Hans Ulrich Obrist, a world-renowned curator at London’s Serpentine Gallery, described his role as a curator in an interview as “that of a catalyst—and sparring partner.” Good curators make the right things happen in an exhibit, creating the best possible experience for everyone involved.
Curators are really communicators, tasked with presenting art in a manner that allows it to express its message, regardless of the scale of the exhibit.
Obrist describes curating as:
- Preserving, “in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art”
- Selecting new work
- Connecting art history
- Displaying or arranging the work
“It's a mass medium and a ritual. The curator sets it up so that it becomes an extraordinary experience and not just illustrations or…books,” said Obrist.
Identify a Theme
Art exhibits need themes, just as essays need a strong thesis or businesses need great mission statements. Even small venue shows involving a limited catalog of works need a theme.
Some exhibits come with pre-determined themes:
- Community- based (open to all residents, or only for pieces depicting local landmarks)
- Age- based (kids, seniors)
- Medium- based (paintings, sculpture, textiles, etc.)
In other cases, a theme arises from choosing a few “inspiration” pieces reflecting the intended message of the show.
Selecting the Art
Choosing pieces for an exhibit becomes exponentially more complicated with each artist involved. It entails far more than “shopping” for the right works.
When someone sets out to purchase a piece of art for their home, they spend time researching what they want, along with spending hours looking at different works. Rarely does it just happen that a piece is spotted, purchased, wrapped in a GalleryPouch™ for shipment, and displayed all in a week’s time. Curating takes all this and expands it to cover multiple pieces of art produced by many different individuals.
Nonetheless, choosing pieces for any show is, in essence, a picking and editing process that incorporates the curator’s knowledge of art.
Determine the Venue(s)
Successful art exhibits depend heavily upon the right venue, which is often limited by budget. However, the floor plan and logistics of any space affects all the other elements of a show.
- Lack of proper lighting in some areas
- Possible exposure to food and liquids
- Structural issues (for large or heavy items)
Even the exterior of the venue matters, so pay attention to parking, accessibility, and exterior structural issues as well.
Organizing and Arranging the Artwork
Curating is not just art interpretation; it requires some hands-on practical skills, including knowing how to use a hammer and screwdriver. The ability to envision and then create the right backdrop and display structure for an exhibit counts for a lot.
- Learn about and use the best display apparatus available, both for safety and aesthetic reasons.
- Ensure the display methods used are appropriate for the venue (extra braces for windy locations, or special mounting materials for historical venues).
- Map out viewing routes that make sense: chronologically, by medium or subject.
Interpreting the Art
Curators convey the message of a piece so that those visiting can “understand” the flow.
- Background research on the artists in the exhibit provides insights to viewers, and striking facts may make a piece more memorable
- Relating something about the subject of the piece helps observers create their own story about a piece of art/
- If an artist’s work looks a lot like a known artist, understanding and relating these influences enriches the viewing experience
With good curating, viewers take away more than just a memory of an image.
Caring for the Art
Performance art aside, most artists intend their works to last for a long time. A curator must safeguard works included in the exhibit.
- Inspect pieces as they come in and note any damage or flaws
- Budget for proper insurance coverage
- Ensure venue conditions pose no threat of damage to pieces once they are installed
Transporting art is an art in and of itself. It requires:
- Appropriate vehicles for carrying art: Large pieces require trucks, not just some rope to attach them to the top of a minivan
- Employing people capable of lifting and moving large pieces: Curators can get back injuries as easily as anyone else
During transport, protecting the art’s integrity is crucial. The correct protection depends upon the medium, but consider reusable items, especially if the exhibit will move to several different locations. Frame Destination’s GalleryPouch™ is a sturdy, reusable option to protect not just the art, but also its frame.
Curating and Multi-Tasking
Curating goes beyond picking out pretty pictures. It entails research, creativity, project management skills, accounting knowledge, and the understanding that no part of the process stands independent of the others.