Three rules of curating

Art Life , Op-ed Oct 15, 2010 1 Comment

Sharne Wolff considers the three golden rules of good curating… and how even a small gallery can get around its limitations.

Last night a light bulb went off in my head. I was with some friends at Lismore Regional Gallery listening to Djon Mundine talk about the touring exhibition More Than My Skin on tour from Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC) in Sydney. Mundine is the Indigenous Curator, Contemporary Art at CAC and he was speaking with a panel of two indigenous photographers included in the exhibition (Michael Aird and Mervyn Bishop), when he went on to share his Three Rules of Curating.

Michael Aird, Vincent Brady leads a protest march, Brisbane, 9 December 1987, courtesy the artist

Rules 2 and 3 were that the exhibition or event should leave a legacy of some kind (some evidence of it’s happening) and that the gallery should try whenever possible to acquire a work from the exhibition. To some extent, although these rules are no doubt desirable for all shows, they may be more appropriate for public spaces and institutions, rather than commercial galleries or artist run spaces. Mundine’s first rule, however, is more universal and very simple – ‘the role of the curator is to ensure that the artist is never unexplained or misread’ – and, in short, the primary role is to make the artist ‘look good’.

I thought about some of the exhibitions I’d been to lately and whether or not they’d achieved this purpose. It seemed to me that many had fallen short – they lacked that certain ‘wow’ factor and perhaps it wasn’t necessarily because of the art. Artists generally make art because they have something to say. They presumably hope that their audience will participate in the energy and power of the work they have to offer. Those in the audience should become active participants in the display, rather than passive viewers. According to Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” If that’s the case and an exhibition accomplishes what it hopes to, then arguably the viewer should never be able to walk away without taking something with him or her.

To be fair, art exhibitions are by nature subjective and there are always curatorial constraints including lack of funds, availability of works, gallery or government politics, and of course the space with which one has to work – not to mention the quality of the art works or the difficulty of working with the artiste. Surely, however, if an artist’s work is worthy of exhibiting for good reason, then it deserves to be seen at its best in all the circumstances. The display of the work is arguably a ‘production’ of the curator and perhaps the best exhibitions find a good balance between the mere throwing of canvases onto a wall with a few good spotlights (but without much thought) and the creating of a modern consumerist spectacle of the worst kind. ‘More than My Skin’ is an example of a show working well despite its constraints.

Even though Lismore Regional Gallery is supported partly by the public purse, its a cramped space located in an old, flood-prone building – its ‘temporary’ home since 1954. As an exhibition area it lacks almost everything its supporters and patrons would dearly like to see it have. Compared to its shiny neighbours to the north and south, it lacks the fabulous location and exciting architecture of the Tweed, and the comfortable heritage feel and space of Grafton. Nevertheless, on entering the gallery and seeing the work of six indigenous photographers and their male subjects displayed on every available space, somehow the rooms of the gallery seem different. The photographs are displayed thoughtfully and the emotion created by the display means that you can not only see the purpose of the artists, you can feel it. The power of the exhibition pulsates in the room and, I suspect, for a long time afterward.

By not allowing the artist to be ‘unexplained or misread’ I don’t think Mundine meant that the didactic approach was necessarily the way to go, although sometimes this can be a useful addition to the visual in the hands of a good curator. I don’t know about anyone else but I often find it useful to read the curatorial explanations in galleries that are aimed at children rather than those meant for adults. Maybe this is because they often make you think by asking more questions than they give answers – which is often what the art works are doing themselves in any event. Art is usually better at deepening mysteries than it is at providing unequivocal truths. If you agree with this premise, it also still makes sense that a piece of visual art can mean different things to different people and still not be ‘misread’.

Critics often argue that visual art must be ‘visual’ to make its point – an obvious point which is sometimes overlooked. But even art displayed in an artist-run space, a public space or with the artist as self-curator, the art is still subject to the manner of its display. The artist and the curator (hopefully) are the people with more knowledge about a work of art than anyone else and as a result they are charged with the responsibility of making that meaning apparent and enlightening the viewer. Together they are a team responsible for the way the artwork speaks to its audience. ‘Art should reveal the unknown, to those who lack the experience of seeing it.’ (Quote attributed to Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, Native American Artist born 1940.)

More than My Skin

Lismore Regional Gallery until 27 November.
Curated by Djon Mundine.
Features work by photographers Michael Aird, Mervyn Bishop, Gary Lee, Ricky Maynard, Peter McKenzie and Michael Riley.

Or at Campelltown Arts Centre archive:

Michael Aird, Vincent Brady leads a protest march, Brisbane, 9 December 1987, courtesy the artist

Sharne Wolff

One Comments

  1. I usually only read the curatorial explanations that are meant for children, not because they are simplified but because I find the adult ones of too much influence on my reading of the artwork. I agree with what you said about ‘misreading’ artworks, one of the things I love most about art is that it can mean one thing to me and an entirely different thing to anther!

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