Organizing your junk drawer? No, you’re curating your expendables. Planning a kiddie party? Nope, you’re curating it—that clown ain’t gonna hire itself.
The term “curator” is so overused these days that the profession itself, it seems, has devaluated. One recent article in the Los Angeles Times suggests that art curators might be “a vanishing breed,” citing three important regional cultural institutions—the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Latin American Art—as sad examples of hubs operating without a chief curator at the helm.
MoLAA is currently under the direction of Stuart Ashman, former secretary of New Mexico’s DEpartment of Cultural Affairs. Ashman blames today’s “straitened economic environment” for the situation. He’s the fourth museum director since 2007.
“It’s like an actor in LA. Every waiter is an actor, and here, every waiter’s an artist,” artist/curator Arthur Lopez says [Arts Valve, Oct. 24: “The Incredible Folk”].
Lopez feels accepted in the curatorial world. “It’s like with anything…if it’s done well, it’s done,” he says, having successfully assembled a stellar cast for The Fine Folk of New Mexico (on view through Jan. 26) at the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission Community Gallery, where a recent panel discussion titled “How do museum curators develop collections?” took place.
At the discussion, Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn, visual arts director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, and Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, offered frank insight about the evolution of their title.
“Everybody’s a curator! Collections are curated at Target and all sorts of things,” Nunn, formerly of the Museum of International Folk Art, tells SFR. “I think it’s always been a hip profession, although people usually think you’ve got your hair in a bun and glasses on, like a librarian. But I think it’s very interesting that the word is being co-opted now and that it’s now again cool to be a curator.”
She says “learning to work without a budget, learning to evolve your people skills and getting to know the artist,” are the main characteristics a modern-day curator should posses.
“MOCA certainly is a mess,” she says, adding that museums can end up without curators when “the board and the leadership of the museum aren’t really supporting the curatorial choices—for a variety of reasons—it’s pretty complex.”
“I think a lot of things are changing in museums, and people really look at attendance for museums, and lots of decisions are made by committee,” she explains. “That can be really hard, because the curator’s job is to be knowledgeable about the art world that he or she is an expert in, and people need to rely on the curatorial view.”
Making art a priority and instead of business, she says, is perhaps the biggest challenge. A sentiment shared by Kastner, who, during the roundtable discussion, said one of the biggest misconceptions about the O’Keeffe Museum is that it’s rich. Turns out, it’s not, and like many functioning museums, it operates with a skeleton crew.
Part of Kastner’s role as a modern curator is creating a fresh overall “experience” for visitors. “People feel that if they’ve visited one time, they’ve seen [all] we have to offer, and we change exhibitions—just like everyone else does—every three months or so,” she points out, adding that the museum derives 60 percent of its income from admission revenue.
“I think we’re going through a shake-up, where people are expecting different things,” Kastner says. “We all agree that the old 19th century model that the curator knows everything and puts the objects out and you should come and deeply enjoy that or be less educated and less smart than someone else—that’s gone forever.”
Confronted with the idea that she might be part of a vanishing breed, her response was immediate.
“I hope not!” she says with a laugh. “I love being a curator, and I think my training and skills distinguish me as someone with the qualities to pull together exhibitions and the research necessary to document exhibitions.”
Far from desolate, the field is ripe with opportunities for budding curators, Nunn says, especially for those with an interdisciplinary perspective. It’s also a good time for minorities, she points out.
“The Smithsonian is hiring six new Latino curatorial positions this year—[that’s a] major, major deal in an area that’s been underrepresented for a very long time,” she says.
Why the need? “Because other people’s stories are really hard to tell,” Nunn explains.
“It’s much easier to tell a Mexican folk art story—it’s easier to tell a story about Nuevo Mexicanos in New Mexico doing contemporary art—because then you have to get to know the artist. You can’t just do it with faceless people; you actually have to get down and dirty and get to know why people are creating the art.”
Smaller operations, Kastner says, should also be hopeful.
“Art galleries will always be around, and they can gather the timely shows and put something together in a month,” she says. “A curator adds another level—which is scholarship and the research that goes along with that.”
Both women agree that regardless of its current perils, art curation is a dynamic, ever-changing field. “It’s a fascinating world to be a part of,” Kastner says, “and I hope to be a curator as long as I can.”