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Collections Vol 7 N4

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"Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals" is a multi-disciplinary peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the discussion of all aspects of handling, preserving, researching, and organizing collections. Curators, archivists, collections managers, preparators, registrars, educators, students, and others contribute.

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INTRODUCTION FROM THE GUEST EDITORS Translation, Intervention, and Innovation in Curatorial Practice

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Museum and Curatorial Studies, History of Consciousness, University of California—Santa Cruz

What is the task of the curator? What histories have shaped this professional role, and which theoretical frameworks might offer us new insights into what it entails? How can we learn from curatorial methods both in and out of museums, or reimagine them to enable new forms of exhibition and relationality?

Etymologically, curating is a practice steeped in “keeping,” “guarding,” and “caring for”—though how these meanings have been interpreted and translated into action has changed dramatically over time. As Lianne McTavish explains in this volume, curating in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was once associated with custodial work and other forms of manual labor. In the early- and mid-twentieth century, it became a profession that required highly specialized knowledge and skills, often legitimized by a PhD, to guide how collections would be interpreted by the public, and to introduce that public to institutionally legitimized forms of connoisseurship. Yet, in demonstrations of the pliability of curatorial methods and definitions, several artists and activists throughout the twentieth century appropriated the role of the curator to wager critiques of Western cultural institutions and commoditization. Such artists in the 1960s and 1970s included Graciela Carnevale, Hans Haacke, Ida Biard, Colectivo Acciónes de Arte (Collective of Art Actions), and Andy Warhol—to name only a few. Around this same period, oppositional minority institutions such as El Museo del Barrio and the U’mista Cultural Centre were established by activist curators and cultural agents in response to dis-identification, exclusion, and misappropriation in museums, reactivating yet again the open-ended connotations of “curating” to challenge its conventional expressions.

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Critical Approaches to the Curator

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Abstract Surveys a broad range of approaches to the figure of the curator, including medieval precedents found in illuminated manuscripts (Serrano), new takes on nineteenth-century roles and debates over what “curating” meant in the early twentieth century (McTavish), and critiques of Okwui Enwezor, who arguably embodies the contemporary notion of the global curator (Ogbechie).

Nhora Lucía Serrano

Comparative Literature, California State University—Long Beach

In 1998 Michael Brenson proclaimed that the era of the curator had begun. Brenson defined the “curator” as someone who “work[s] across cultures and [is] able to think imaginatively about the points of compatibility and conflict among them” because the task of the curator is to “be able to communicate not only with artists but also with community leaders … and heads of state.”1 This model of the curator as a socio-political envoy, however, is not new or modern. It can be seen in medieval illuminated manuscripts in which representations of monarchs and royal counselors function similarly to Brenson’s definition of a curator. Alfonso X, el Sabio’s Cantigas de Santa María (1221–1284) and Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othéa (1400) are two such manuscripts in which their richly-adorned portraits attest that there were political historiographers and cultural guides concerned with how history is read and preserved. But it is more than their mere presence that equates these miniatures as portraits of a curator; it is their gesturing hands so carefully painted and aptly directing the gaze to the visual narrative of the page that establish their exhibitionary aim, to shape and instill portraits of legitimate kings and strong empires.

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Objects of Engagement

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Abstract Approaches contemporary issues related to engagement in exhibitions, including collaboration in visual art (Markopoulos), the incorporation of local indigenous groups and philosophies into museum praxis (Shelton), and envisioning how audiences can interact with African arts at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (Forni).

Leigh Markopoulos

Curatorial Practice, California College of the Arts

The rise of the powerful curator-auteur in the 1990s, and the identification of exhibitions primarily with their originators/organizers (rather than necessarily the included artworks), has been addressed in recent years by a movement towards collaborative and more fluid structures for the conception and organization of shows. While the notion of curatorial identity, or authorship, is linked to Harald Szeemanns pioneering career, the consequent re-focusing on artists as the originators of ideas can also be seen in the Swiss curator’s approach to exhibition making, as first manifested in Live In Your Head: When Attitudes become Form (1969). This paper traces the re-calibration of the curatorial role away from branded stylization towards the artist, artworks, and ultimately the audience. Adopting diverse strategies, curators from Raimundas Malasauskas and Elena Filipovic to the Manifesta 8 hybrid collaborative curatorial teams, are seeking to arrive at new forms of presenting art through shared consensus. Challenging the authorial or sole voice, the process of creating meaning in exhibitions is being opened up to a multiplicity of voices—whether through a more democratic fashion of decision making, collaborative curatorial work, involving artists in curatorial decisions, or even appointing them as curators of shows, interventions, and education programs.

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KEYNOTE The Times of the Curator

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History of Consciousness, University of California—Santa Cruz

“The Times of the Curator”… My title evokes two senses of temporality:

I’ll be speaking of both. My concern is the discrepant temporalities (sometimes I want to say “histories,” or even “futures”) that are integral to the task of the curator today.

“The task of the curator.” I like the conference title chosen by Lucian Gomoll and Lissette Olivares because of its invocation of Walter Benjamin and the problematic of translation, which in his famous essay, “The Task of the Translator,” is fundamentally a temporal and open-ended process. For Benjamin, of course, the discordant times of the past would be activated and “made new” by a critical-materialist form of historicizing that could challenge and open up closed narratives, the inevitable realisms of the victors.

I believe that what’s going on today in museums has the potential to make this kind of critical intervention. For the museum is an inventive, globally, and locally translated form, no longer anchored to its modern origins in Europe. Contemporary curatorial work, in the excessive times of decolonization and globalization, by engaging with discrepant temporalities—not resisting, or homogenizing, their inescapable friction—has the potential to open up common-sense, “given” histories. It does so under serious constraints, a push and pull of material forces and ideological legacies it cannot evade.

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Conceptual and Performance Interventions

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Abstract Considers a variety of examples in which curatorial practice intersects and blurs with interventionism in art, including using billboards as a medium for artistic interference in public space (Shaked), translating and re-activating Regina Galindo’s activist performances (Carolin), analyzing the overlapping and divergent agendas of conceptual art and curatorial practice in Zagreb and Paris during the 1960s and 1970s (Bago), and the “re-possession of perception” through curating carnival and procession (Tancons).

Nizan Shaked

Art History, Museum and Curatorial Studies, California State University—Long Beach

During March of 2010 a suite of commissioned artworks on billboards was presented by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture throughout several major boulevards in Los Angeles to form an outdoor urban exhibition. The twenty-one participating artists that included Michael Asher, Allen Ruppersberg, Yvonne Rainer, Allan Sekula, Martha Rosier, Daniel Martinez, Ken Gonzales-Day, Renée Green, Kori Newkirk, Jennifer Bornstein, and Christina Fernandez were carefully selected to reflect the show’s emphasis on art as an idea and/or a medium for critical intervention. A multi-generational show, it displayed a trajectory of West Coast Conceptualism and Institutional Critique both as a historical development and as the current practice of living artists. The exhibition aimed to rethink the trajectories of West Coast Conceptualism and Institutional Critique by asking what it means to make politicized art today, when the possibilities of resistance seem so limited. The gradual canonization and commoditization of dissident practices since the 1960s has caused their foundational claims and aesthetic arguments to lose their authoritative thrust, propelling artists to renegotiate their own position within the system by recognizing the mythological status of opposition from without.

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Re/framing Race and Postcolonial Subjects

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Abstract Explores how exhibitionary practices interpellate and otherwise produce racialized and/or post/colonial subjects, as well as the potential for curatorial challenges to conventional subjectification, including how photography became a technology to frame Algerians as colonized subjects (Slyomovics), the history of African American families in photography (Labode), imagining exhibitions on Africa and Canada that are not constrained by traditional exhibition models (Butler), and appropriating kunstkammern as an “autonymic” expression of postcolonial Latin American identity (Mesa-Bains).

Susan Slyomovics

Anthropology, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California—Los Angeles

Algeria and photography have complex and intertwined pasts: the camera and conquest overlap chronologically. Since France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria and the camera’s invention in the late 1820s (claimed by Frenchmen Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre), photographs were the preeminent popular media for France to know Algeria. Photography produced knowledge about Algeria, characterized by Malek Alloula in his consideration of French postcard photography (The Colonial Harem) as merely a form of “pseudo-knowledge of the colony,” spectacularly so in relation to the ways in which the French imagined Algerian women. Subsequent critical writings take up Alloula’s critiques by drawing on Franz Fanon, Assia Djebar, and Leila Sebbar to consider ways to visualize Algerian women, the harem, and the veil.

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Indigenous Articulations

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Abstract Examines the ways that curators have attempted to represent multiple forms of indigenous experience and politics in exhibition, including the successes and failures of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC (Smith), the hybridizing curatorial legacies of René d’Harnoncourt (Lutkehaus), and the contemporary “transpacific fusion” artworks of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (Levell).

Paul Choat Smith

National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

On Tuesday, May 21, 2010 The Rolling Stones released a new and improved version of their 1972 masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. It includes ten previously unreleased tracks, and is aimed at suckers like me, who bitterly denounce record companies for releasing the same record over and over, in different formats, and nonetheless buy each new version.

I love both the record and the title, which is a perfect summation of the Indian situation. Our dispossession transformed Europe, and later the United States, into the greatest powers in world history. Unlike colonialism in Africa and Asia, no Indian nation states survived the colonial project, not one. What was that about? Why couldn’t they give us a little, toothless, sell-out, politically irrelevant state somewhere, with a seat at the UN and a military controlled by the CIA? But we got nothing, except exile, even in the few places where the indigenous are the majority.

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Curating (and) Communities

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Abstract Approaches the ways that exhibitions are produced for particular groups of people, as well as how communities themselves may be formed through curatorial acts of framing and mediation, including the rearticulation of social spaces as a component of radical curating (Wiman), how curators may incorporate traditionally excluded communities in scientific projects (Parry), and one curator’s negotiations with a local community’s notion of “authentic” boricua identity (Rodriguez-Lawton).

Veronica Wiman

Independent Curator

The Agora is one of three elements in my curatorial methodology when practicing and theorizing what I call ‘’Art and Social Practice.” Drawing from Greek notions of civic assembly, the Agora is a space where anyone can attend and act, where opinions can be expressed and shared with others in a community. Craft and Play complete the process and structure as activities that take place within the space I delineate. I claim that this tripartite methodology is radical because it transforms conventional artistic roles and methods. The purpose of my paper is to explicate these three elements as the bases of a radical art praxis so that other curators may incorporate them into their own projects. Perhaps as with the three primary colors, they shall serve as the basic elements that are reinterpreted and responded to in creative and critical manners. Agora, Craft, and Play allow the curator/artist to go beyond language and familiar territories such as the museum, gallery, walls, floor, sculpture park, and so on.

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Queer Curations

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Abstract Considers the ways that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and other gender and sexual non-conforming subjects may be represented in exhibitions, as well as how the display form itself can be rearticulated or “queered” to allow for more dynamic subject positions for such people, including how contemporary curators may learn from responses to the AIDS crisis (Lax), a transnational and highly personal installation series that features lesbian oral narratives (Hallberg and Karlsson Rixon), and a critical history of the VIVA Museum, the first queer institution of its kind in Los Angeles (Hernandez).

Thomas J. Lax

The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

This paper examines three cultural-historical interventions that occurred between 1987 and 1993, each of which addressed the relationship between the AIDS crisis and the status of art production: art collective Group Material’s AIDS and Democracy: A Case Study, organized as part of the exhibition Democracy: A Project at the Dia Art Foundation (1987-1989); artist-writer Gregg Bordowitz’s video Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993); and cultural critic Douglas Crimp’s essay “Mourning and Militancy” (1989). Less a comprehensive narrative of the art world’s entanglements in the AIDS crisis, this paper marks the above projects as three empirical sites in which practitioners expressed their frustration and disappointment with art and criticism’s dis/engagements with social life.

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Display Dialogues and Pedagogies

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Abstract Deliberates on the various possibilities for educational and conversational interactions at the interface of an exhibition, shaped and mediated by curators, including mid-twentieth century experimental shows produced by Jermayne MacAgy (Goldsmith), working with structures of inclusion/exclusion as part of the curatorial medium (Uchill), and the display of fake artifacts based on familiar myths to encourage dialogues and educational activities with an audience (Filipovic).

Meredith Goldsmith

Visual Studies, University of California—Irvine

This paper introduces readers to Jermayne MacAgy (1914-1964), an American curator who practiced between 1941 and 1964. Though there are many facets of her career worthy of analysis—she was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in art history in the United States; in 1943 she became the youngest museum director ever appointed in the US—I focus on her eclectic exhibitions.

MacAgy was very involved in the Modern art of her time and the concepts of objecthood associated with it. She was an early supporter of Mark Rothko, she was the first to show Joseph Cornell’s films, and she mounted early group shows of Abstract Expressionists. Equally interesting to MacAgy were works associated with anthropology (a field she considered to be more Modern than art museums), and she curated stunning exhibitions of objects from Central and South America, West Africa, New Guinea, and elsewhere.

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Postcolonial Curatorial Strategies

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Abstract Searches for new methodologies and theories of exhibitionary practice for postcolonial agendas, including a proposal for ways to display African arts, particularly from Guinea, in relation to performance (Cohen), a satirical but serious performance-intervention that recalls nineteenth century displays of non-Western peoples (Sakamoto), and the ways that museums as well as state officials have a stake in the exhibitionary construction of cultural and technological narratives in Tamil Nadu, India (Jeychandran).

Joshua Cohen

Art History, Columbia University

Forceful vectors of colonialism, scholarly interest, and market demand have transferred thousands of African objects to Western collections since at least the 19th century. Art historians in recent decades have offered myriad critical assessments of this troubled past, while some curators have sought to raise general awareness of its legacy. Their projects, however, have not entirely overturned the paradigm of isolating African objects from artists, performance contexts, and modern histories. In other words, well-articulated complaints against dominant curatorial conventions have not prevented museums from perpetuating a number of the same conventions in displays of traditional African art.

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Special Events

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Anthony Torres

Independent Curator, San Francisco

The Question is Known: (W)here is Latin American/Latino Art? (April-May 2008) was conceived as a self-reflexive cultural intervention that brought together multiple interests of artists, scholars, collectors, galleries, and cultural institutions, each with diverse needs and agendas. The exhibition aimed to interrogate the significance of Latin American and Latino art by problematizing, reformulating, and representing “Latin American/Latino Art" as an ideological construct that has subsumed the complexity and diversity of art practices by a range of artists.

Through the works in the exhibition, The Question is Known explored the significance of Latin American/Latino art as not “natural” or given, but rather, a hybrid of cultural creations that are fluid and mobile, established by contact, conflict, experience, sympathetic issue identification, and fantasy constructions, often constituted as living sources of inspiration, articulated through iconography, formal vocabularies, and personal associations. The exhibition was concerned with making what should be a simple and obvious statement—that Latino artists and art practices are diverse—as a means of countering characterizations that “essentialize” a range of practices done by Latino artists.

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FINALE Curating Academic Insurgencies

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Leave yourself open to surprise, to the next thing, whatever that is. The more that you root in what is, the less surprise you are capable of. It is an act of faith—a serious act of faith—to step over the edge of a cliff without knowing what’s down there.

Sandy Stone, ACTLab, European Graduate School

Sandy Stone is a celebrated multi-media performance artist, activist, and theorist. Several years ago, she made a political choice to no longer publish academic writing so that her talks retain a unique, context-specific aura. For the conference finale she staged an intervention that proposed various ways curatorial methods may be directed at academic work and social structures. One of her most forceful arguments insisted that we not fear the destruction of existing institutional formations, as it may become the condition of possibility for new and possibly more politically radical ones. Indeed, she advocated the “insurgent” maneuver of planned demolition and subsequent re-articulation as a curatorial tactic to resist conservativism even in cherished and familiar environments. To prove that she was not only speaking conceptually, Stone shut down UT Austin’s renowned ACTLab New Media Program literally on the day of her talk—a plan that only she and her assistant were aware of beforehand.

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