These days, the act of curating has become rather banal. One could put together a stylish dinner setting for guests at home and claim to have curated the dinner table. Or cobble together a music playlist to share with friends, that’s curating. Design the layout and look of your walk-in wardrobe, that’s curating. I personally understand such forms of curating as ‘casual curating’. Perhaps offensive to professional, museum and gallery-type curators and perceived by many in the arts as inappropriate declarations to curating; such activities have evidently seeped in and are ingrained in the unconscious of our everyday. Once professed, it transposes into an act that indicates taste, as well as authority.
In the contemporary lifestyle marketplace, ‘curating’ has also become a catchphrase. It stands in line with clichés such as ‘edited’, ‘iconic’, ‘chic’, ‘dapper’ and ‘vogue’. It is an act that indices, differentiates, advocates and recommends a prime selection within the abundance of lifestyle offerings ranging from food, fashion, music, sports, holidays and gardening. Many such ‘curators’ are in reality, sophisticated merchants; personalities who, over time, have meticulously manicured and cultivated distinctive personal brands. Each one curates, influences and sells by virtue of what is today fashionably signified as ‘clout’.
Within contemporary art, where then is it best to seek ‘clout’ if not from the belly of its sanctified institutions? And perhaps, who best to regard as thought leaders and constructive compass other than the select talents who operate within them?
I have personally continued to nurse curiosities with regards to the operational rationale of arts councils. For this short blogpost, I would like to circle in on their penchant in selecting artists, or, their ‘casual curation’.
As institutions that advocate professionalism in the arts, it is in my personal opinion that arts councils should not independently curate events or select artists for whichever programmes they initiate. While expert selection panels are normally formed and curators appointed to advise upon, and manage major undertakings, the direct selection of artists for projects perceived to be of lesser consequence appear to be thrust directly into the hands of arts council staff.
Administer, plan, manage, advocate, council, these are amongst the key capacities we associate an arts council with. In its relationship with community stakeholders, one of an arts council’s pivotal role is the creation of opportunities. These opportunities, usually enveloped by funding structures such as awards, grants and bursaries, polish and expand the capabilities of both established professionals as well as the up-and-coming. As commonly understood, there is no better way to advance the practice of an art worker other than continual practice and experience in the field. Each project presented in public necessitates accountability, and not just accountability in the form of empirical audit of finances alone. As a public institution, an arts council does not have private, shareholding investors to report financial profits to at the end of each work year. The audit of respectable curating (including the management of the project itself) lies in its engagement and pursuit of artistic vision, quality, depth, impact and potential for intellectual expansion and diffusion of original ideas within public conversation. Yes, this may be a lot to ask for, but nonetheless necessary. It separates the committed from the compelled. Moreover, how does an arts council audit the quality of its own curated projects? Does a society not objectively separate the mandate of activities performed by inclusive, community-focused grassroots organisations versus that of arts councils?
When an arts council ‘casually curates’, the decision to curate could have been decided out of a sense of obligation, or even the need for control. Its staff curates out of duty, and perhaps, to add much-needed texture to their daily grind and to manifest their own inner curatorial prowess. And surely, such undertakings are completely approached with intentions for the greater good. In this scenario, a calculated benefit for the tax-paying public comes first. The irony of such arts council-led efforts lies in its inevitable stunting of professionalism by virtue of ‘opportunity confiscation’, robbing trained professionals in the field of the potential for a chance at an imaginative exchange with the public.
From a professional perspective, we need to agree that the role of arts council administrators cannot be fluidly interchangeable with curators, artists, art programmers, critics, writers, academics or educators. Just like we are not all horticulturalists, just because we collect and tend to our plants at home. Players in any ecosystem need to recognise their functions and strengths, in order to meaningfully contribute to bring balance and growth. Let the public and the art public be the arbiter of public funds utilised by curators and artists in their name. When an art council’s credo is to equip, encourage and create inroads for its denizens, it should not fear their empowerment.