"A Brief History of Curating" by Hans Ulrich Obrist

A Brief History of Curating, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Editor

I struggled to finish this book. I blame myself as well as the publication. Here’s where I’m at fault: 

-       I’m not overly familiar with the history of curating and especially not in countries outside of the U.S. [although it should be noted that all but one of the featured curators comes from Europe & the U.S. Walter Zanini is from Sao Paulo]. And this book doesn’t provide much in the way of background for readers not up to speed on pivotal contemporary art exhibitions from the 1950s to 1990s. So basically, I realized from reading this and not knowing probably 50-60% of the names and organizations being tossed around, that I need to pay a LOT more attention to this kind of thing.

-       For some reason I didn’t realize right away that this is a history book. So whereas I thought the curators would be pontificating on the profession in general, Obrist spent a lot of time in the interviews nailing down details and events of the curators’ projects. This is completely appropriate and helpful for future scholars. But because of my lack of previous knowledge this made the reading a bit tough.

Here’s where I blame the book:

-       There are no photos. None. I mean, these are art curators. Why no images of the curators, of exhibition installations, of artists and curators meeting and planning, talking and protesting? These people dedicate their lives to collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting a primarily visual form of expression. Not including images of exhibitions or projects is like writing a book about an artist and not including photos of their art.

-       I’ve never really noticed this before in a book but I think the translation of several of the essays made the individual curators speak in a similar “voice” or tone. There’s a sameness in the style of responses in the translated interviews that makes their conversations somewhat indistinguishable. Granted, this was not aided by my lack of background. But it makes the interviews with the native English-speaking curators seem more vibrant and immediate.

-       I was also disturbed by the lack of female artists and curators included in the discussions. And it made me happy that I think things have changed from when the interviewed curators were at the height of their careers.

Ultimately, this is an important book for contributing to the history of contemporary art curation, primarily in Europe and the United States. Here’s my favorite quote, which is from Harald Szeemann:

“Well, the curator has to be flexible. Sometimes he is the servant, sometimes the assistant, sometimes he gives artists ideas of how to present their work; in group shows he’s the coordinator, in thematic shows, the inventor. But the most important thing about curating is to do it with enthusiasm and love—with a little obsessiveness.”