The curator used to be a venerable character, caring for his cabinet of curiosities. From the mid-1990s the verb “to curate” came into common usage, and since then we have lived in what David Balzer likes to call “the curationist moment”, which he believes to be the end of the avant garde.
Curationism is a play on creationism, which Balzer defines as “the cultish fervour and adherence to divine authorship and grand narratives”. This in turn, could stand as a definition of religion with its predilection for grand predestined designs as opposed to the scientific notion of evolution which has no plan and no determined outcomes.
The curator’s role then, in the largest sense, is to make sense of it all, to forge a narrative from this random world.
Balzer shows this to be an innate impulse in our human natures; to organise and systematise objects, creating collections out of curiosities, in a compulsive search for patterns in random selections.
In that sense curationism is nothing new, but Balzer is honing in on the curatorial impulse in the service of capitalism. It is the curator’s job to add value to objects.
The way to do this is defined by another of Balzer’s favourite phrases: “To demystify and re-mystify objects”.
On the one hand making art accessible to the paying public, evidenced by the enormous growth in what museums like to call “outreach programmes” — the never ending list of “events” accompanying every exhibition, workshops, talks, symposia, etc — are all ostensibly designed to make the artworks on display more accessible to visitors.
But, Balzer argues, all this demystifying also helps to re-mystify art. It surrounds it with an aura of reverence and mystique designed to titillate and engage not only those of us who will spend a fair amount going to exhibitions, buying catalogues, postcards and cappuccinos, but also those all important investors in art, private and public collectors gathering at auctions which now make headlines with the sums paid for paintings. It falls to the curator to monetise art, to take it to market.
As we know, selling careers has become big business and so educational institutions now engage in fetishising the role of the curator who has become a star academic, contributing essays to exhibition catalogues, participating in panel discussions, and attending art events.
Balzer exposes this self-perpetuating relationship by showing that some of the biggest names in curating, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, did not attain their star status by doing a Masters in Fine Art, but by going to see artists in their studios and building relationships with them.
It would seem that the value of a curator is measured in the number of associations, and so cohorts of aspiring curators end up competing to work for free in prestigious internship which may allow them access to “startists” in order to build their careers.
Balzer goes on to show how this tendency to present and promote ourselves has permeated our culture, where many spend time creating social media profiles. We have all become the curators of our own destinies.
Balzer’s slim volume is well-researched, packed with information and filled with interesting insights. A perfect guide for those taking in the contemporary art scene.