Charmed, I’m Sure: Artist as Curator

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Caps for sale 04
Illustration by Esphyr Slobodkina from the book “Caps For Sale”

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What are the politics of curating shows when the curator is also an artist?  Are there any overlapping issues artists face when dealing with galleries in the title of “curator” instead of “artist”?  Over the past few weeks, I asked the same questions to seven different artists in search of answers.
As an artist, what is the biggest challenge you see for curating shows?

Austin Eddy: Finding a space to host the show, and convincing them that shipping should be paid for.

Georgia Museum of Art

Meredith James: I think the biggest challenge of curating a show is the responsibility you have towards the artists you ask to participate.  I think it is essential that they feel their work is represented accurately and not marginalized by the context of the show.  It can be surprisingly difficult to preserve the integrity of the individual work while creating a cohesive vision for the whole show.
Gabriela Salazar: It’s always a big challenge to balance the demands of putting a show together with working in the studio. Curating is a very outside-the-studio kind of work—you’re calling people, visiting studios, picking up loose ends, writing about the work of others. It’s invigorating, but when you already have a full-time job (I teach), it can stretch your energy pretty thin.
Karen Tauches: Being an artist, I am oriented towards the direct making and doing of things. As a curator I am a step removed, like the director of a one-act play and its set.  I have to really discipline myself not to interfere in the artist’s creative process.  In the best case scenario, artist and curator inspire and challenge each other.
Lucas Blalock:  Time and organization.
What are the rules of putting yourself in curated shows?
Austin Eddy: I would say do it sometimes but not all the time, and it’s better to curate yourself in when there is a larger group, not a smaller, two- or three-person show.
Meredith James:  I think this is really the curator’s choice, and there is no hard and fast rule about it, but it feels less like a conflict of interest to exclude your own work.  I think it is easier to negotiate on behalf of other people than yourself so, even though I’ve included my own work in the past, I probably wouldn’t at this point.  When other curators include their own work it doesn’t bother me, unless their work seems out of place with the rest of the show.
Ted Gahl:  “Curated”: nope. “Organized by”: sure, have fun!
Gabriela Salazar:  My sense is that it used to be totally taboo to put yourself in a show you curated, but I think that barrier has come down recently with the proliferation of pop-up and artist-organized spaces. It feels like, in these more informal contexts, it again becomes very much about the community of artists involved, and including yourself is not a problem.
Karen Tauches: If I play the curator, the exhibition concept and the design is my artwork—a nonliteral, three-dimensional essay of sorts. Thus, I do not need to put my own work in the show. I respect artist/curators who do. However, in my own experience, there seems to be an expectation or protocol that prefers me to separate roles of artist and curator within an individual show. I would hate to demean the overall work if, by including my own work, it is perceived as exploitative. It’s an easy sacrifice.
Lucas Blalock: If it works, I say go for it.
When working with the directors of whichever space you are curating in, what challenges have you run into or butted heads with?
Meredith James: As a curator you don’t have to think about whether … the work can sell and, if it’s a commercial gallery, [whether] they might try to push you into including work that they consider more salable.
Ted Gahl: Them not being excited about someone you are very excited about.
Karen Tauches: Well, sometimes the fears or anxieties of the director or proprietor of a space can inhibit the natural radicality of my choices. My aesthetics should be clear, based on a proposal and references to previous work. So, it’s a matter of trust and time … it may take time to develop a better relationship. If I’m lucky, I may get a second or third chance to work in a space, and each time the curation gets better as we learn to work with each other.
How have you found the politics go when you are dealing with artist friends who find out you’re curating a show and ask to be in it?
Austin Eddy:  I would think if the work fits, it should go in if it’s a big group show.  If not, then it’s kind of like you have to figure out a way to say no politely.
Meredith James: If your concept for the show is specific enough, you can usually explain to your [friends] why their work might not fit into the show.  If it’s a question of just not liking someone’s work (but it might have a place in the show if you did like it), you should assume excluding their work will hurt their feelings.  In that case, you either have to prioritize your friendship or prioritize the show you’re putting together. There is really no way around making a sacrifice.
Karen Tauches: When I am curating, the idea is the master! I have to make choices, and that often means saying no.  If I take on all the responsibilities of the leader, making decisions like that is my privilege.  Who wants to be exposed as simply showing insiders from a club of friends? That would be a waste of my opportunity. Hell, I expect the same respect from my art friends that I give them when they take authority over their individual work!
Lucas Blalock: It’s hard, but you have to make choices.
Is there any feeling of “trades” when curating a show?  For example, “This person put me in a show, so I should put them in the show I’m curating.”
Austin Eddy:  I think so. It does not have to be every time, but it’s always good to help each other out.

Meredith James: I think there is a feeling of wanting to reciprocate when someone has put you in a show in the past.  I don’t think you have to include them in the show you’re putting together, but I do think it is courteous to do a studio visit with them and have a serious conversation about their work, as they did with you.

Gabriela Salazar: There is a sense of reciprocity sometimes, but it usually isn’t so one-to-one. Anytime you work with someone, you get closer to them and their work, and this is one of the more exciting parts about curating. It has often given me new insights into the work of friends, and vice versa.
Karen Tauches: Well, let’s be real … there’s going to be politics. However, if you have a positive experience working with someone in a previous project, I think it’s natural to reciprocate appropriately. It’s a pleasure to work with like minds.  Film directors often use the same actors over and over—they have a working relationship. Making exhibitions is a multifaceted endeavor … it takes a lot of practice to get any good at it. If you have invested time with someone whose work is connected to your ideas … why not work with them again in a new capacity?
Do you add people to a curated show because of popularity, and/or because you know they will gather a crowd for the opening and or get a review?
Gabriela Salazar: No, that stuff is really hard to predict. It’s about putting a good show together.
Meredith James: I think it’s a consideration.  If you have access to some work that is more well known and they fit into your concept for the show, it is only an asset to include them. But I wouldn’t just include an artist’s  work because of [the artist’s] renown.  Ideally a show you put together would have both well-known and relatively unknown artists showing side by side.
Ted Gahl: The last show I curated was a retrospective of Larry Gagosian’s early intaglio prints. It was held at the Jeffrey Koons gallery.  Also, see answer to first question.
Karen Tauches: Probably a combination of both. But I will never sacrifice the integrity of the exhibition overall for popularity. I’d rather do a killer show and have small attendance. I love small crowds (big ones often are of less quality). Plus, the show always has a life online and in words after the fact.
Lucas Blalock: No.
When curating shows, do you tend to lean towards planning shows with the type of art you are also categorized under, such as an abstract painting show since you are an abstract painter, or do you reach outside of the zone you’re most familiar with?
Austin Eddy: I think it’s good to do both, but I bet it would be harder to curate a show about work you are less familiar with.
Meredith James: It is so exciting to be able to talk to artists working in an unfamiliar medium, but I think it would be very hard to put together an entire show, say, of paintings (I make sculptures and videos).  I would probably include a few painters and a larger number of sculptors and video artists.
Ted Gahl: Given the chance, I’d like to reach out further.
Gabriela Salazar: I think it’s both. I’ve definitely worked on shows that feel close to my concerns, and others which feel like a reach. Sometimes, stepping outside of yourself and your practice can be really liberating. You realize how narrow your vision can become.
Karen Tauches: I’m inclined to exhibit artworks that communicate ideas that align with my personal artworks. (I hope that people who follow my work agree that the concepts and themes behind my curations are from the same family as those found in my individual artwork.) Medium is of no particular importance. I’m always interested to exhibit my ideas in a different formal expression—by choosing to assemble other people’s artworks, I can do this.
Lucas Blalock: The projects I have done have always related to problems in my own work but have not all been photography.

Blogs and websites have become another format for artists to curate and step outside of the institution.  I asked Art Blog Art Blog’s Joshua Abelow to speak a little towards that.

Joshua Abelow: The vast majority of the “curating” I do is on the Internet.  Curating on the Internet is by far the easiest.  I don’t think of my work on the Internet as separate from the paintings and drawings I make in my studio.  I prefer to curate on the Internet because I don’t have to ask permission or pay for anything or wait for an opening or a closing to happen.  It’s happening all the time, and to me this is exciting.
Are there any other topics you feel that need to be discussed or brought up—or any advice about curating shows as an artist to other artists that you’d like to share?
Karen Tauches: [As] an artist/curator I ask to be excused for my wildness and imagination! In this way, I am less inclined towards institutionalization. I’m not trying to become a tenured professional with it. I prefer being a freelancer. Business or security is not my first and foremost motivation. Curating shows is a labor of pure love and passion and a sincere attempt to share: It makes me very little money and requires a lot of energy and work. Therefore I pick and choose curatorial projects very carefully. It’s a special aspect of what I can do creatively, and I savor it when I decide to step up to the proverbial plate. I feel immense satisfaction at what I’ve accomplished with it and certainly have some big ideas that want to come forth this way in the future … we’ll see.
Meredith James: It is not for the faint of heart!  I find curating very stressful, but it’s a wonderful way to learn about other artists’ practices.