The Artist and the Curator

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

I had the great fortune of visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this weekend, and was profoundly moved by the experience. It had been a long time since I’ve visited an art museum, and the timing is perfect for many reasons. One of these is that I have been considering certain questions related to art: mainly, how “doing it” is often felt to be something separate from bringing people to it. And how the fusion of both roles is essential for the art to reach an audience. 

While visiting the museum, I am noticing the level of intricate thought and care that has gone into the design of the space where people come to see what is called “the work,” ––without which, the work could not be seen and appreciated except in small private groups. I think about what choices are made to lead people in, how curating an exhibit is an art in itself.

I notice what has been considered, from selection and arrangement of pieces, to how people are guided to move through a space.  The frames, what wall colors, behind which pieces, under what lighting?

LACMA by Elliot Harmon on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

American art critic Jerry Saltz said, “Don’t go to a museum with a destination. Museums are wormholes to other worlds. They are ecstasy machines. Follow your eyes to wherever they lead you…and the world should begin to change for you.”

It’s the curator’s job to present an artist’s work in a manner that allows such wormhole experiences to happen–– and, ideally, to encourage that they will.

My own experience teaches me that while some celebrated artists had the great fortune to work with people who recognized the art and matched it with an audience, then cultivated, curated, and nourished the conditions for its reception, most of us working creatives do not have someone like this working along with us. We tend to feel discomfort when it comes to curation. 

This is worth paying attention to. How do you find an audience and welcome them in? What pieces do you arrange in the opening room, what do you save for the inner room of the exhibit? How do you select and display pieces so that they work in dialogue with each other? When a summary is included with the label of a piece, how do you frame it so that connections are encouraged across time and space, to meet the viewer in this space, in this time, looking now?

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

How do you direct the movement in a space while allowing viewers to explore with a sense of freedom and choice?

These are the questions on my mind, and while I may not have much in the way of answers ––yet, at least I have moved beyond thinking of curation as something somehow separate from my work as a writer. Keeping these daily posts are part of this, I know. I’ll stay with these and continue developing other projects as I develop some curating muscles.  

Some things I do not tend to keep at the forefront of my creative practice, as I have previously thought about it: how I want people to find the work.  How much I want to meet them where they are and bring them to it. Or how much it matters to me that people might be reminded back to something they might have wondered about, to revisit what might have been thought lost. How much I want people to see themselves in my work, to be reminded back to their best and most life-giving parts and be moved to nourish and protect those parts in themselves and others. 

It occurs to me as I write this, that I have never articulated any of this before. So, here’s a start. Onward.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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