Curators Who Don’t Curate

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

I am not, and have no desire to be, a curator, but as a writer who periodically tries to pick apart the work that curators do, I occasionally find myself wondering who they really are, how they think, and what they really want. One of the reasons for this is that I don’t habitually see curators actually curating shows in the city where I live, or in other cities nearby.

The infrastructures for contemporary art that have been pieced together since the 1990s in cities such as Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, and Istanbul are endlessly fascinating as objects of study, and as seemingly disjointed local histories. Though the political legacies and lived experiences of each place vary considerably, they have all offered not only a remarkably high density of critically inclined artists, but also a large roster of events, projects and nimble institutions that can stand as possible alternatives to the dominance of art fairs and biennials, which are overbearing elsewhere but less successful here.

That said, the art scenes in these cities are still widely defined in terms of what they lack: museums, public institutions, archives that aren’t accidental or laughably incomplete, serious art schools, well-equipped exhibition venues, capable technicians, and art critics (though no one really seems to wants a return to prominence of those). One lack that is not often cited or bemoaned, however, is a lack of curatorial talent, even though almost none of the aforementioned spaces employ any curatorial staff at all.

The executive board of the Beirut Art Center, for example, organizes the Center’s exhibitions and other programs. Curating as such is done by committee and by consensus, which is one of the reasons why most of BAC’s group shows to date have been more or less the same. Meanwhile, in Istanbul the art space as research center known as SALT—a year-old consolidation of three earlier, smaller initiatives funded by the Garanti Bank, including the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center—has a policy of never attributing projects generated in-house to a single name. A group of seven plots the institution’s work through a contentious process of argument, criticality, and trust. In another example, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum was an against-all-odds art space until Manifesta needed it to be a “curatorial collective.” Since then, ACAF has happily returned to what it was—a once-grand apartment in an old embassy district where interesting things happen when people gather around ideas about what art can do.

Moreover, of the region’s three major power brokers of contemporary cultural and intellectual production—Christine Tohme of Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, and Vasif Kortun of SALT in Istanbul –Kortun is the only one who could be seen as a curator-curator (he was the founding director of the Hessel Museum, adjoined to CCS Bard, and the ninth recipient of CCS Bard’s award for curatorial excellence). He is also the only one to float the term “post-curatorial” to describe what he does.

“Fifteen years ago, the significance and impact of the curatorial had a different ring to it,” says Kortun. “It was a different moment, and we are not in that time anymore.”

Of course a not-insignificant number of young curators live, work and rotate in and around all four of these cities, many of them with degrees from curatorial studies departments, including Bard’s. For the most part, however, none of them spend their time making exhibitions, caring for collections, or even generating much curatorial discourse.

When the writer and film programmer Rasha Salti began working on Manifesta Journal, she says, “The first thing we did was call it a journal ‘around curating’ instead of ‘about curating.’ It’s about what curatorial studies’ curriculums don’t include, but it’s also about what inspires curators. I don’t know if curators are supposed to be poets or druids, but they definitely have desires to create a mirror of the world in a particular light or at a particular moment.”

When young curators such as Sarah Rifky, Zeynep Oz, or Mirene Arsanios work with artists and audiences, they do so for the most part in unconventional contexts. Organizing public events, running workshops, designing educational programs, building audiences, and activating unused spaces—these are not extras tacked onto an existing job, but reasons for a project’s being, and the founding motivation to address outstanding gaps in an infrastructure that no longer expects—or even desires—the foundation of a museum that is responsive to the city, let alone representative of its art scene. The prevalent idea is that no museum ever could achieve those goals.

In effect, the curatorial field in these cities is becoming both more and less professionalized. It would be a mistake, I think, to look at the situation as a developmental phase, in which art scenes in the third world are becoming and belated, running late and catching up. Whether the curatorial is over, as Kortun suggests, is up for debate, but at the very least the word must be made significantly more elastic and malleable to account for the cases described above. Indeed, the curatorial can be an essential bulwark against total commerce, as exemplified, for example, by the Beirut Exhibition Center, a venue the size and style of an airplane hangar that is managed by the PR office of the real-estate giant Solidere and has absolutely no need for artistic directors or curators, preferring to ask dealers and gallery owners to organize shows instead.

As for Kortun’s SALT, maybe the hope for young curators is not abandoning the profession, and / or dropping the term, but leaving such large-scale institutions behind. “I think we know where to go, the direction is there, but I’m not sure we’re getting there yet,” says Kortun, “which is to be able to start a project without knowing what it will be, where a project could be an exhibition, a publication, or nothing at all, where our way of thinking is not predicated on finality, and a project is allowed to determine its own course.”

Having an institution is not always the answer, adds Salti, “and the death of institutions is not always as tragic as we think.”

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a contributing editor for Bidoun who writes a column for Frieze, contributes regularly to Artforum and covers contemporary art and culture for the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star. She lives and works in Beirut. 

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