The Art of Curating : When Artists and Curators Switch Roles | by Nadine Murgida | Medium

The 20th century brought a lot of changes in the art world and can nowadays be considered as a turning point in art history. In fact, the desire to spice up the traditional rules was stronger than ever. Established practices were “reinvented”, for instance, by adding some abstraction in a mostly figurative practice, or by using existing objects as the starting point for the artwork (readymades). But what also changed during the 20th century is how people from the art world got along with each other, and how some of their functions were starting to be reconsidered.

This article is going to examine the roles of the artist and the curator, and in particular, their mutual relationship. It appears that the separation between these two has become less and less clear throughout the years. At this point, a few preliminary questions should be posed : what happens when the roles are switched up, the artist becoming the curator, and vice versa ? How much can a curator’s perception interfere in the artist’s conceptual thinking, considering there the risk of losing the “essence” of the artwork ? And finally, what happens when the artist curates an exhibition of his own works ?

Paradoxically to the purpose of this article, we shall first of all define an “artist” and a “curator”, independently from each other and in theoretical manners. On one hand, the artist can be considered as the main participant in the conception of the artwork, considering materialistic and idealistic matters. A curator, on the other hand, can sometimes be tricky to define. In fact, the term comes from the Latin word curare (“to heal”, “to care” or “to look after”), implying that a curator is “someone who has the care and superintendence of something” [1]. Most of the time, the term is affiliated to the art world or to various exhibitions spaces: “A curator is someone employed by a museum or gallery to manage a collection of artworks or artefacts” [2]. In this context, the curator also selects and interprets works of art, which makes him head of the art exhibitions next to the artist(s).

Beatrice von Bismarck explains [3] how the curator’s status has changed since the 1960s. In fact, a new practice is introduced during this decade: conceptual art. Aesthetics do not matter as much as they used to, but are overtaken by an abstract idea, a concept. Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana can be considered as two noteworthy examples of conceptual artists, because the idea or performance behind their artworks is more important than the visual, although these two components certainly are affiliated to each other. Conceptual artists wish to alter the way one perceives an artwork — not as a simple “object” anymore, but as an established concept. The making of the artwork is as important as the result. This new way of conceiving art gives more room to free interpretation: the spectator can subjectively give an opinion on the artwork, make associations, and focus on the feeling he gets in front of it.

As for the curator, he is the one with more freedom while organizing the exhibition of the artwork. He can easily choose how to present it: independently, or juxtaposed to other works for example. He is also able to decide on how much information he would like to give to the visitor, more or less leading the way. Of course, the artist’s intentions have to be taken into consideration, but overall, everything is less strict in terms of exhibition matters. The Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni, for example, is known for his unexpected choice and associations of artworks. One of his exhibitions, for example, really stood out for its originality: The Encyclopaedic Palace, presented at the 55th Venice Biennale. Gioni’s inspiration came from Marino Auriti’s work, Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo. His main idea was to build a museum that would host the entire knowledge of the world. The project fell through, but the curator decided to exhibit Auriti’s construction model of the imaginary museum and make it the centre of attention. Moreover, Gioni included over 160 artists in his exhibition and presented them in an unusual but interesting way. In his review for the Biennale, Sam Thorne (Frieze magazine) describes the curator’s role as such:

“[…] Gioni’s grand gesture, his most controversial move, is to mingle works by ‘professional’ artists […] with ‘outsider’ artists. […] Alongside pieces by biennale/market favourites such as Wade Guyton, Albert Oehlen and Tacita Dean, Gioni has installed […] great and mighty things by less easy to categorize makers.” [4]

The artworks in Gioni’s exhibition were accompanied by various written tags in order to guide the spectator towards a defined interpretation. The curator wanted to make sure the exhibition was understood correctly. In this case, the show became an artwork itself — the curator’s intentions and ideas were put forward and an unusual cohesion among the works were created. During the exhibition Documenta V (1972), Daniel Buren expressed himself on this phenomenon: “More and more, exhibitions tend no longer to be exhibitions of works of art, but rather to exhibit the exhibition as a work of art.” [5]


Venice Biennale — The Encyclopedic Palace.

One famous personality that became “artist” himself is Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and co-director of the Serpentine Galleries (London, UK). He is one of the most high-profile and successful curators nowadays — through him, we get an idea of how thin the line between curator and artist really is. His notoriety is as high as any other contemporary star-artist. But how has a personality like Obrist acquired such fame by exhibiting someone else’s art? Although his talent in curating and understanding the artworks in relation with each other obviously plays a huge role here, some of his key professional relationships are what served as a springboard for fame. His first exhibition (1991) was held in his own kitchen, inviting some artists like Fischli / Weiss, whom he had known from his University years. By chance, Jean de Loisy from the Cartier Foundation also came to see the exhibition and invited him to Paris. Obrist’s career was officially launched.

But most of all, Obrist’s projects usually stand out for their originality and innovativeness. And this is where the line between artist and curator becomes blurry. For the “Chambre 763” show, Obrist invited more than 70 artists to come to his hotel room in order to decorate the space. He was inspired by the artist Félix Fénéon, who would always carry a Georges Seurat painting while travelling, so he could hang it onto the hotel room walls, and “feel at home”. During several weeks, Obrist’s hotel room was used as an exhibition place and as his personal room for his stay. Obrist somehow performed as an artist himself, since his own concept was almost more important than the artworks that were presented. In terms of exposure, the fact that he brought the exhibition into his personal space had a huge impact on the spectators — inventiveness is what everybody is looking for, even nowadays.

Doesn’t the exhibition, in this situation, “overshadow” the main artwork? In an interview, Obrist explains that the real danger for a curator, is that the exhibition becomes “a Gesamtkunstwerk of a curator more than of the artist” [6]. Perceptions can change depending on what personal statements the curator decides to put forward. However, as I have said before, the line between a curator’s and an artist’s function has nowadays become a little blurry — meaning that situations can easily be switched. An artist can either participate in the establishment of his own exhibition, or entirely take up the role of the curator. In this last case, the exhibition is considered as a medium, a way of creating an even stronger bond between the artwork(s) and the spectator. The ideas come from the artist himself — the one who has produced artworks and who knows them best. However, the artist-curator does not have the same relationship to the commercial world as a “regular”, professional curator. In fact, according to the Tate museum’s dictionary for art-terms, an artist-curator “tends to remain […] within a community of artists — often ones with whom they studied, or of a similar generation — who are frustrated by the perceived impenetrability of the art world”. The Young British Artists are a great example of a “community” between artist-curators. This group of London-based artists organizes collective exhibitions since 1988. In the 1980s, these shows were known for being exclusively artist-led. Freeze (organized by Damien Hirst in July 1988) is one of their most noteworthy exhibitions. Their aim is to procure astonishment but also shock through their art and exhibition methods. The artists, as curators, stage their own artwork to provide a special atmosphere.


The Young British Artists at the Freeze opening party.

Another case of artist-curated exhibitions can be brought up at this point: the Artist’s Choice shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The artists are given the chance to curate an exhibition including the museum’s collection. Even though their own work is usually not shown, it is interesting to see how an artist can take up the role of a curator for once. One can tell that the approaches between an artist and a professional curator differ completely. In fact, an “experienced” curator tends to organize the exhibition following some strict rules, mostly concerning practical and conservational issues. What about the artist? On what will he or she put the focus on? The creative mind certainly plays a huge role in the visual part of the exhibition, the “aesthetics”. It also helps directing the scenography towards a “personal” concept, characterizing his own artworks. Even though a professional curator can also include this last point in his work, it is even more evident in the case in which the artist takes the lead of the art show.

The exhibition curated by Andy Warhol, Raid the Icebow I with Andy Warhol (1969–1970) [7] is an interesting example of a show conceived around concepts that are issued from the artist’s own practice. Warhol was invited by collectors Jean and Dominique de Menil to pick objects from their collection, partially on deposit at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Two things have to be kept in mind at the beginning of the project : the couple of collectors, along with the museum director Danny Robbins, chose to essentially exhibit objects from the over-loaded deposits, in order to put them under the spotlight; also, they made the decision to assign the curation of the objects to a contemporary artist — Andy Warhol — who they thought could mix up some of the “traditional” rules and bring freshness to the whole project. At this point, Warhol’s aim is to “recreate” the deposits, and show the objects nearly exactly as they were placed in the storage rooms: the whole space is invaded by objects, positioned just like that, as the artist would say. Along with the organization of the spaces, full of various types of objects following a meticulous though radical selection, Warhol also decided to keep their serial disposition, inspired by the storage rooms. Shoes, chairs, blankets — all placed next to each other — created an impression of “non-method” used by the artist, although everything was carefully thought out. The interesting part of the project is how the serial and overfilled aspect of the exhibition actually follows Warhol’s art practice, which is partially focused on the idea of reproduction and mass production. His own conceptual thinking influenced his work on the exhibition : the exhibition becomes an artwork itself.


Raid the Icebow I with Andy Warhol — Exhibition view.

No matter how much the curator and the artist are invested, the exhibition cannot exist without the artwork — and the artwork cannot gain proper recognition without the exhibition. It is all about finding the right balance between the innovative ideas of a curator and creative thinking of an artist. Like in any other relationship, co-operation, communication but also open-mindedness are key. The essence of an artwork shouldn’t be altered due to exhibition matters, but in some cases, it surely can be “enhanced”. The curator can help staging an artwork in order to extract a fresh interpretation from it, different from the one the artist had in mind. In the end, a successful show depends on the professional attitude and the receptiveness coming from both sides.

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[3] Beatrice Von Bismarck, « Haltloses Ausstellen: Politiken des künstlerischen Kuratierens », in M. Michalka (ed.), The Artist as…, Wien / Nürnberg, MUMOK / Verlag für Kunst Nürnberg, 2006.



[6] Daniel Buren, ”Exposition d’une exposition” (”Exhibiting Exhibitions”) Documenta V Catalogue, 1972.