What is the Relationship of Artist and Curator?

by | Feb 3, 2008 | Blog | 1 comment

A recent article (Art in America February 2008, pgs 122-129) features the work of artist Francis Alÿs. Reading about his work, which I both like and admire, reminded me of an ongoing trend I have noticed for quite a few years – artists turning into curators and curators being appraised as artists.

In this article the writer/critic Gregory Volk, discusses his latest show “Fabiola” at Dia and the Hispanic Society in New York. Here Alÿs exhibits 300 paintings depicting the same saint, all by other artists, mostly amateurs and unknown artists that Alÿs has collected over the years. This intriguing idea inspires me to take a trip to NY to see it in person, but what interests me the most was how this installation was discussed in the article, which I found to be almost identical to the way any writer would comment on a curator’s exhibition.

As the article so aptly begins “In a current arts situation marked by proliferation, with more and more galleries, exhibitions, biennials, collectors, art fairs, art consultants, art blogs and, well, artists….” it only seems natural that there will be a tremendous cross-influence between all these art world aspects.

There are many artists who use appropriation in their work, by copying or incorporating images by others, and then rearranging it somewhat to be seen in a different context. This appropriated work is used as visual commentary by the appropriating artist, and then claimed new ownership. This is not what I am talking about here, as I believe appropriation is just another tool an artist can use. What I am finding more and more are instances where artists actually become curators. Alÿs’s example above is one way. His curating is being used as a vital part of his commentary and vision. There is another type of example that I also see from artists who do not have Alÿs’s stature. Some artists become a curator to show their own work in the context of their choosing. For instance, an artist will gather together other artists work based around similar themes and directions to their own, then submit this as a proposal for a group show to museums, art centers and university galleries. I find this a refreshing solution for an emerging or young artist to get their work into the appropriate show and location.

The counterpart to this cross influence, is that of curators becoming artists. It used to be (many years ago) that curators would travel worldwide, meeting artists, visiting studios, and using their writing, administrative, and exhibiting skills to let the public in on what the artists were doing. New “schools” would be coined to indicate what they found. Now, it seems, that curators are on the fast track to their own stardom. By freelance curating the vast number of emerging biennales, they can gain a reputation for creating unusual, attention getting ideas. Now curators come up with the idea first, then seek exhibiting artists to validate their idea. Current exhibitions, therefore, comment more on what curators are thinking, rather then ideas originating in an artists studio.

Take Site Santa Fe for instance, who’s 7th Biennale will open July 2008. Each of Site’s biennales features a different curator, selected from their proposal submission. Most of the post exhibition publicity, articles and criticism in the past were centered around these curators, often leaving the artists and their work unmentioned. The same thing is happening with the next curator Lance Fung. His idea is to bring artists from around the world to Santa Fe for two weeks, to research the locale and to then create their piece based on this visit. The idea has many other components, and is quite brilliant, actually. But when I go to the exhibition I know I won’t be able to look at the work alone, without the overriding question of how successful was Lang’s idea, perhaps putting a spin on how I view the individual work on exhibit.

What it comes down to is this: The image of an artist slaving away in his or her studio, with no contact to the outside world, no demands or pressures to act as an administrator for their own work, has long gone. Artists are now in competition with not only curators, but galleries, museums and critics. Most of my artist friends put in just as many administrative hours as painting; such as writing proposals, contacting venues, photographing their work, using computers, websites and digital portfolios to attract new clients, setting prices, working with Paypal and other technical applications.

With artists unable to dedicate 100% of their creative time to making their art, has the act of creating become somewhat diluted? I see this trend in the US but is it also true in other countries? Because of this trend, is our country missing out on the production of passionate, powerful new directions in art?

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1 Comment

  1. Scott Bennett

    Hi Nancy,

    I agree with you. This is what is happening, and it’s been slowly happening more and more over the last 30 or 40 years or so. And its not a good thing for art. Might be a good thing for some “curators” and artists careers,..but not good for art. If you have not seen it before,..here is a great site about art writing and art,..they have commented on this phenomenon and more…


    and check out my new studio blog…primarily posting images of new work…


    We’ll talk some time!..



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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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