As the art world shifts and responds to diverse new influences ranging from the economic to the technological, what are the challenges facing a generation of young curators operating in New York City and further afield? How is the face of curation changing, and how do museums, institutions, and galleries respond to a cultural environment in which art is increasingly spectacle-oriented and nearly everyone with a blog or Tumblr can be viewed as a bedroom curator? The Last Magazine asked four young curators from a wide spectrum of galleries and museums to discuss these and other issues that are reshaping the way art is exhibited and viewed.
KEVIN GREENBERG What is a curator’s role in the art world? Or in society at large? And what’s the relationship between artist, curator, and the public?
SARAH SUZUKI I think part of what we do, or what I do, is to be a lens through which the public sees artwork. Part of what we’re charged with doing is seeing as much as we can, wherever that may be, and figuring out ways to synthesize material to make connections to bring together artists that we think deserve platforms from which to reach a broader audience.
CLARA DRUMMOND So is it choosing which artists to present?
SS I think that’s a big piece of it. I mean it’s interesting, the group that’s here, because some of us also deal with collection. And that, for me, is also an important part of what I do, the ongoing care and collection for all future time, and yours is much older…and so I think that’s another aspect of it. I think what’s also really important is having a kind of historical basis from which to operate, so that the work isn’t just about what you’re seeing in the moment. Because even if you look through 1980s issues of Artforum, a lot of the artists that they featured in those issues, a lot of the big ads, don’t necessarily remain part of the conversation today. It’s like a moving target.
SIMON CASTETS I think there was a study about Art Basel that said that thirty years ago you had this many artists, then thirty years after you only have two or three people…
KATHY GRAYSON Jeffrey [Deitch] said that in every generation there are only two remembered.
KG Who do you think are the two that are remembered from
KG Probably Koons and Basquiat. Probably Haring gets booted in favor of Basquiat. Koons is still working, still relevant. Schnabel would probably get booted…
KG Kenny Scharf anyone?
KG Aw, I love Kenny. I did a show with Kenny last November. And I’m building a restaurant and I’m going to have him do the basement as like a permanent cosmic cavern. I’m so excited. He’s the nicest guy to work with. There are lots of ’80s artists that are having this revival right now because history repeats itself, and also because they’re still working and still dong fresh stuff.
KG George Condo is one, for instance…
KG Totally. I feel like it’s the dynamics of the market that really decide posterity when you’re talking about the long term. The reason I worked in a commercial gallery and not in a museum is that I felt like, with my very limited knowledge of how these dynamics work, it seems like museums have to take cues from galleries: if you want to be the person that discovered an artist, you have to show them at a commercial gallery and make that viable for them to even have a chance of doing a show at a museum. So in terms of having the most influence over what art got shown of a generation, it seemed like being in a commercial gallery, getting to début new talent, was the easiest way to have an impact. I don’t even know if I like the word “curator” in the commercial gallery context, because I’m kind of a self-hating curator. I make fun of it, the grandiose language about what it means to curate because, at least in the commercial gallery world, curating for me is essentially just organizing the community of artists that already exists and putting its best foot forward. Great artists tend to form groups. And not always logical groups—the underground art scene has its own logic and connections, and so curating is really just arranging something that already exists and promoting it. So I don’t know if, in the commercial gallery world, curating has that much of a role. Often it is just what sells, or highlighting something awesome that already exists.
KG It goes without saying that we live in a time when the market’s influence over the art world is almost certainly more pervasive than it’s ever been in the past.
KG Really good art sells. That’s an easy thing. Whenever you start freaking out about gimmicks and trends, really good art sells. And if you have an open relationship to experiencing good art in different forms, you can just follow your heart and head as opposed to your market-trend watch.
KG But isn’t there also good art that doesn’t sell, that cannot sell, or is designed not to sell?
KG Well, if you define good as particularly relevant to the moment, which is one of my criteria of what good art is—that it’s uniquely of-the-moment, it couldn’t have been made in another time, it captures what now feels like—then good art sells. Usually when art really captures the moment, it also intersects with the trend that led to its market viability.
KG How do you think a curator’s work is different now than it was ten years ago or twenty years ago?
CD There are a couple of things that I would say. One would be, and it’s not a new story, but one would be the kind of utter and complete globalization of the art world. Simon, I think the last time we ran into each other was purely by coincidence in Tokyo, right? Before we ran into each other on Grand Street for Performa. And there is this kind of broadening and flattening…Istanbul, Tokyo, Paris, Abu Dhabi are all centers of production and need to be attended to.
KG So it has to do with having to keep track of a lot more movement?
CD I would say so.
SC Or simply being able to. Because in the ’50s, ’60s you couldn’t travel as expansively as people do today.
SS Technology is a huge change.
KG Has the Internet made it easier to discover an artist who you might not have access to otherwise?
KG It’s actually a nightmare. I’m trying to curate a show about new techniques of painting in the digital age, and so I found one nerd I liked, and then through that nerd I found a million other nerds and a million other nerds and all of a sudden there are three hundred artists I’m trying to consider for this four-person art show. Because every nerd is like, “You have to check out this site”. They sort of curate their own community. So you find local experts. You need somebody to help sift it with you. So if you can find one good artist, you can kind of tease out a network through them.
CD Yes, but that makes your job more important though, right? Because someone finally has to say…
KG Yeah, but I just think there’s something phony in it because I’m not an expert and essentially I’m going to look at these three hundred artists and pick the four that I think are best, but based on my own internal criteria about the logic of the community, because I’m not really part of it.
KG But that seems to me like a very integral part of curating, though. You are ultimately the arbiter, the one who makes the decisions about what to expose to the art-buying market of New York City.
KG Well, it’s true. There are so many good options. It comes down to ridiculous factors like which guy came for his appointment on-time and which girl forgot her iPad and all of a sudden there’s an art show.
KG [laughs] For an artist it’s terrifying. They have to deal with people like me? It’s insane.
CD Curating is quickly becoming this word that now has cultural value and has nothing to do with art.
KG You curate skirts in the front window of the shop…
CD Exactly. When we choose whatever we read on blogs and on Tumblr, I want to read those things and think people are making good choices. You only have time to read so much because there’s so much out there.
KG But is there something that’s fundamentally different in what you’re doing at the Morgan from what somebody in Iowa City is doing on their Tumblr? You’re both aggregating something that feels important to you (or that’s been deemed important by institutional mandate) but is there something fundamentally different, or more important or more grave, about what goes on at the Morgan?
CD No. [LAUGHS] I mean it would depend what was on the Tumblr.
KG [LAUGHS] I guess if I were to argue for the Morgan, I would say you have great credentials and you’re educated and you’re probably working to promote something you think will benefit the society at large. Whereas somebody who’s curating a Tumblr in their bedroom in Iowa, there’s more self-interest there.
CD Yeah, that’s true. But people can have all sorts of different agendas, and the outcome can be something worth seeing and considering.
KG Can a good curator have bad taste?
SS Oh my god, of course. Bad taste in what, though? You can have bad taste in shoes… [LAUGHS] That’s the thing. What you would choose for yourself is not necessarily what you choose to put on the walls of a gallery. Like I have an utter weakness for animal art. An utter and complete weakness. If it’s got a penguin in it or a cute kitten, I’m for it. It’s horrible.
KG Ah, but Clara’s animal show…
SS I know, that’s why when you said it I’m like, Oh my god, I’m going to see that.
KG So Clara has bad taste?
SS No, no, no. She’s got since the dawn of time to draw on. I’ve got Toulouse-Lautrec cats, which yes, are charming, but…
KG You have to know your blind spots.
KG Like I have a big blind spot too in a certain area: I was a painter in college too and I loved painting bad-looking JPEG’s. So I cannot be asked for my opinion of things like vintage video games because I think they’re awesome and I know they’re not. So I know when to ask somebody else for their opinion, when I can’t make a proper decision.
SS I think you said it exactly right. We all have blind spots. But an awareness of that helps.
SC What do you say if you should have bad taste, but then you’re somehow supposed to define what taste is also? There’s also of course a schtick about including things that are not of good taste, or supposedly of bad taste…
KG Or questionable taste. I’m thinking of the New Museum’s “Skin Fruit,” which was populated with these enormous, expensive, ugly pieces, and seeing them all together, the effect was to make you question the sanity of the art market and the museum system. And it was guest-curated by Jeff Koons, whose agenda as an artist has often been about questioning notions of good taste. That show demonstrated a kind of meta-curating almost.
SC Yes, but that’s still different, because a lot of what was on display was already integrated into the grand contemporary narrative. But you see a lot of shows like, oh, this blind fisherman painter who painted red fish his whole life.
KG So, outsider-type stuff.
KG But is outsider art necessarily in bad taste?
SC Now it’s very good taste to be an outsider.
KG There’s a lot of money in it.
SS But I think it goes back in a way to the idea that you can have an immediate response to something. And it doesn’t necessarily come from some point of scholarly knowledge, but you have an immediate response to it. And I think in the case of Taylor and the case of Darger or Ramirez, there is something immediately appealing in that work. And let’s face it, there are a lot of people who imitate or emulate the work of outsider artists. And a lot of them came out of MFA programs.
KG Do you think curation should strive to be populist?
KG Sure, but I think talking about “populism” makes it sound like you have to sacrifice any intellectual rigor. I just think you have to be so rigorous that you can speak a plain language. You have to be so sophisticated that you can communicate it to a broad audience.
CD Populist curating would be about, or in the interest, of an everyday person. There’s times when art is going to be difficult for an ordinary person to understand what’s going on, if there is something complex or historical going on, but I would say you have to make it accessible. So even if it’s really difficult, I think it’s the role of the curator.
KG It’s just scary because attention spans get shorter and shorter.
KG At least there’s still the confines of physical space. If people have voluntarily entered into your gallery or museum or institution, they are committing themselves physically to viewing works of art that are displayed there, whereas online you can simply minimize the browser window.
SS Although, you know what’s interesting? If you go through the galleries in a museum now, more people are taking pictures than are actually looking.
KG I think you can say that of any experience, of any picturesque moment, there are certainly lots of people who are experiencing it through the lens of a video camera or DSLR, rather than witnessing it with their own eyes. They’re trying to get the best composition.
SS Traditionally, visiting a museum or gallery has been an experience that is supposed to be about looking and as Kathy was saying, studies show that people spend I think on average about three seconds looking at a picture. It’s so sad. And now it’s even less than that because the time they look at it is only the time it takes to raise their iPhone to Starry Night and press the button and then move on.
KG But that’s also cute because what they’re really trying to do is own a little bit of art.
CD Yeah, and preserve the experience. It’s something that I personally have a little bit of a hard time with, because a big part of viewing art is about being there in the room with the thing. That’s your chance to actually look at the thing. But I think generationally now there’s a shift toward looking at the screen…
KG Well, maybe artists need to start making work that only looks good in person and then they can fight that.
KG Some artists have done that. Like Tauba Auerbach, or even Robert Irwin with his dot paintings—they’re impossible to reproduce. I saw them at that Zwirner show a couple of years ago. I hadn’t seen them in person and they’re stunning. But there are reproductions of them available and they look really dry and dull. They don’t have a presence…
SC I hate when guards can keep you from taking pictures.
KG I want to blog about it when I get home.
SC I want to keep a trace of something, for reference.
SS It’s your cataloguing process.
SC And even if that was not for professional concern, I think everybody should be allowed to take pictures of the things they like. Except of course for flash photography when what’s being photographed is a three thousand-year-old piece of parchment.
KG Can curators be instigators? Have you ever gone too far?
KG [LAUGHS] Yes.
KG What happened?
KG I started an art gallery at Dartmouth because I didn’t like the frat culture, so I raised $15,000 from disgruntled alumni, and they gave me one wall of one building. I called it Area because they wouldn’t give me a whole room. And the first show I did, I printed out all the emails it took and all the bureaucracy it took to get this stupid wall at this stupid frat college. And I printed out all the emails on the wall and it was totally confidential information. This was right when email started. People called the police, I had to go in front of a disciplinary committee. People didn’t understand what email property was. They said, “I wrote you that letter and you can’t show that letter.” I almost got kicked out of school for that stupid project.
SS I think that maybe in an institution there tend to be more checks and balances than there are if you’re working freelance or you’re still in school. I think the difference is infrastructure. Kathy gets to establish and run her own infrastructure. The staff of the Museum of Modern Art right now is about 750 people. It’s not like you sneak in at night and no one notices and paint the wall neon pink.
KG Well, the question isn’t necessarily about, “Should curators trespass?”
SC There was this Jonathan Horowitz piece in 2010 at Yvon Lambert here in New York that was part of a group show called “Christmas in July.” It was an area at the gallery to which you could bring anything you like and take anything you like. It was really funny because in the space of the gallery he created, the rules were completely changed…
KG So what did people bring?
SC People were calling the gallery all the time because Jonathan posted the thing on freegan websites. So people were calling and saying, “Do you have baby toys, do you have a king-size bed?” and there was this woman coming every day with a shopping cart trying to find stuff. And I was secretly hoping that one of the artworks would be pushed into the free store because we had an amazing Lynda Benglis piece next to it that was like half a million dollars. It was very nearby. Actually there was a Christian Holstad sculpture not so far from it and it had lots of little pieces in it and people took some. People thought everything was part of the free store.
KG What do you think are the biggest challenges for the next generation of curators?
KG Keeping art relevant, in the broader cultural sense.
KG Do you think that will become necessarily more difficult in the next twenty years?
SS Well a real concern is the ever-shortening attention span. But the other thing is balancing the way that art has become part of general cultural entertainment. How do you balance the desire for people to see something like MoMA’s Tim Burton show, or the Marina Abramović show, which were both hugely popular, and still make sure that people feel comfortable coming into a room with six gorgeous Cubist paintings and feeling okay in there, knowing that they can be there just to look? Just figuring out how to keep both of those very different strands moving forward, I think that will be a challenge. I don’t think art is any less valuable if it’s popular. What it is though, is demanding different kinds of attention from people.
CD I find it heartening because when we talk about these shows that still draw huge crowds, it’s moving and it’s engaging and those are such old-school ideas of what makes art worthwhile, why you go see it. Those are good examples of things that were just extremely well-done and curated and about an audience. And I think all of us here, we could probably all agree that we’re all, in our own separate ways, trying to do something like that each time we begin working on a show.