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Last updated: August 25, 2012 3:01 am
No artwork is fixed: its meaning is always malleable and susceptible to a whole range of influences. Of all the factors that shape our reactions to art, one of the most powerful is the hand of the curator. Yet curators are an invisible species – few of us witness their decision-making or know why they made certain choices or put this next to that.
“A curator should disappear once everything’s up, to let people make up their minds,” insists Xavier Bray, chief curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. “That’s why it’s good not to over-interpret on behalf of the visitor. The argument [should be] presented in visual means, so ideally you don’t have to read the label. It’s a matter of letting go and letting the visual powers of the objects tell their own story.”
That is certainly what happened at Bray’s Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 at the National Gallery in London and in Washington DC, in 2009-10. An exhibition of polychrome Madonnas and gory martyrs would be a hard sell, the National Gallery warned. “They told me, ‘Probably only Catholics will come and see this,’” Bray says. But the show was a resounding success, introducing an unfamiliar artistic tradition and asserting its position in the history of religious art. It was hailed as a curatorial coup for Bray, though he is modest, replying simply that “the curator’s job is to make [the work] look as beautiful as possible”.
This pronouncement on the classic role of the curator might sound a little out of date. French curator Vincent Honoré puts it rather differently. “I position the works in the right way and I activate them,” he says. Honoré is director of the David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF) in London – an exhibition space for the 1,600-strong collection of the eponymous property developer.
I have come to meet Honoré in DRAF’s new north London headquarters, a spacious 19th-century former furniture factory. Based in Paris and still technically freelance, Honoré worked at the French capital’s Palais de Tokyo and at Tate in London before assuming directorship of DRAF.
“It is my responsibility to make sure that the works are intellectually and physically safe,” he tells me – another view that might be seen as old-fashioned. Yet for him the curator is more than guardian and interpreter of art, and the exhibition more than its wall space. He calls DRAF “a new model for the contemporary art museum”.
Honoré’s vision for the space is not merely a place to show art but a centre of cultural exchange. When it opens in September, it will include a library – “a resource we want to share with artists, researchers and curators in the day, and in the evening it will be a space for public events. We want knowledge to be disseminated but, indeed. co-produced, so it is more like a salon.”
This, I remark, seems generous, particularly for an institution not dependent on state funding. “It is very important for the foundation to be open because I don’t want it to be a tomb,” Honoré replies earnestly. “It should be a living organism, able to adapt itself to contemporary debates.”
In curating a personal art collection, Honoré is working within the bounds of someone else’s taste: he even describes the collection as “a portrait of David Roberts”. Yet he insists this is not restrictive.
I ask him about moving from the public sphere (Palais de Tokyo or Tate) to the private. “I think in the past 10 years things have dramatically changed in the public sector,” he pauses, choosing his words carefully, “and freedom is possibly not where you would think you would find it.”
Honoré cites other curators who moved to private collections, including Lizzie Neilson, with whom he worked at Tate and who is now director of the Zabludowicz Collection – assembled by Anita and Poju Zabludowicz, who opened a “project space” in London in 2007. “We have something of a public mission,” he says. “Otherwise why would we bother to open our space? We could do private exhibitions instead.”
Not far from DRAF, the Zabludowicz Collection is based in a semi-converted Methodist chapel. And like DRAF, Zabludowicz is outward-looking and public-spirited. It runs an annual “Curatorial Open” – a competition for curators to display works from the collection in the large exhibition space. This year’s winning duo, Helga Just Christoffersen and Natasha Marie Llorens, submitted a proposal with – as the Collection’s curator Ellen Mara De Wachter told me – “a very large component that was a public programme”.
Their exhibition’s full name was Troubling Space: The Summer Sessions, these sessions being “serious encounters with artworks on show” through reading groups, artists’ talks, lectures and even open-invitation dinner parties. “One of the ways they wanted to make this evident, even when the sessions were not taking place,” De Wachter says, “was by creating this social space.” She gestures around the chapel’s original nave; in front of us stand benches made by Danish designer Emil Kroyer, arranged in an arc where the altar would have been.
“People think of the gallery space as a space where you go and look,” offers Llorens. “And, of course, there is gallery programming all over the world, but I think this kind of intensity happens rarely.” (She and Christoffersen encouraged visitors to participate in a whole weekend’s events, not just one.) “This is a different way of thinking about the exhibition space and how meaning is made than I have experienced traditionally.”
Honoré, with his talk of “co-production”, and Llorens, with her insistence that “meaning is made socially”, are part of a movement away from the idea of the omnipotent curator. Yet both produce highly controlled and conceptual exhibitions, demonstrating absolute confidence in the idea of the visual argument.
Some curators take a different approach. Sarah McCrory commissions Frieze Projects, the non-commercial element in London’s Frieze Art Fair. “The tent is a transient space; it’s kind of like an airport. The pace, the noise, everything is just so extreme, and to engage with that I think you have to go up against it,” McCrory says. “I want to stop people looking [at art] in that window-shopping way.”
At this year’s fair, she will hang two bold prints by Thomas Bayrle in the entrance corridor. “I quite like that the architects and Frieze spend a lot of time and money making the fair look as sophisticated and chic as possible – and then this print is loud. It’s basically a design intervention.”
There is something confrontational and anarchic about the way she works – she is more interested in artists than consumers of art: “If the exhibition is terrible, you’ve got to get over that. It’s not what it’s about. It’s about the process.”
So McCrory is treading a fine line as a curator charged with engaging the public. As well as a number of Projects for the art fair, she has worked this year on Frieze Projects East, a series of public installations across the Olympic Games’ host boroughs in east London. She approached her brief – “engaged projects that sat in the community” – with an insistence that she would “not compromise the artists’ ideas in any way”. She asked sculptor Gary Webb to create a permanent playground in Charlton Park, Greenwich. “Gary’s really excited about materials and construction,” she says, “so [the commission] is in keeping with what he does.” But in other cases, she admits, “it was a bit of a battle”.
If McCrory represents an extreme in contemporary curating, her belief that the exhibition is essentially a work in progress is increasingly mainstream. Young curators Christoffersen and Llorens invited the clamour of public opinion into their show.
And Honoré’s first exhibition in the new DRAF space, A House of Leaves, is a fluid evolution of “movements”, with works being replaced gradually by others. Some shows are still conceived as a fixed argument – think of Damien Hirst’s flattering appraisal currently at Tate Modern – but for emerging curators instability is key.
‘A House of Leaves’, David Roberts Art Foundation, September 21-February 23
Frieze Projects East, until August 31 www.friezeprojectseast.org
Frieze Art Fair, October 11-14 www.friezelondon.com
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