Looking at the etymology of “curating”, it’s hard to imagine how it ever became the profession that it is now. Coming from the Latin verb curare (to care for), curators in Ancient Rome were public servants looking after bath houses, while in medieval times, the “curatus” was a priest devoted to the care of the soul. It was only later in the 20th century that the term curator was applied to exhibition makers, eventually becoming the title for some of the art world’s biggest stars.
The 1960s saw what’s referred to in the industry as “the curatorial turn”: the critical approach shifted from viewing the artwork as an autonomous object to spatial and contextual considerations. Increasingly diverse and frequent, the exhibition became the main medium for showcasing art. “The rise of the curator as creator,” as critic and author Bruce Altshuler called it, forever changed the way exhibitions are conceived.
Now, in our globalised digital age, the promise of the curator as creator can fall flat—and so the profession is redefined and evolving once again. Vogue speaks to leading curators from around the world about how they fit within today’s creative scene.
What does a curator do exactly?
“Curating is understanding desires in relation to your own,” Ecuadorian-born curator Manuela Moscoso tells Vogue. Recently appointed as the curator of the upcoming Liverpool Biennial 2020, Moscoso spent the last decade working at top art institutions in Brazil and Mexico City, as well as running independent projects. “Art can be a place where you create moments, a collective of different ideas, practices and points of views,” she says.
It’s a collective team effort too: curators are the key point of contact between an artist and exhibition space, plus investors, collectors and critics. “It’s about how integral all of those relationships are to the work,” says Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “What I was most attracted to [when I started], was working with artists.”
For Kate Fowle, the British-born chief curator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, curating an exhibition with a real point of difference is about looking beyond the direct environment to encourage diversity. “It’s important to think in terms of institutional structures and building networks between people and places to avoid cultural hegemony and ensure multiple perspectives are given equal prominence,” she says.
How do you become a curator?
The first curatorial courses hit in the early 1990s—those at the Royal College of Art in London and CCS Bard in New York are still two of the most prestigious worldwide. There are also several well-regarded, non-academic programmes, including the Whitney’s Independent Study Program in New York and De Appel’s in Amsterdam. But curators come from a variety of backgrounds: from art history and studio practice to comparative literature and architecture, often accompanied by a good dose of self-determination.
“I came to curating in a very unorthodox way,” says Paul Clinton, who curated the equally unorthodox “duh?” Art & Stupidity at Southend-on-Sea’s Focal Point Gallery in 2016, a project which looked at stupidity as a subject and a tactic of art making. “But I think that really helped me,” he continues. Clinton, formerly an editor at Frieze magazine, was a writer before he took to exhibition making and is now a lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, University of London, alma mater of the 1990s Young British Artists and, more recently, the Turner Prize-nominated research group Forensic Architecture. “Students come to me with an interest in questioning the authority of the curator,” he says.
For Aric Chen, recently appointed as curatorial director of Design Miami, there is nothing surprising about shifting from journalism to curating—a move he made himself earlier in his career. “Curating and writing share fundamental similarities,” says the Shanghai-based curator. “Your job is to go out, see as much as you can and, based on that, make judgements, filter, edit and, finally, build narratives that you then communicate to a wider audience.”
Moscoso transitioned from art to exhibition making, another common move for curators. “My practice as a curator started as creating possibilities and visibility for my peers,” she says of her days in artists-run project spaces. “But then I realised I liked working with other people rather than by myself!”
The power of the curator to affect cultural change
If curating involves the mediation of art, audience and context, then the responsibility of the curator is bound to constantly evolve. Today, museums and exhibitions are increasingly held accountable for tackling the big issues, while being committed to diversity. “I strongly believe that everyone should focus on what feels most urgent to them, at any and every cultural moment,” says Hockley. “When you work from a place of deep care, it speaks to other people, even if the material is new to them, and that makes them care, too.”
Born in Harare to a British father and Zimbabwean mother, Hockley co-curated We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017—a show that examined the political, social, cultural and aesthetic priorities of women of colour during the emergence of second-wave feminism. “I am committed to highlighting artists who have been overlooked or dismissed, to generating new conversations and the exchange of ideas, and to expanding the edges of our concern,” says Hockley. It’s a vision she’s applying to the upcoming Whitney Biennial (co-curated by Jane Panetta), the most diverse in the museum’s history.
In recent years, expanding art beyond a Western-centric perspective has been key for global curators, broadening the scope of and reshaping museums around the world. “There’s still a lot of work to do to understand our colonial past,” says Moscoso, also a co-founder of Zarigüeya, a project to introduce contemporary art to the pre-Columbian collection of the Casa del Alabado in Quito. “You can critique these museums without destroying them,” she continues. “You need to protect them and empower them.”
Curating around the world
Every region brings its own difficulties and opportunities for curators. “The ongoing challenges in Russia are the constant need to get visas—both for Russian artists to be able to travel and participate in shows internationally and for many other people to be able to come into the country,” says Fowle. On the flip side, being based in Moscow gives Fowle the chance to “test out ideas as to how institutions can operate when not directly burdened with the legacies of 19th- and 20th-century museum models”.
Meanwhile in China, Chen notes that the country “doesn’t have strong independent institutions, largely by design, given the political system”. But the curator, who previously held roles at Beijing Design Week and Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, also recognises that “there are very few set ways of doing things, and that leaves a lot of room for experimentation and, in that sense, less fear of failure”.
The future of blockbuster exhibitions
Often under pressure to boost their attendance figures and revenues, museums and art organisations have increasingly turned to “blockbuster exhibitions”—see 2018’s Basquiat exhibition at London’s Barbican, which drew over 215,000 people (a record for the gallery); and the over 1,650,000 visitors to Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at New York’s Met Museum. But cultural commentators suggest that this trend might in fact do museums a disservice, as constantly raising the bar can create unsustainable competition.
“There’s a lot of pressure to come up with an idea that is thoughtful and conceptual, but also popular, with similar appeal to a general audience,” explains Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, whose upcoming show Camp: Notes on Fashion opens in May. “I think you can still do that without, you know, these big spectacles,” he continues. “I’m being hesitant because I’m still thinking about what the next stage is for the Met in terms of its fashion exhibitions, but I know that I want to move on from what we’ve been doing.” And so, as ever, the role of the curator looks set to continue to evolve with the ebb and flow of the modern art world.