can we find here?

In an article entitled What is photography when everyone’s a photographer?, Joan Fontcberta is quoted saying Taking a picture today is easy and little attention is given to craft. This means that the art quality no longer resides in the fabrication but in the prescription of meaning”. Who´s responsible for prescribing a “meaning” in museums and helping fullfil the intentions? Ed Rodley states in his post ’Outsourcing’ the curatorial impulse: “If I had to characterize the essence of present-day curation, it would be ‘sense-making’”.

Far from defending the “omniscient and all-powerful curator” and being very supportive of all attempts to involve all people interested in museum work (so that what´s presented in them may be the result of extensive involvement and contributions from a number of people, thus more relevant), I wouldn´t get to the point of not distinguishing or confusing the roles of those involved.

In a recent article entitled Everybody´s an Art Curator, Elen Gamerman points out some of the main issues in the current debate: “The trend is sparking a growing debate among artists, curators and other art-world professionals about everything from where to draw the line between amateurs and experts to what even constitutes a crowdsourced show. How far can museums go in delegating choices to the public? How tightly should they control the voting on exhibit content? And at what point does a museum start looking too much like a community center?”.

Community activities at the Santa Cruz Art and History Museum (image taken from Nina Simon´s blog Museum 2.0)

Good question... A person attending the course I am currently giving on museum communications asked me after watching Nina Simon´s TED talk Opening up the museum: “Does the museum [Santa Cruz Art and History Museum, where Nina Simon is the director] keep in the collection works made by people who attend their workshops?”. And I would take this questions further: “If they do, do they keep all of them, some, on what criteria?”. I am a great admirer of Nina Simon and her vision regarding participatory museums, but we should not limit our evaluation of what she is trying to achieve to financial gains and attendance. There´s much more to it and Nina is doing what many more museum directors should be doing: risking, experimenting, evaluating.

The context in which museums operate today is specific, but the whole situation is not exactly new. It occurs every time there is a significant change in the environment (social, political, technological). There is a need to rethink things, to plan differently, to adapt. I believe that the current environment asks for museums to be as much about the present as they are about the past. It asks for curators to be prepared to cater not only for their peers, but also for the “normal” people who wish to enjoy the museum and see it as part of their lives and communities. 

Yes, this means paying attention and being sensitive to the changes taking place. Yes, this means sharing authority and creating space for different views of the world. Yes, this means experimenting and taking risks. Yes, this means developing new programmes and skills. 

No, it doesn't mean that museums must become something else, something they are not (from community centres to health centres to youth corrective services and so on). No, it doesn't mean that everyone's a curator. No, it doesn't mean mistaking crowdsourced projects for give-people-what-they-are-asking-for projects.

So, how to go about this? I believe museums and the professionals working in them should focus on their competitive position. They should focus on what makes them special, different from other institutions. They should capitalize on their strong points and develop the necessary skills to face and work with new realities. The ultimate objective is to remain alive and relevant. And that takes some courage. It takes some attitude too.

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