Raising Frankenstein: Curatorial Education and Its Discontents

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This slim and slightly disjointed book offers five presentations turned into brief essays and one panel discussion regarding academic and nonacademic curatorial training, all by participants in a 2008 conference titled “Trade Secrets: Education/Collection/History” organized by the Banff International Curatorial Institute in Canada. Intended to address the “education and formation of curators,” the text on the back of the book says “At its heart lies the single question ‘Where does the curatorial profession reside?’” Of course, there is no answer to that question, either in the book or elsewhere.

And I don’t think anyone curious about about attending a curatorial studies program is going to glean much guidance with these writings, as engaging as they are. The book’s editor and essayists are professors, students, alumni, administrators, or participants, both past and present, connected to curatorial programs or collectives at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; California College of the Arts, San Francisco; Laboratorio 060, Mexico City; the Royal College of Art, London; and the University of Toronto. This group of speakers (refreshingly not the “usual suspects” that one hears on this topic)  acknowledges both the strengths and weaknesses of these courses and activities. Teresa Gleadowe provides a succinct overview of the development of formalized curatorial studies training, and throughout the book there is reference to the similarities and differences offered by the teaching institutions. Barbara Fischer’s “Top Ten” list of paradigm shifting events/writings/exhibitions that affected the field of curating seems to have little to do with the conference topic but is nonetheless interesting.

But in general the essays tread over issues that one hears repeatedly regarding curatorial studies: Teaching curating is impossible/possible. How can you theorize curating? Why isn’t there a history of exhibitions to use as critical texts? And, who is greater--Harald Szeemann or God? [I’m joking with that last one, but someday, somewhere, there will be a book about curatorial studies that doesn’t include hagiographical references to this ur-curator.] That first point is nicely countered by Cuauhtémoc Medina who said, “you may not be able to teach curating but it is perfectly viable (and increasingly productive) to educate curators” [italics are his, p.32] But he also drops two distressing little bombs:

  • Certainly curatorial programs and curator guilds and organizations do not have any regularized means to curb the informal market of curatorial jobs, but many of the current institutions have a certain monopoly in providing staff to certain networks of institutional administration, which in turn develops into future structures of collaboration and complicity in the art world. (p.35-36)
  • To what extent the education of the curator has critically transformed the workings of contemporary art and its institutions, or is mostly a side effect of the way contemporary capitalism relies on higher education to naturalize class and social divides and make them appear the result of education and merit, is anybody’s guess. (p. 36)

Damn. Likewise “things get real” in the discussion when one participant claims the panelists ignored the history of institutional critique, to which another person responded (p.96), “In most curatorial programs, institutional critique has been institutionalized.” Another person pipes up with, “I came here extremely skeptical about curatorial studies programs, and now I’m beyond skeptical--I’m appalled.” (p.98)

But what I really enjoyed about this book (and I did enjoy it, even if it was a little maddening at times) was how these writings so clearly evidence the difference between curatorial activities and museum education. Had this been a group of essays from a museum ed conference, the book would have been filled with charts, executive summaries, and definitions and categorizations. Success can be defined and measured, and not just in the sense of “do these curatorial studies grads have jobs?” Current grad program participants, alumni, and professors, as well as folks in the professional field could be surveyed about things like satisfaction in their program while enrolled, how the program affected their careers and their intellectual development in a deep and meaningful way, and whether they think the programs were an appropriate choice as opposed to other grad programs, such as in art history or doctoral ones. People could study how/if the output (exhibitions/catalogues/other content) produced by these programs enter into and affect artists' lives and careers or even just the general milieu of the contemporary art world. Studies could be done of the trajectory not just of alumni but of their professors, full-time and adjunct, to gather a true sense of how these programs infiltrate the contemporary art scene and especially the market.

But no. These speakers talk about curatorial training in such general, almost romantic terms--not idealistic, but more like musings. They are aware of the problems and criticisms as well as the strengths but don’t seem interested (in this publication at least) to consider quantified analysis. And I actually admire this. Especially when a chair of a grad program says during the discussion,

  • You don’t teach in graduate schools; you have a space for research and investigation, a space to ask questions. That’s valuable space to have in a university. (p.102)

That’s a true and laudable statement.