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The era of the nomadic, global curator god.

By PAUL O’NEILL and MICK WILSON [Institute of Contemporary Arts] – Curating – a cultural practice once associated primarily with the care and selection of works for display, usually in the context of a gallery or museum – emerged in the late 1960s as a creative, semi-autonomous and individually-authored form of mediation (and production). By the time Harald Szeemann curated Documenta 5: Questioning Reality, Pictorial Worlds Today (1972), the position of the individual curator had already opened up to wider international debate. This debate was accompanied by a shift of emphasis in the criticism of art: away from the primary critique of the artwork as an autonomous object of study; towards a mode of curatorial criticism in which the curator becomes a central subject of critique. The critical response to Documenta 5, for example, focused on Szeemann’s alleged over-emphasis of his own curatorial concept rather than on consideration of the artworks in the exhibition.

The idea of a curatorial remit operating above and beyond the interests of the artist, or the notion of the discrete art work, opened up a space of critical contestation – one which, ironically, refl ected how artists were increasingly concerning themselves with mediation and the language of mediation, as they turned towards conceptual strategies – and began to address the curated exhibition as a cohesive cultural text. In this sense, the analysis of curating that developed in the 1960s, founded on the demystification of the art system – originating in opposition to the dominant order – became a discussion about the work of exhibition construction, and its production of meanings and values. While for some curating, even now, is yet to be fully established as an historical discourse and academic field of enquiry, it is clear that by the late 1990s the institutionalisation of curating was well underway: with the appearance of curatorial study programmes; the rise of nomadic über-curators, linked to the rising international biennial curatorial market; and the creation of a range of formal spaces for the discussion of curating. In the 1990s, in the English-speaking world, one of the main features of this new era was the development of publications specifically examining the histories of curatorial innovations and models, as well as their potential links to an evolving practice.

During this time, individual curators became the subject of discussion and a process of historicisation began to take shape, at the same time as major transformations were realised in contemporary curatorial praxis. As Helmut Draxler argued in 1992, the early 1990s were already being recognised as a period of institutionalisation for the curator, with the flourishing of curatorial training programmes following an initial “institutional shift in the course of the sixties, which [came] from a certain uneasiness with respect to the inescapability of museums as well as other exhibition institutions to react to new forms of expression in art.”1 What Draxler could not have foreseen was that the institutionalisation of the curator’s function was only the first stage in the development of an expansive curatorial discourse – and an accompanying publishing industry – led by, and for, a new generation of self-conscious and reflexive curators.

In their introduction to Thinking About Exhibitions (1996), Bruce Ferguson, Reesa Greenberg and Sandy Nairne highlighted what they called “the emergence and consolidation of a new discourse on art exhibitions” and stated their intention to “bring into debate a range of issues at play in their formation and reception.”2 Their eclectic selection of texts focused mainly on twentieth-century exhibition histories – curating, exhibition sites, forms of installation and spectatorship – in an attempt to demonstrate how the discourse around exhibitions had changed dramatically since the 1980s and to show how, in the 1990s, “focus on art exhibitions was indicative of the political and cultural agency of so many of the debates centred on and fostered by exhibitions.”3 The impact of key exhibitions on the history of art had already been highlighted by Bruce Altshuler a couple of years earlier, when he claimed that the history of the avant-garde – from the early twentieth-century avant-garde through the vanguard of the 1960s – was characterised by a dialogue between a community of artists and the public, one based on acceptance and rejection, with “all participants enmeshed in systems of personal and economic relations.”4

For Michael Brenson, the curator’s moment had truly arrived by the mid-1990s, with the emergence of biennials, organised international meetings and curatorial summits:

After listening to heads of international biennials and triennials speak to one another for three days about their hopes and concerns, it was clear to me that the era of the curator has begun. The organisers of these exhibitions, as well as other curators around the world who work across cultures and are able to think imaginatively about the points of compatibility and conflict among them, must be at once aestheticians, diplomats, economists, critics, historians, politicians, audience developers, and promoters. They must be able to communicate not only with artists but also with community leaders, business executives, and heads of state… The texture and tone of the curator’s voice, the voices it welcomes or excludes, and the shape of the conversation it sets in motion are essential to the texture and perception of contemporary art.5

The expansion of curatorial discourse was accelerated by the advent of curatorial training programmes in the early 1990s. Students and programme leaders began to look at existing exhibition models and a relatively small number of established curatorial precedents, focusing on exhibition history and scrutinising the curatorial component instead of the artwork(s). Thirdly, since the 1990s, the discourse around the figure of the biennial curator has created a market for a nomadic type of global curator, during a time when new associations were being attached to curating, as a potentially creative form of cultural practice and as a possible career choice for artists, art historians, critics and art administrators.

The 1990s saw an attempt to formulate a new lexicon and rhetorical armature for curating as a diverse, internationalised practice. Through these articulations the individualised curatorial act became a central concept, but did so in a manner that also troubled the authorial function of the curator. Curating by the late 1990s and through the early 2000s had come to be represented as an adaptive discipline, using inherited codes and rules of behaviour. There is now a long list of metaphors that attempt to reconcile diverse modes of practice, with the curator envisaged as editor, DJ, technician, agent, manager, platform-provider, promoter and scout, or – more absurdly – as diviner, fairy godmother and, even, god.

Continued at the ICA | More Chronicle & Notices.

Paul O’Neill is the author of The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s).


  1. Helmut Draxler. ‘The Institutional Discourse’, Meta 2: A New Spirit in Curating, Stuttgart, Kunstlerhaüs Stuttgart, 1992, p. 18.
  2. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne’s ‘Introduction,’ in Thinking About Exhibitions, Eds. Bruce Ferguson, Reesa Greenberg and Sandy Nairne, London and New York, Routledge, 1996. p.2.
  3. Ibid. pp. 3–4.
  4. Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 1994. p. 8.
  5. Michael Brenson, ‘The Curator’s Moment – Trends in the Field of International Contemporary Art Exhibitions’, Art Journal, 57: 4, (Winter, 1998), p. 16.
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