Curating the Curatorial: An International Summit

Okwui Enwezor, director, Haus der Kunst, Munich

Okwui Enwezor, director, Haus der Kunst, Munich via @svacurate on Instagram


The description of the “Curating the Curatorial” conference at the School of Visual Arts on November 2, 2013, was short and to the point: to assemble “more than twenty prominent curators, museum directors, artists, and theorists to discuss the state of today’s vastly expanded curatorial field.” Of course, the list of attendees was much longer because it included many of the usual names from the developing canon of contemporary curators (Okwui Enwezor, Maria Lind, Daniel Birnbaum, Chus Martinez, and Jens Hoffmann, to list just a few). Surely the organizers knew that these speakers had addressed the day’s topics countless times before. So, why did SVA feel it necessary to have these discussions yet again?


The answer almost certainly lies in the fact that this “international summit” was meant to celebrate the school’s new master’s degree program in curatorial practice. Accordingly, SVA was using the presenters’ cachet to legitimize its dubious endeavor of profiting from “training” large numbers of students for curatorial jobs . . . that don’t exist. This is indicative of an even more prevalent trend plaguing the field, which takes the form of sponsored conferences or talks that happen every few months, less to advance knowledge than for more self-interested reasons. Simply put, institutions seem to view curatorial conferences as worthwhile because they elicit the tacit approval of the field’s celebrities. They also attract gawking fans, who help spread the word with photos and tweets about the curator-celebrities throughout the proceedings.


The growing popularity of curatorial conferences can provide insight as to why students would want to become the next Hans Ulrich Obrist, but, unfortunately, the superficial themes and excessive frequency of these panels mean that they are unlikely to produce original critical analysis about real, current issues. Throughout the (long) day at SVA, each of the participants offered eloquent remarks, but most of it had been said countless times before.


“Position” statements by Enwezor, Lind, and Birnbaum were insightful, but none of these well-known and well-published figures presented material that was revelatory in the context of their recent lectures or articles. The same was generally true for the rather broadly conceived panels (titled “Thinking Objects,” “Remapping the Collection,” and “Ecology of the Expanded Curatorial Field”). These also generally had an uninspired tone, and offered few real insights or true debates, as if participants lacked enthusiasm due to the perceived insignificance of the platform or its modest attendance numbers.


While scholarship and critical thought about curatorial practice had a sense of urgency in the 1990s and into the 2000s, the format and frequency of these conferences in recent years has lulled the major players into comfortable demonstrations of habit, self-promotion, or hagiography. (The same can probably be said about biennials, too.)


I was pleased, however, to hear some of the panelists challenge the role of “trade school” curatorial degrees, much to the dismay of the co-organizer of the summit and chair of the new program, Steven Henry Madoff. Perhaps if we can collectively encourage these dissenting voices, we can avoid falling into a pattern of solipsistic, self-congratulatory monotony. Certainly the day would have been more engaging and memorable if it had been crafted to critically evaluate the concept of “curatorial training” that it was meant to advertise.


This isn’t to say that we can’t keep addressing the same issues, or even hearing from the same figures. Rather, I am suggesting that we reexamine how, why, and how often we gather to talk about our practice. The stakes are clear: If we aren’t able to innovate beyond this tedious “curatorial summit” model, then the field risks becoming increasingly divorced from its audience, until it reaches its ultimate crisis and sinks into irrelevance.


– Daniel S. Palmer (@ddotpalmer)

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