Former Tate staff member and Sotheby’s Institute of Art-London faculty Lilian Cameron shares insights around curating and how the industry is evolving.
If you become a curator, very often your area of curatorial expertise will be shaped by the collection you’re working with. Especially at the beginning of your career, you will be representing the institution and their exhibition needs, interests, and identity. But we’re in an era where a lot of curators will have a freelance practice on the side because they need that, personally and professionally. They have to represent “Team V&A” or “Team Tate” or whatever it is in their institutional work, so they’ll be curating a biennale or working on a festival on their own time, where they can do a different type of work and explore new territories.
Curating for art fairs
There’s a growing trend in art fairs to enroll curators as advisors for certain sections. At Frieze 2017, we had Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics—a section of the fair featuring women artists working at the extreme edges of feminist practice during the 1970s and '80s—curated by Alison Gingeras. In 2016, we had The Nineties, curated by Nicolas Trembley. The reason for this seems to stem from a kind of cultural capital around curating; a recognition that a well-curated show attracts audiences and that particular curators can add value and capital to works of art. But also curating is an act of expressing care, respect, scholarship, and research around art. To bring in a curator and call it a “curated show” potentially elevates it.
Hanging a museum collection
In 2012-13, Tate Britain rehung its collection and decided to dispense with art historical categories. They eliminated rooms dedicated to Romanticism, Pre-Raphaelite, and Impressionism, and instead decided to hang the works chronologically. They did this in order to make the collection more accessible to the public. Though heavily debated, it has long been an argument in museum studies that chronology is more democratic as a criteria, whereas art historical movements presume some art education. There is a sense that a chronological hang is something that anyone can come to, whether they’ve had an art historical education or not. There are benefits to all kinds of different arrangements. I’m personally very interested in contemporary interventions in historic hangs and on thematic exhibitions as well. Thematic shows are widely popular. For example, you might have a show on “the garden across time” or “blue.” These, alongside retrospectives of famous artists, are the shows that often become blockbusters, attracting wide audiences.
Curating across borders
There are subtle differences in curatorial practices across different countries. Each semester Sotheby’s Institute students have the opportunity to observe first-hand the differences between the art world of the UK and the Netherlands during their included field study trips to Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I’ve often noted that interpretation in the form of wall texts and panels is pitched slightly higher in the Netherlands than in the UK. There’s a little less embarrassment, perhaps, about presenting things in an academic way. Another interesting dynamic relates to the links between Dutch collections and their colonial past, i.e. institutions being renamed because of their links with individuals who are now recognized to be involved with problematic and troubling histories. Institutions in the Netherlands are questioning if they’re presenting themselves in an ethical way, and this is a question of concern to British institutions as well, although the histories of each place and context are distinct.
Curating unique spaces
When Herzog and de Meuron won the commission to renovate a London power plant and turn it into the Tate Modern, they didn’t try to transform the building. The building was considered rather unappealing, visually, but it was an impressive building with a strong presence that Herzog and de Meuron sought to preserve. The newly-renovated spaces were successful, but also challenging, and the Turbine Hall in particular presenting almost a conundrum. The idea of having such a large, empty space in an art museum was a bit shocking. Famously, it was artworks commissioned specifically for the Turbine Hall—like Olafur Eliasson's Sun (pictured above), Carsten Höller’s Test Site, or Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth—that made audiences, curators, and artists aware of what this new space could be. It revealed its immense potential.
Training the next generation of curators
As the Course Leader for the Art Museums, Galleries and Curating Semester Program, 50 percent of my teaching time is spent in galleries and museums. The course appealed to me because of how equally split it was between the classroom and on-site visits. We look at today’s institutions from the inside, discussing their staff structures, budgets, the size of their curatorial teams, and the challenges they face. I often bring curators out to speak to the students and I encourage them to speak frankly about these aspects of the field. Some people worry that the more they study something, the more likely it is to lose its magic for them. But I tend to find that the more you study something, the more interesting it becomes. For me, the museum and gallery space has become more complex and interesting the more I’ve studied it academically and participated in it professionally.