The Artist-Curator Relationship
by Pablo de Ocampo, Erika DeFreitas, Pamela Edmonds, Vera Frenkel, Ayumi Goto, Tarah Hogue, Justin A. Langlois, Pamila Matharu, Peter Morin, Lou Sheppard, Erdem Taşdelen, Geneviève Wallen, and Shellie Zhang
How does trust wager into the negotiations required of artists and curators to complete a project Considering that the artist-curator relationship has become almost required– even co-dependent – in the ways that art is made public, what role does trust play in establishing that relationship? How is the artist’s trust different from the curator’s trust? What does language have to do with it? How are boundaries maintained between artistic process and curatorial discourse? If the initiation of a project requires a leap of faith from both parties, how is trust built? What tools might one come up with to deal with situations where trust isn’t a given, or where established trust is broken?
C Magazine posed these questions to more than a dozen artists and curators. This is what they said.
A structural inequality is built into working relationships between curators and artists where curators operate as gatekeepers who wield the institutional (or sometimes independent) pow- er to disseminate artists’ works. As a seasoned emerging artist unsure when I will have finally emerged, I am all too aware of the intricacies of this awkward but unspoken dynamic. Inviting a curator over for a studio visit, for instance, is often an uncomfortable thing to do. Although I understand that their familiarity with my practice will be mutually beneficial, I am worried about appearing to be implicitly asking for something more. I am therefore attentive to how each curator navigates the ethical dimensions of their position of power, which in turn affects how much I trust them.
Do they treat me as an equal participant in our exchange? Do they engage in conversation, as opposed to passively listening? Do they communicate their own curatorial interests? If we end up working together on a new project, will they be respectful of my artistic decisions? Will they be involved in the process of procuring resources for the project to be realized to its best potential, or conversely, is there a risk of them disengaging during its development? Further down the road, will they be at least partially present while the technicians and I install the work in an exhibition? When the project is completed, will they reflect on the process and the outcome with me? These are some of the questions that pertain to the kind of conduct that I believe engenders lasting trust, of which curators no doubt have their own versions.
I came to curating in the ’90s through my mistrust of the Western art-historical canon and interest in deconstructing the Eurocentric bias and networks of white supremacy and patriarchy common within the contemporary art world. My practice became largely about institutional critique and claiming space for a greater range of expressions of identity within Canadian art and black visual cultures. Inherently risky, establishing trust is first and foremost in my work, which depends on building supportive relationships with artists who are often marginalized, racialized, tokenized and expected to perform “otherness” rather than be engaged within full aesthetic and cultural complexities.
It is not difficult to understand why artists and other cultural workers working to promote cultural equity turn away or simply burn out. The drive for cultural diversity and multi-culturalism in this country seems to encourage “quick fix” solutions of inclusion without trying to understand the history or the psychology of cultures dominated by generations of colonial oppression. Visibility is not enough when hegemonic structures have not changed. Who are our target audiences? Does the gallery-going public even “trust” contemporary art to provide meaning? What is important is how new publics are addressed, how knowledge circulates and which social spaces exist, from all of which new institutions can be created.
I refute the hierarchical positioning of curator as sole authority figure and often choose to curate collaboratively to encourage multiple interpretive vantage points. Exhibition-making is an ongoing series of conversations and negotiations to create spaces of agency for art. I see my role more as a translator of these exchanges which are not necessarily fixed, but open to dialogue, critique and unexpected outcomes, all while trusting and believing in that process.
Currently based in Chatham, Ontario, Pamela Edmonds is Curator of the Thames Art Gallery, Co-Director of Third Space Art Projects and a founding member of the We Curate, We Critique Collective. More of her work can be viewed at www.pe-curates.space.
Pablo de Ocampo
When I was younger, there was an infamous story I had heard from friends about an artist whose screening was interrupted by technical difficulties. As the team tried to address the problems, the artist, in a fit of frustration, threw a laptop that belonged to an intern across the projection booth, smashing it to pieces. I have thought a lot about that story, and similar ones, over the years. These stories guided a certain principle about the types of artists I would choose to work with, establishing a standing rule to avoid working with artists who are known to have this type of privileged and self-centred behavior.
As a curator, I always strove to enter into relationships with artists who I felt I could trust not to be assholes and to do good work. But what I came to realize over time was that I was prioritizing a one-way relationship with trust. What I focused on was how trusting an artist was integral to facilitating a project for me, making my work easier or more successful, and I was overlooking the other half of the equation –the importance of developing a work ethic that opened the space for others to trust me. Certainly, for every artist-throwing-an-intern’s-laptop-across-the-room story that is whispered amongst friends, there’s an equally horrifying story about some awful breach of trust enacted by a curator.
While it’s true that trust necessarily is a reciprocal relationship, I’ve been thinking in recent years about how vital it is as a curator, working at an institution, to continually recognize and consider the power in my position. And in that position, to place priority not on the trust I want to seek out from artists, but on holding space in the work I do to foster relationships that can allow for artists to trust me to properly and responsibly support their practices.
At first, I thought that writing about trust would be fairly easy, but I am realizing that it goes beyond trusting artists to show up with their promised work or working through miscommunications and mishaps. There are many layers within the curator-artist relationship; the desires and expectations from both parties are factors that can undo a trusting affiliation. This balance is very fragile and I am still unsure about how to effectively achieve it on each project.
An exhibition is more powerful when the initial curatorial premise is merely the point of departure. By opening the curatorial premise, the curator allows for an idea to be in flux, depending on artists to push the initial research further by adding perspectives, depth and textures. Therefore, trust is crucial to establish even grounds for compromise, which doesn’t necessarily mean settling for less on either side, just that an exhibition cannot be unilateral. When I approach an artist to work with me on a specific theme, it’s usually because the artist has demonstrated similar concerns in their practice. The curatorial premise, then, becomes a common vision, a common goal. Two of the questions I ask when doing a studio visit with selected artists are: What are you working on that excites you at the moment? And what have you been dying to try? To be completely honest, the challenge in opening the process this way is that it makes it harder to predict the final result. The manifestation of an experimental idea is ultimately a negotiation of space, time and resources. While the artwork that will be presented in the exhibition is made in discussion with the artists, the final version may be altered. Working collaboratively definitely requires a leap of faith.
Geneviève Wallen is a Toronto-based curator and writer interested in issues of ethnocultural representational spaces in Canada, focusing on diasporic narratives, intersectional feminism, intergenerational healing and alternative BIPOC futurities. She has curated exhibitions in Montreal and Toronto, and is currently Programming Coordinator at Xpace Cultural Centre and a board member/curator at Younger Than Beyoncé (YTB) Gallery.
An inquiry about studio visit etiquette in the Facebook group “Binders full of People of Colour” recently prompted me to reflect on the dynamics of the artist-curator exchange. My current studio is in the basement of my home. When curators I have no prior relationship with ask for a studio visit, they are not only asking to see my work, but are unintentionally asking to know where I live and to enter my house, where my cat and family photos are. Being trusting and open is inherent in my nature, but when I agree to these requests, I become acutely aware of the degree to which I make myself vulnerable.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Luther Konadu, a writer and artist whom I had never met, for an interview via email. As Konadu asked me several questions rang-ing from personal to technical to anecdotal, he prefaced them with similar facts about himself. Although not a curator, Konadu’s simple, generous gesture of sharing enabled me to interpret this professional exchange as located on common ground. I spoke frankly, without hesitation.
To form meaningful relationships and partnerships, we must meet one another at a place of mutual vulnerability. When curators elaborate on how our practices could interconnect or why they are interested in my work, it alleviates my anxieties about being tokenized and establishes clear intentionality and transparency. Curators who continually create nourishing environments for growth and dialogue cultivate the best work from artists.
A high-profile curator, known for supporting female and POC artists, is sacked on grounds of undermining the museum’s mission. An emerging curator is denounced on social media for exhibiting an artist accused of sexual harassment. A student withdraws from a gallery’s program after the space plans a talk series promoting alt-right thinkers. As these recent anecdotes show, in the art world, the lack of trust is palpable. The art world increasingly does not take care of its own.
So, it was rewarding in 2017 to participate as one of several guest curators in Blackwood Gallery’s curatorial project Take Care. Here, an emphasis on trust and support featured both in the content of artworks and in how the year-long project was conducted. This was the only time my curatorial fee has ever been increased, after the extent of my responsibilities became clear. For London-based artist Raju Rage, the gallery’s commitment to curating with care was reflected in their response to Rage’s desire to avoid the physical toll of crossing continents and live performance. As a result, at the Care Crisis, Care Connective forum, Rage performed a self- care ritual from a gender-neutral toilet by Skype.
Cultural workers increasingly share the Precarious Workers Brigade’s frustration with exhibitions that present radicalism on a gestural level without seeking to change the inequitable conditions under which such projects occur. For the PWB, it was _Take Care’_s grounding in social movement struggle and collaborations with activists that persuaded them to take part.
How trust and care might be prioritized in a sector where so much labour is under-valued remains an enigma. Blackwood’s director, Christine Shaw, has, through this program, questioned how relationships between curators and those whose work they support might become more reciprocal. The danger otherwise is that curatorial labour is treated as yet another exploitable resource and taken for granted in ways that are unsustainable.
Often your first – and sometimes only – interaction with a curator is through a studio visit. Studio visits are a bit like a first date. You might feel a good connection with someone right away, but you also might not. A studio can be such a strange, messy and emotional place. As an emerging artist, it can feel like a lot rides on a curator taking an interest in your work, so it’s easy to feel intimidated. I’ve learned to trust the process even if I don’t feel a connection with a particular curator. Rather than thinking, “Is this going to result in a show for me?” I approach it like, “How does this person, who thinks a lot about art, react to this work?” I once had a studio visit where the curator suggested an entire rework of one project, and then flat-out said that he hated another. This was, in truth, a really valuable experience; I could see where these projects weren’t translating to him. It allowed me to see what I might need to shift if I wanted this work to show in a particular context, and to consider that the vision I had for the project might not actually be right for that context.
I feel lucky to have some longer-term relationships with curators who check in periodically to see what I’m working on. In these cases, we can both trust that the relationship goes beyond a particular show or event. The conversation shifts from me speaking about my finished work to ideas we are thinking about in our respective practices. Approaching an exhibition is more about framing my practice within such a conversation, rather than having a curator re- move a piece from my studio and place it within a predetermined structure.
Trust in any relationship, let alone an artist- curator relationship, is a hard-earned value, along with mutual respect, open communication, understanding and an awareness for different world views.
No artist-curator relationship can built be on trust alone. It’s one part of a contemplative relational act which both artist and curator need to actively engage in. Western modalities of curating and art-making are highly focused on hierarchy, status and social power. What would happen if we did away with that out- dated model in these times of challenging and dismantling white supremacy and systemically oppressive institutional behaviour?
When it comes to the shared power of place-making for the artist and curator, language and boundaries are part of a larger system of care called “cultural safety.” These days, my fierce urgency is centered on the cultural safety of the artist-curator process; I have learned that the embodiment of this is equal parts action, reflection, empathy and compassion.
I started curating not out of interest to curate but out of necessity, to ensure that I could make space for those who were never given a seat at the table. Open and effective communication, including sharing knowledge given the intentions and desired outcomes, are key to establishing trust, and help everyone avoid stereotypical barriers.
An intersection between an artist and a curator does not begin with trust. That comes later – or, eventually. Trust is not a fixed term for either party. It can be rendered and mediated, gained and lost through any number of formal and informal infrastructures. When trust does arrive, it is often the result of a socially mediated, contractually delineated space of obligation, assurance and fuzzy risk-reward analysis. It is also an asymmetrical trust, with one party more vulnerable, with more at stake, and with more to lose. This asymmetry is, of course, particular to each relationship, set of circumstances and project. Things shift and slide. Alignments are plausible but are likely fleeting, existing up until the next emergency, mix-up or lost email.
However, all is not lost. On offer: a suggestion for the beginning of the next conversation an artist and a curator might have together. Exercised in earnest, it could help to tease out the conditions under which both parties are willing to labour together. In this conversation, an artist and curator might ask of one another: What do you really want to come of this project? What will this project enable you to do in the future? Does your future matter to me? What is the least interesting version of the project you can imagine? Under what circumstances would that version be acceptable? What worries you most about this project? How could things go irrecoverably wrong? And final- ly, how can we best produce the circumstances needed to make this meaningful, enjoyable and an opportunity to learn together?
Ayumi Goto, Tarah Hogue and Peter Morin
Performance art offers an interesting provocation to the systems that enable art experiences; the body becomes foregrounded. Performance art produces the unique trust of bodies touch- ing bodies. Performance art creates a perfect storm of consequences and risk. Performance art offers an opportunity for trust to be enact- ed within a constructed moment. Performance art is able to move outside of the room, art gallery or museum, into spaces beyond, to touch both the micro and macro. Performance art allows us to understand our bodies’ intersections with structure, space and land.
Trust is a gift, given and received reciprocally. Cease Wyss taught us that reciprocity is like the cyclical transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and humans – an unconscious but essential act that immerses us fully within the world. Becoming conscious of that which connects us is how we begin to build trust with one another; it allows us to recognize our interdependence.
As a process of making connections between ideas and artworks visible, curating can produce a space for relationality that is threaded through everyday life as well as places where we are used to encountering artworks. In that space, trust ought to be cultivated as relationships are, with communication that nurtures mutual understanding and a time commitment that exceeds the start and end dates of project schedules. Trust is a collaborative endeavour at the core of building collective structures that hold the potential to shift our experiences of working and living in the arts.
Tarah Hogue: For me, curating is about building relations so that we can build something together. I’m also interested in encounter and how we build trust with the audiences of our work. How do you build trust with someone you don’t know?
Ayumi Goto: I think that if we pay attention to the people, specifically, the hearts of the people both working in and visiting the gallery, there- in lies the opportunity to build relationships. The question is how to do this, and then how to do it in a respectful, structurally transformative manner?
Peter Morin: I always imagine a river to help me encounter and feel these intersections. There is flow. There is a fluid sense of self – and there is power. I guess my question is, does trust in the art gallery help us to become liberated?
Everyone is trying to meet each other well in these contexts, but perhaps hiding behind masks. Ideally, trust between artist and curator is a guiding force. But there is so much messiness which isn’t talked about: the lives that enter into the gallery, the bodies that are welcome and the bodies that are not welcomed. All of this enters into the spaces of curating and art.
Sometimes trust is like eyes that are crying– you can’t always see, but you know you are somewhere.
There are subtleties involved in how trust is built. I often need to remind myself that I am an active participant in negotiating a genuine interest in and commitment to understanding or appreciating what the other is saying, and what position they are saying it from. We are engaged in an exchange, we are entering a relationship. How can one not be vulnerable in this process? At this point in my career I have learned to pay attention to the emotional or physical responses I have to these exchanges – if something feels “off,” why pursue it?
I agree to work with curators whose practices are invigorating and challenging, but who are also people I can share space with. We develop a relationship where we are mutually invested in the other’s practice. We become collaborators and co-conspirators who share ideas, resources and an excitement for a process of learning. We can respectfully disagree. We participate in all of this while knowing that what we are doing requires time and trust. I have had the privilege of working with remarkable curators – human beings I admire, respect and trust. I feel fortunate to be in a profession where this type of relationship can exist and be sustained well beyond the exhibition.
Of course there’s trust – how else could we do what we do?! The most memorable exhibitions and their long-term impacts feature a resonant bond between artist and curator, a kind of mutual nurture that ensures that the work – exhibition, public art installation or publication – becomes a dream-fulfilling, boundary-stretch- ing instrument.
In crisis – as in the 1966 trial of gallerist and curator Dorothy Cameron, who was charged under Section 150 of the Criminal Code for exhibiting pornography in the Eros ’65 exhibition– it was trust between Cameron and the exhibiting artists that sustained them through an exhausting, sometimes ridiculous, but always painful legal process that had enormous impact on the Canadian art world. Though the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, the image of paintings being removed in plain brown wrappers sparked a debate that changed Toronto forever, as did that exemplary artist- curator bond.
More personally, I think of Marta Lawee, who, at Galerie Espace 5, believed in me as a young artist, and provided space, equipment, courage and support for String Games: Improvisations for Inter-City Video (1974), an exploratory work using Bell Canada’s Montreal and Toronto teleconferencing studios. Or, 20 years later, Denys Zacharopoulos and Pier Luigi Tazzi, curators at documenta 9, who effectively sabotaged Director Jan Hoet’s efforts to stop me from building _Transit Bar _ (1999), so that the piece could be realized. That kind of trust is very rare, and I’m grateful for having had the chance to work with other curators whose commitment to a shared vision made some- times difficult new work possible.
Evidence of a special, long-term artist- curator relationship – with a profound socially- engaged impact differing from but as powerful as the Eros ’65 trial – is Rebecca Belmore’s remarkable exhibition Facing the Monumental (2018), curated by Wanda Nanibush at the AGO. Asked about their work together, Nanibush said, “We’ve known each other for more than 10 years. We read each other’s minds. I trust her so completely that I just let her go, knowing that if you let her go up to the last minute, she creates something brilliant or amazing… it’s about not rushing or controlling her process.” Trust to live by…