Curator, Writer, and Museum Administrator

Books for Curators

"Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating"

Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating

Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating, Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, Editors

Lately I seem to notice ever more published collections of essay by curators, often featuring the usual “suspects.” But this relatively slim collection published by Apexart offers some different voices and definitely some different styles and ideas amongst the authors. Though almost every writer mentions Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition “ Live in your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” because several of these articles are focused on independent curating. 

A few essays are practically impenetrable due to theoretical jargon, or as David Levi Strauss calls it, “curatorial rhetoric.” I fully recognize that jargon arises out of a need for a specific vocabulary to discuss commonly agreed upon definitions and ideas, but if I read the word “discursive” one more time. . . And be sure not to miss David Carrier’s 10-page essay “Why Curators Matter,” in which the author, a distinguished critic, writer, and professor, provides no less than 50 footnotes, of which approximately 40 reference his own articles and publications as a means of taking a grand view of exhibition-making over the past few decades. With many writers being so cautious these days about offering opinions, it was fun to read an essay that didn’t mask the author’s high estimation of his own work and his open detest of all things not Manhattan-based (he regards the Brooklyn Museum of Art to be “a relatively marginal museum”!)

Among the gems in this collection are 

  • Steven Rand’s introduction to the book, challenging new curators to “venture outside the expected models of exhibition or relationships.” Rand concludes with this pearl of wisdom, “Success is being able to define and pursue the questions worthy of obsession and interest and to be able to maintain a lifelong interest in the pursuit.”
  • David Levi Strauss’ comparison of the careers and influences of the iconic independent curators Szeemann and Walter Hopps, in which he likewise concludes with a call for curators to take more risks. 
  • András Szántó’s marvelous essay in which he offers curators advice garnered from the editorial profession, such as “know a good story,” “resist forced ideas,” and my favorite, “stamp out jargon. 

Of particular interest to me was new iCI director Kate Fowle’s essay on how the “role of the curator has shifted from a governing position that presides over taste and ideas to one that lies amongst art (or object), space, and audience. The motivation is closer to the experimentation and inquiry of artists’ practices than to the academic or bureaucratic journey of the traditional curator.” She’s talking about what she notes Bruce Altshuler called “the rise of the curator as creator,” (again harkening to Szeemann’s influence) and which relates to a current debate about the concept of “the curatorial” and the fluid boundaries between artist/curator as evidenced in recent exhibitions.

Fowle concludes with a statement that few could disagree with, “We need to start thinking in terms of an expanded field of curating.”

Elizabeth Schlatter