Theater of Exhibitions, a slender new book by Jens Hoffmann published by Sternberg Press, offers fifteen brief chapters on curatorial work. While Hoffmann, a 41-year-old curator, writer, and deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the Jewish Museum in New York, rarely mentions specific works of art, he discusses his own exhibitions and criticizes—in a casual way—the alliance between museums and the wealthy, the blandness of international biennials, the overproduction of artists, and the extension of curatorial work into publications, conferences, screenings, and workshops. Unlike Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whose recent reflections on the profession were published in Ways of Curating, Hoffmann is not a storyteller. Instead he writes gently provocative essays that immediately make you agree or disagree with him.
From an aesthetic point of view, the term “punk”—whether referring to a music genre, a fashion style, or a nonconformist attitude—has generated an incredibly diverse creative output that ranges from cynical and nihilistic to self-empowered and ethically sound. Tonight’s panel, organized by A.I.R. Gallery and the Women and the Arts Collaborative at Rutgers University, addressed the passionate, potent combination of youth rebellion, women’s rights, and fast, furious music through the stories of five panelists who emerged from various punk scenes in the United States.
A panel on “The Changing Landscape of Museums Today” coincided with the release of the Asia Society Museum’s anthology of essays, Making a Museum in the 21st Century. Responding to a question asked by Josette Sheeran, president and chief executive officer of the Asia Society—“What does a successful museum look like in the twenty-first century?”—the museum directors Richard Armstrong and Melissa Chiu talked about collections, buildings, and exhibitions, while the bureaucrat Tom Finkelpearl zeroed in on diversity and audience.
“I was wondering whether anyone has anything good to say about age as an organizing principle?” someone asked during the audience Q&A for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect,” a discussion hosted by the School of Visual Arts. Jenny Jaskey, director and curator of Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, recoiled, “No one thinks it is.” When the next audience member rephrased the query—Is there an artist under 30 that you do like?—the five curators on the panel, all based in New York, were smiling but clearly looked uncomfortable. Alaina Claire Feldman, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International, said flat out, “I think that’s exactly what we’re here not to talk about…. I kind of refuse that question.” Then why, I scratched my head for the hundredth time, are we even here?
Weeks after the Occupy Movement started, in September 2011, museums began racing to collect the posters, flyers, and other materials from the protests. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History dispatched archivists from Washington, DC, and the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York sent representatives downtown. In an editorial for CNN published in November, Michele Elam, a professor of English at Stanford University, wrote, “Occupy art might just be the movement’s most politically potent tool in its dramatic reframing of the racial dynamics of a populist uprising frequently characterized as largely white and ‘hippie.’” Academics, museums, and the media clearly recognized the importance of both Occupy and its visual culture in American history.
To conclude the conference “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” two speakers—a curator and an art historian—offered their thoughts on the day’s events. Dieter Roelstraete, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, spoke polemically about the conference theme, wanting his remarks to be “a case and a plea” for a curatorial attitude that “shouldn’t be ashamed of its aesthetic ambitions and its aesthetic aspirations.” In contrast to this passionate approach, his session colleague, David Joselit, professor of art history at the Graduate Center, commented briefly on several points raised during the conference.
What happens when artists act as curators, organizing exhibitions for museums, commercial galleries, and other venues? Well, they become curators, if for one show only. Is this new? Is it a trend? What advantages and complications result when an artist takes on a different professional role? The third session for the conference “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” simply titled “The Artist-Curator,” explored these ideas and more.
For artists, the solo exhibition reigns supreme. For curators, it’s the group show. From major events such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and Whitney Biennial to curator-driven institutions like the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, Witte de With in Rotterdam, and MoMA PS1 in New York, the authorial curator’s name has typically transcended the artworks on view (or so the story goes). While the art-publishing industry ceaselessly cranks out new books on curatorial issues—nearly always an edited, multiauthored tome—few critical studies have considered the theory and practice of showing the work of a single artist, which is perhaps the bread and butter of art museums worldwide.
Prem Krishnamurthy’s talk “Double Agency” addressed the speaker’s two primary roles: a founder of the design firm Project Projects (with Adam Michaels) and director and curator of P!—an interdisciplinary curatorial space that he described as a “mom-and-pop kunsthalle”—on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Project Projects has a critical and conceptual relationship to graphic design, Krishnamurthy said, that includes curatorial and editorial roles, but with respect to the traditional worker/client relationship. His goal is to produce design that is porous rather than unidirectional, working with existing materials and ideas instead of starting new with each project.
Back at A.I.R. again, there was at last an exception to panel chaos, perhaps because only two panelists—Marcia Tucker and Barbara Haskell, both of them Whitney curators—showed up. With Mary Beth Edelson moderating, their talk was focused. “Changing and Stabilizing Women’s Art from the Curator’s View” was the title, but discussion was about the woes of the curator.