How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else

Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else
By David Balzer. Editor: Jason McBride
Published by Coach House Books, Toronto (2014). Softcover, 141 pages, $13.95

At this point, it seems safe to say that David Balzer’s Curationism is a bit of a cause célèbre in some circles of the international art world, and deservedly so. Balzer, an associate editor at Canadian Art magazine, has identified a trend pervasive not just in art, but in fashion, music and foodie circles, too. And, he’s written about it in an engaging way. Despite its subtitle, this book isn’t just for those fluent in the contemporary art world; it’s for anyone interested in the origins of broader social and cultural trends.

According to Balzer, we’re living in a world in which it’s not enough to just pick an outfit, make dinner or listen to tunes. Today, many of us, whether we realize it or not, ‘curate’ looks, gastronomic experiences or play lists by making increasingly over-determined decisions about the messages we want to convey about our attitudes, tastes and what we value much like curators at museums traditionally do when bringing artworks together in an exhibition. Balzer calls this “curationism” and it’s seeping into every aspect of our lives. Although Balzer doesn’t outright condemn the snobbery and one-upmanship that goes hand-in-hand with this ‘curationist moment’, his ambivalence towards the idea that anyone can curate or call themselves a curator, and the precarious state this seems to put academically trained curators in, feels palpable throughout the book.

The first question Balzer addresses is: How did the curator ascend? Curationism begins with a prologue introducing readers to Hans Ulrich Obrist, who “may be the most powerful curator in the world” right now, but is also “the discipline’s end-game.” Balzer’s interpretation of Obrist’s curatorial brand is useful to those unfamiliar with the global art world and its key players. For the rest of us, the book really begins with the first chapter, “Value”. Here, Balzer traces an interesting historical arc starting with the appearance of the word ‘curatour’ in the Middle Ages through to the curatorial precedents set by individuals like Alfred H. Barr at the Guggenheim in the 1930s and Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern in the 1960s, before ending in the early 1970s when Lucy Lippard became “one of the first curators to work in the contemporary mode.” This ‘mode’ is characterized by curators who are no longer just custodians of objects; rather, by the 1970s, curators were “connoisseurs”, their value as interpreters of the challenging conceptual practices of the time moving them into influential positions within the art world.

The next significant advancement of the curator in Balzer’s timeline doesn’t occur until in the mid-1990s with the rise of blockbuster museum shows and the advent of Relational Aesthetics. (There is little to say about the 1980s; the culture wars of that period temporarily sidelined curators and returned artist advocacy to art dealers since major institutions, especially in the U.S., faced pressure from the right-wing.) By the mid-90s, curators were doing something more than organizing shows; now they were ‘exhibition-makers’, the inference being that curators are, in some way, artists themselves. This, along with the prevalence of non-art celebrities like Madonna and Pharrell Williams calling themselves curators, seems to define the international art world’s current state of affairs.

The second, shorter part of Curationism is titled “Work”. This chapter will be of interest to those who are hoping to eke out a living as a curator. It also delivers a reality check. Here, Balzer parses the rise of MFA programs and the professionalization of the art world at, ironically, the same time that opportunities at the institutional level are becoming increasingly scarce. Just how mundane yet daunting the work of the average, non-Obristian, curator is gets driven home here.

The author approaches his topic broadly. This expansiveness is a plus and a minus. On the one hand, it allows Balzer, who obviously has a deep knowledge of popular culture, to make the book accessible by using non-art-world references like Serge Gainsbourg, Jim Jarmusch and Busby Berkeley films, and Mad Men to illustrate his points. On the other, this occasionally leads to statements that “the unlettered masses” – what critic Dave Hickey calls non-MFA holders on the book’s jacket – have no choice but to take at face-value. (For example: “Mid-century America was expert at conflating the avant-garde motivations of finance and art” in a discussion of corporate art collections, or his fleeting comparison of mega-galleries Gagosian and David Zwirner to kunsthalles.) For the most part, however, Balzer is an excellent guide, and the book’s central arguments are presented in a concise, insightful and often droll voice. (“Sometimes, you have to climb a mountain to properly curate a sock,” he writes in reference to a hyperbolic press release about a line of socks ‘curated’ by singer Santigold.) Curationism raises some open-ended questions and, although Balzer makes some predictions,  the future role of the curator largely remains open to speculation. This makes it likely that other writers will respond to and expand upon Curationism’s ideas. That alone makes it a necessary read.