State of the Art: A Preview of MA Curatorial Practice’s International Summit

October 21, 2013

On November 2 the MA Curatorial Practice Department, SVA’s newest graduate program, will bring together 20 of the world’s most influential and accomplished names in the field for Curating the Curatorial: An International Summit, a daylong forum for curators, museum directors, artists, educators and theorists. Maddoff200The panelists represent institutions worldwide, from Kunsthallen and private collections to alternative spaces and art websites, where curators are finding more opportunities than ever before. The summit was organized by Department Chair Steven Henry Madoff (curator, contributing editor at Modern Painters and ARTnews, former executive editor at ARTnews, critic for Time and past senior critic at Yale University’s School of Art) and Deputy Chair Jovana Stokic (performance curator at Location One, New York, and former curator of the Kimmel Center Galleries, New York University). SVA Close Up asked them for a preview. (The event will be live streamed beginning 9:45am EST.)

The summit is organized into three keynote talks and three panel discussions. The keynotes are by three of the leading institutional directors and curators in the world, Okwui Enwezor, director, Haus der Kunst, Munich; Maria Lind, director, Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm; and Daniel Birnbaum, director, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. The panels are titled “Thinking Objects,” “Remapping the Collection” and “Ecology of the Expanded Curatorial Field.” Your website goes into some detail about the topics, but why this format?

SHM: My goal was to create an expansive platform to talk about the most urgent issues today for curators and institutions. I was incredibly lucky to get so many important thinkers to come! Instead of one keynote, it seemed to me that I could have three shorter one and have more viewpoints from leading figures in the field. Same with the panels. The idea was to create broad subjects that allow multiple ways to talk about curating and its complexities now, with voices from all over the world.

One of the topics the summit addresses is how collections, be they public or private, have received far less attention than biennials and festivals. Meanwhile, budget cuts have led museums to organize more shows around their collections lately. What’s stake in all this for the viewer? And for artists?

SHM: Great question! Acquisitions is an important aspect of curatorial work that gets far less press than curating big shows and biennials. But of course building, maintaining, shaping, and interpreting collections is part of a public trust for posterity, not the moment’s big bang. For artists this is a separate aspect of a career. Naturally, you want to be in important exhibitions that give you exposure and lead to critical conversations that give you insight into your work and build a following. But then you hope to be collected so that your work has a life that lasts beyond your own (as well as putting food on the table). For the public, it’s obvious that access to art is the responsibility of institutions given the means to host the art deemed by many sources to be of lasting value, and those judgments continually change with cultural change.

One striking aspect of the panelists’ bios is how many fields they represent, from anthropology and architecture to philosophy. Is that a happy accident or indicative of what’s happening in the field?

SHM: No accident at all. I put these panels together based on the vastly diverse nature of curating, which must of course respond to the equally diverse nature of artistic production today, and with an informed eye on the past. As curatorial practice matures as a discipline, it is indeed fully interdisciplinary, drawing from all fields of knowledge in order to appropriately contextualize and interpret the art and artists it serves.

Can you talk about the evolving role of the curator? Is it mainly that of interpreter? Artists’ champion? Advocate for culture?

JS: The curator’s role today transcends the traditional understanding of curators as gatekeepers of institutions. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that not everyone is a curator, even if we all participate in information sharing of user-generated content. Curators aren’t only account managers of Tumblr. Curators have certainly shifted positions from aesthetic arbiters to figures with a larger public presence—with ethical responsibilities towards public engagement and constructive dialogues within culture.

What might an artist take away from the summit, as opposed to a curator?

JS: Dialogue is always about productive exchange, and in the case of the summit, the exchange is between curators, artists and their audiences. Artists nowadays often curate—there was this recent trend of “curartists.” And after all, there’s a history of artists as terrific curators, engaging in dialogue with fellow artists and audiences. To be specific, artists will be able to take away the conference’s “taking of the pulse” of curatorial knowledge and how to productively activate their own interactions with curators, as well as thinking of themselves in curatorial roles.

How are the opportunities for curators different today from five or 10 years ago?

SHM: They’re exponentially enlarged. Collecting museums, Kunsthallen, commercial galleries, auction houses, public collections, private collections, biennials, art fairs, consulting firms, residency programs, corporations, and seemingly endless non-profit arts organizations all employ curators, as do educational institutions in growing numbers. In China alone, hundreds of museums are currently being built, and there are opportunities in growing markets such as Latin America’s.

One of the aims for the program is to form a hub for the curatorial community, and create connections. Aside from attending the summit, any pointers for artists looking to build relationships with curators? Vice versa?

SHM: Artists have the challenge of getting critics, curators, dealers, and collectors to come over to their studios. Once you have a gallery (or more than one), that’s easier. It’s a matter of being visible, going to openings, finding a mentor among more senior artists or teachers, working in another artist’s studio and being introduced, having one connection lead to another, or just going up to curators and others at events and inviting them to come over to see your work, which takes nerve, drive and determination. And of course, increasingly using social media to show your work and talk about art, including your own.

The MA in Curatorial Practice is, by definition, a practice-based program, taking as its goal placing graduates in curatorial jobs. How do your experience and SVA’s location in New York City contribute to that end?

SHM: I think the most crucial focus is on the history of SVA as a trade school in the best sense. SVA has an incredible faculty of working practitioners across every field of artistic and critical practice. Thirty-two undergrad and grad programs! That’s hard to beat, centered in New York, one of the leading art production and knowledge hubs in the world. I’m simply applying the same mission to employ leading working practitioners in the field, and of course taking advantage of SVA’s enormous resources. And because this is in New York, I have the chance to invite leading curators and experts from all over the world to come spend time with my students. I’ve been in the art world for more than 30 years. I’m lucky to know a lot of people of distinction, Jovana does too, and so do my faculty.

What does it mean for this program to open at an institution that has for decades been dedicated to the education of artists?

SHM: What I think it indicates, as I said earlier, is the maturation of curatorial work as a discipline in its own right, with a rich history, many modalities and craft techniques, a broad critical and philosophical base, and diverse economic support. Within the ecology of the art world that means it’s increasingly evident that curators as makers need to be trained rigorously in the diverse practices of the discipline. This is why we’re seeing these programs appear. And to create this program in the center of New York City is a spectacular opportunity not only for students who want to become curators or who are curators wanting to step up to the next level. It’s also an opportunity for institutions globally to gain new curators who’ve been trained at this level of knowledge, practice, and expertise.

You’ve spent months conceiving and producing this event, on top of your writing, teaching and lecturing commitments, yet you don’t have a single student enrolled or even a permanent office yet. Are you crazy?!

SHM: We’ll have students soon enough! And I have David Rhodes and Jeff Nesin to thank—or is it to blame?—for at least part of this craziness by inviting me to start the Curatorial Practice program…

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