The Rise of The Cultural Producer

Artists’ practices are changing, but are big institutions adapting their own practices to keep pace with recent shifts in contemporary art? Robert Shore talks to Rafal Niemojewski about the changing role of the curator, and his new commissioning agency, Artfore.
Full interview in Elephant Magazine Issue #18

-Curating is a very popular business these days…I recently started collecting artefacts that illustrate the overuse of the term ‘curator’. Over the holidays, a good friend gave me a box of loose-leaf tea. On the label, it proudly stated ‘curators of contemporary tea’. I’m simply fascinated by how ‘curator’ became such a buzzword and how the term has so much appeal these days with young people. So many of them use it to identify their day jobs. At the same time they often find it very difficult to plainly describe what it is that they do.

I often think about it in terms of linguistics and vocabulary. Language is self-regulating: if a new word is required, people will invent one. The term ‘curator’ had been in existence for centuries to describe those who stayed in their institutional positions during their entire careers and who embodied the original meaning of the term, derived from the Latin verb curare (to take care of). Strangely enough, the shifts in the 1990s did not produce a singular term that reflects the new variant of the profession. In my writing I use the term ‘contemporary curator’ to avoid confusion.

Finally, curating has become so oversubscribed of late (one only has to look at the number of MAs graduating from curating programmes vs. the number of open curatorial positions globally), it gives me great cause for concern. What we’re experiencing now is effectively a bubble, not unlike recent events in the housing, financial and technology industries.

Curating is a rapidly growing profession – I would argue it’s overshadowing – and it’s absorbing many different activities, but not necessarily in an organized way. In our present circumstances, freshly trained curators may find opportunities to challenge institutional norms by default, as securing a post is ever more competitive.

-What do you mean by public art exactly? It’s an umbrella term to describe the way that a certain kind of art is directly made available to the public. It is usually sited or staged in that public domain and doesn’t require you to purchase a ticket or make an appointment to see it. It offers a different type of experience from the one at the museum, which comes with a set of culturally determined norms and prescribed forms of visitor behaviour. This is what public art avoids. It removes the cultural constructs around what an experience of art should be. It also removes art works from the protective environment of the art institution and requires them to confront the reality of everyday life. Last but not least, it enables long-term engagement with specific sites and communities and a greater degree of participation.

I think it’s very peculiar that public art is the term we use to describe art that happens outside museums. That suggests that the art we have in museum is not public! There’s certainly a problem today with institutions losing their ‘public-ness’. Ubiquitous corporate branding, public building closures for private hires and astronomical admission charges are perhaps the most palpable facets of that problem. But then there’s also institutional incapacity to deal with protests and public reactions. There are some interesting examples of recent clashes between institutions and their publics. At the 28th Sao Paulo biennial, the curators tried to find a visual expression of the host institution’s crisis and they decided to leave the first floor of the Niemeyer pavilion empty. During the private view a group of self-proclaimed street artists broke in and began tagging the walls, reclaiming the space. Their act was a radical response but it was also a well-organized collective action informed by a manifesto made public over the internet. Unfortunately, the institution as well as the curators simply dismissed the event as an act of vandalism, leading to the arrest of several of the participants. It’s perhaps an example of an occasion where an institution could do a little better when this sort of clash occurs – maybe by not forgetting the public is the reason it exists in the first place.

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