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What Curators Do, and How You Can Too

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Photograph courtesy of Simon Punter. Chased Magazine.
Adrian George. (Photo: Simon Punter for Chased Magazine)

The word “curate” gets thrown around a lot nowadays: “this foodie blog is carefully curated by an enthusiastic home chef”; “you can get this curated box of artisanal products delivered to your door each month”; “she curates the best Spotify playlists for our road trips.” I get the pick-and-choose use of the word in all of these instances, but I’d argue that the word has been devalued and that the role of a curator as an educated expert, one capable of telling compelling stories through the thoughtful organization and interpretation of art objects, is getting lost in the shuffle.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

Even though Adrian George’s new book, The Curator’s Handbook, looks more like a textbook than a tome of cultural criticism, it goes a long way toward clarifying the who, how, and what of curating, cutting through the clutter of contemporary “curator” culture. The deputy director and senior curator at the UK Government Art Collection, George has been involved with some of the most influential art institutions in the world including the New Museum in New York, Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool.

In this step-by-step guide to creating exhibitions, George reminds us that curators are made, not self-proclaimed. The book’s introduction cuts to the quick of contemporary curatorial confusion, defining the various roles a curator plays, describing paths into the career, and illustrating the differences between different types of curators. George also defines what a curator is and how the role has diversified and become broader over time: “A curator is probably best known as the selector and interpreter of works of art for an exhibition; however, the role now incorporates those of producer, commissioner, exhibition planner, educator, manager, and organizer.”

The curatorial process shares countless points of overlap with the creative processes that form art. The Curators Handbook reminds us that – much like the artists they work with – curators attempt to create expressions that are both visually arresting and capable of conveying presence and meaning to viewers. George’s straightforward prose and abundant charts, graphs, and visual aids help readers to see exactly what curators do, bolstered by the insights and advice from an international cast of museum directors and curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, London); Gao Peng (Today Art Museum, Beijing); Jennifer Russell (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and Nicholas Serota (Tate, London).

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While lots of amateur curators pull together pop-ups in hipster enclaves all over cities in the South, one aspect many of them lack is the only one that might separate the great curators from the average: a point of view, an aspect of curating that is shared with culture critics. In Nashville, Frist Center for the Visual Arts curator Mark Scala has created shows like “Paint Made Flesh” and “Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination.” The shows were very different but each demonstrated Scala’s particular interest in how contemporary art might connect the culture of the past to the culture of the future in an attempt to discern and clarify our changing understanding of our physical selves. No doubt the curator’s “Phantom Bodies: The Human Aura in Art” will continue this dialogue when it opens at the Frist in October. Indeed, this handbook’s most engaging entries address curators as authors, editors, critics, and judges of contemporary art. As a critic, it’s probably not surprising that I was drawn to these sections, but that doesn’t undermine George’s thoughtful insights into the primacy of the critical and authorial elements of the curatorial process.

That said, this book is mostly a nuts-and-bolts guide to conceiving, pitching, organizing, installing, publicizing, and documenting an art display. The chapters run chronologically, leading curators from the first inkling of an idea all the way through opening day. Along the way, George introduces the expected aspects of the practice – defining different types of exhibitions, outlining how to deal with image copyrights, and walking readers through the wrangling of an exhibition catalogue. His voice is clear and straightforward. The book’s introduction outlines the history of curatorial practice: “The word ‘curator’ first came into use as meaning overseer, manager or guardian in the mid-14th century. The root of the word is in the Latin verb curare meaning ‘to take care of; originally it was used to describe those who were in charge of minors or lunatics.”

But, George also illuminates the less obvious job requirements, like fund raising and social media marketing. The book’s Afterword looks to the future of the practice focusing on emerging technologies and the curating of virtual spaces.

The book’s got a pretty blue cloth cover and a saffron bookmark ribbon, but I’d like to see this encased in grip friendly olive drab rubber because it reads like a football playbook or a military guide or a collection of survivalist strategies — and that’s a good thing. It’s the kind of book that’s going to ride in your car, get marked up with notes, acquire a few coffee stain rings, and probably even prop open a gallery door during a load-in. This book is your battle plan, would-be curator. It won’t give you a point-of-view, but it’ll definitely tell you everything you need to know to make it a reality.

Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.