The Art of Curation

Curation is a critical component of a museum’s success. An art curator fulfills many roles: specialist, exhibit-maker, and educator who is expected to explain and justify the mission of an exhibition and discuss trends within the art world. While the tasks may shift slightly, depending on the exhibit’s venue, the core components of curation remain the same. These core responsibilities can include: care of the collection, writing, and research to support the exhibition proposal and intent, contributing to art journals, and conceptualizing ideas for the display of works of art. Unless support staff is provided by a large institution, curators are responsible for budgets, loan agreements, shipping, designing the space, and marketing and fundraising for the show.

The 1990s saw a rise in independent curators. It has become common for museums and galleries to have outside curators, ranging from fellow artists to visitors from other institutions. While this list is limited, a few notable curators include the following:

Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss Artistic Director of Serpentine Galleries in London, led the charge in branching off in an independent role. Obrist made a name for himself by creating exhibits in obscure locations such as his kitchen and within the pages of airline brochures. Obrist believes in the power of artists, having said, “I really do think artists are the most important people on the planet, and if what I do is a utility and helps them, then that makes me happy. I want to be helpful.”

Installation view of “Filter Bubble,” an 89plus exhibition co-curated by Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist, at LUMA Westbau, Zürich.
2019 Serpentine Pavillion. Junya Ishigami. Source: Francesco Russo.
Harald Szeemann. Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us. Swiss Institute Contemporary Art. New York

Harald Szeemann is another Swiss curator that left an indelible mark on the art world. With more than 200 exhibitions under his belt, Szeemann helped redefine the role of an art curator, cultivated relationships with artists, and traveled far and wide in search of new work. A lack of prospects or location did not stop Szeemann from curating. Instead, he created Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us in his apartment. Szeemann went on to legitimize the role of curating as an art form in and of itself. 

Nari Ward’s installation “Peace Keeper” (1995; recreated 2020) from the exhibit Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.
Photo: Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times
Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (policeman). 2015. Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.

Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor was the first African-born curator of the Venice Biennial and the first non-European art director of documenta, a contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years. Enwezor’s work focused on art’s role in bringing continents together while shaping social and political views. Enwezor died in 2019, yet his vision lived on in the posthumous exhibit Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in AmericaThe goal of this show was to present the curator’s vision about Black grief and white grievances that exist within our country. The show opened in February 2021 at The New Museum in New York City.

Rashid Johnson, Antoine’s Organ, 2016.
Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.
Thelma Golden by Glenn Ligon. BOMB.

Thelma Golden has been the director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem since 2005. Golden was the first Black curator hired by the Whitney Museum in New York. She then redefined the role of curator by focusing on historical objects while highlighting the histories, accomplishments, and struggles of the featured cultures. Freestyle was her first show with The Studio Museum that included 28 emerging artists, describing the work as “post-Black,” a term she coined with the artist Glenn Ligon. Golden earned a national reputation as a top curator and sparked controversy with her social protest through carefully selected topics that make their way within museum walls. 

Adrian Piper. Self Portrait as Nice White Lady, 1995. The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Today, there are many uses of the word curate. We curate our lives, our closets, and our coffee selections. How do you envision the word curate? In imagining the art world, do you have a favorite curator? Or do you have a favorite exhibition where the curator carefully presented all elements of the theme? The next time you walk through an exhibition, pause, consider the steps taken, and analyze how successful the curator was in their effort. It just might enrich your visit. 

Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.
Whitney Museum. 1994

An exhibition is in many ways a series of conversations. Between the artist and viewer, curator and viewer, and between the works of art themselves. It clicks when an exhibition feels like it has answered some questions, and raised even more.” Thelma Golden

Tamara White, PhD is a researcher, artist, and visual activist focused on the intersection of art and social justice.

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