The Skillful Curator: A Case Study in Curatorial Pedagogy and Collective Exhibition-Making
For my recent contribution to a College Art Association panel on pedagogy, feminism and activism, I presented as a case study a graduate curatorial practice course I developed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for which I curated an exhibition alongside sixteen students. While the curatorial field is considered hospitable to women, the curator’s role often operates within structures that reinforce patriarchy and inequality. How? We show more men; work within silos; fail to acknowledge labor; and, too often marginalize or simply ignore the work of people of color and older age. Even the word curatorial has moved farther beyond usual associations with class and privilege and into the realm of luxury and conspicuous consumption—have you seen (or worn!) J.Crew’s curator pant?
Knowing this, how could I integrate awareness and critique into both the exhibition theme and the collective curatorial process? This post, adapted from my paper, will describe how I synthesized pedagogical strategies of “skillful” teaching with what some call the “paracuratorial” approach of exhibition-making, which privileges a multitude of processes and platforms.
It is generally accepted that curating is a solitary activity, sometimes done in small teams. For my course, however, I was tasked with integrating seventeen individuals the process for a gallery that I was not sure we would all fit inside at once!
[editor’s note: apologies for the blurry images. These shall be fixed soon.]
Naturally, I wanted to make this a meaningful, “horizontal” activity, harnessing each student’s talents, interests, and contributions. At SAIC, there are many great precedents for curatorial work that is driven by pedagogy, collective authorship, and experimentation beyond the white cube. Artist Joseph Grigely and his students, for example, curated artists over the course of one year into a fluorescent-lit, carpeted classroom in the MacLean building on our campus. He wrote of this exhibition-in-twelve parts: “For MacLean, we did not have a preconceived notion of how the relationships between works would manifest themselves, or how they might inform each other, as well as the space of 705; … only with time did an understanding of the individual works, and their relationships with each other unfold.”
The Skillful Teacher…and curator?
As demonstrated in this book, the principles of skillful teaching in a democratic classroom call for an instructor who has a critically reflective practice and an evolving awareness of how students are experiencing learning. So, in planning this course I turned to this text not only in the spirit of reflexive pedagogy, but also in search of a framework for figuring out my course design. In the book, primarily about the role of dialogic participation in the seminar classroom, Stephen D. Brookfield asserts the reasons for fine-tuned discussion are intellectual, emotional, and sociopolitical. Putting to work ideas from Ranciere, Foucault and others, he reminds us that the hidden and visible power dynamics at play in the classroom mean that discussion can be tremendously hard to facilitate—think of things like imposter syndrome. A light bulb! Reflecting on my own early experiences curating, I recalled the vulnerability, trepidation, and imposter sensations I felt undermining my self-confidence. It was only when I discovered the work of Pierre Bourdieu by way of the artist Andrea Fraser in graduate school that I learned I was stepping into an art world that, like the seminar room, is a minefield of power struggles over forms of capital – cultural, symbolic and economic. I was feeling acutely my own lacks of capital while surrounded by people who seemed to have so much of it.
So, in the practice of teaching and emboldening my students to be active discussants and curators—remembering that word that carries with it associations of privilege, luxury, and, at the very least a kind of silo-ed gravitas—Brookfield’s ideas me a great place from which to start planning, and I adapted the following ideas to shape this course.
- To engage students in exploring a diversity of perspectives
- To Increase Students’ Awareness of, and Tolerance for, Ambiguity and Complexity
- To Help Students Recognize and Investigate Their Assumptions
- To Increase Intellectual Agility and Openness
- To Develop the Capacity for Clear Communication of Ideas and Meaning
- To Develop Skills of Synthethsis and Integration
- To Help Students Become Connected to a Topic
- To Show Respect for Students’ Experiences
- To Encourage Attentive, Respectful Listening
- To Help Students Learn the Processes and Habits of Democratic Discourse
- To Affirm Students as Co-Creators of Knowledge
Whereas an instructor might implement strategic class policies, exercises and projects to realize these goals around reading discussion, my objective was to implement a course structure that did the same for the curatorial process.
The Exhibition Concept
Now, I’m going to jump to the end, and work backwards: this is an image of our exhibition, which opened the last week of the semester.
Simply a group of artworks that interpret our present, the show took as its inspiration one of our culture’s most humble, futile and, sometimes, wonderfully surprising collective assertions of social memory: the time capsule. While most time capsules are grass roots—the activity of a 6th grade classroom, for example—we decided to name our exhibition after the world’s first intentional, scheduled time capsule, the Century Safe, which debuted at the Philadelphia World’s Fair. Like this “first” time capsule, how are exhibitions, particularly those situated in alternative or small-scale cultural spaces, like our venue, and all of which have afterlives through catalogs, websites, postcards and labels—important as idiosyncratic stewards of social memory, or portals into a way of thinking and being in the world, anchored in a specific time and place?
I suggested to our class the idea of the time capsule for several reasons. First, as a model it would allow for many voices to be heard, in that capsules typically have many contributors; second, it grew out of our reading curriculum, as an extension of the oft-studied Enlightenment-era cabinets of curiosities; “Wonder chambers” of stuff organized in homes of wealthy citizens, the tradition evolved over the 19th century into the public sphere of the museum, fueled by disciplinary advancements in medicine, science, history, art and literature. Today, as Hans Ulrich Obrist points out, “The multi-disciplinary quality of Renaissance and early Enlightenment scholarship is also appealing to the contemporary curatorial mind, with the Cabinet of Curiosities becoming a renewed fixation in the mixed media, grab bag contemporary art world.” For its physical characteristics as a funky display container (when viewed from the street) and commercial history as a 1-800 Got Junk Office, Roman Susan seemed perfect in this context.
Finally, the time capsule as a thought experiment opened up ways for us to think reflexively about the activity of selection, presentation, and historization ala many of the more recent models we studied together, including the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Through everyone’s research we built a pool of artists—from fellow students to artists with gallery representation—who we felt map, archive or trace the everyday. Or, as we began to put it, we sought artists who “access contemporaneity” with a key feature being artists who do that in a sort of knowing way
As our statement asserted, “If capsules are judged for their capacity to interpret a past for an unknown future, we hope our collectively curated exhibition explores meaning and invites reflection in relation to the activities of organizing, preserving and presenting knowledge through objects from a specific time.” [This term is borrowed from curatorial historian Terry Smith in Thinking Contemporary Curating, 2012] To that end, the exhibition would be a speculative space to invite deeper reflection on not only the materiality or archive-ability of the art objects but also the “playful negotiation,” as to how the meanings of these artworks create noise in the gallery. [This term originates with Ralph Rugoff, in Beyond Belief: Museum as Metaphor, 1998] Akin to a time capsule, we know the objects’ meanings speak to us now, but how might they migrate to an audience of the future? Click here to view the artworks.
The Process: In the Classroom
Now for the practicalities. Here is a snapshot of our process, developed with Brookfield’s democratic classroom in mind.
This course put forth an expansive notion of the curator as wearing many hats, so it made sense that running this classroom was akin to running pop-up organization. We self-divided into committees and I created very detailed timelines, goals and expectations.
- Our sub committees—curatorial, publications, marketing, education/programs—were each responsible for creative aspects of the exhibition. Some students were able to put pre-existing skills to work, and we tried to keep the committee work porous enough to allow for cross collaboration. For example, a student on the marketing committee could contribute writing to the catalog, spear-headed by a publications committee.
- Important! We utilized a project management system called Basecamp to organize ourselves and streamline communications beyond the classroom. This was helpful for an ongoing “exhibition plan,” “artist pool,” research documents, committee deliverables, and for our intense schedule of studio visits.
- Class sessions were structured around short reading discussions, periodic guest speakers, and committee work time, which included sharing and feedback. This created the space we needed for discussing everything from the artist checklist, to big picture issues of diversity, to more micro tasks of critiquing the proposed exhibition logo or work-shopping label templates.
4. We learned by doing. Within committees, students were given autonomy to make decisions, putting their creative and intellectual stamps on the show through written didactics, creation of public programs, website creative, postcard design, a gallery education guide, an exhibition reader, and a free zine to name just a few.
- I integrated workshops to develop skills that students immediately put to work. Particularly instructive instances included a demo on curator-artist communications, where we discussed how to email artists and mediate various issues; We also covered hanging vinyl text and processing loans for condition reporting. I always tried to explain and then jump backwards with both feet.
Some of the outcomes included:
- A well-attended opening to which many community members came out
- Successful programs that engaged the public – these talks, participatory lectures and performances were designed by our public programs committee, comprised of students also interested in museum education and social practice
- By all measures a pretty diverse exhibition with reasonable representation across gender, age, and race
- A review in Newcity!
- Participation! Even beyond class sessions, when activities were voluntary, students showed up.
Within the broad contexts of pedagogy and, in relation to the panel, feminism, my goals were to facilitate an exhibition that embodied collectivity and reflexivity in theme and process; To engender “skillfull” and “collective” curating; and to have a successful exhibition, defining success as something besides a formal white cube exhibition. In the Curatorial Constellation and the Paracuratorial Paradox, Paul O’Niell writes “…the curatorial at its most productive prioritizes a type of working with others that allows for a temporary space of cooperation, coproduction, and discursivity to emerge in the process of doing and speaking together.” He uses words like “dissensual,” “cohabitational” as made public within a “constellation of activity. In working with students within an expansive notion of the curatorial, I hoped to encourage them, from the start of their practices, to question this role as solely a caretaker, guardian or custodian of culture in the service of the institution or an impervious canon. Instead, I wanted to prime them to always think about the power of both the art object and the exhibition in relation to social memory, and to remember the ways that meanings of these things migrate forward. My hope is that they learned by doing that to curate is to always question, collaborate and lean into discussions.
Why? Because as much as they are an end, most exhibitions are really a collection of of beginnings.