The definition of ‘curator’ of contemporary arts
當代藝術中的“策展人”概念


TEXT BY 撰文 x HARRY LIU 劉競晨
EDITED BY 編輯 x SYNDI HUANG 黃煥欣

When referring to the definition of ‘curator’, different people working in different fields give different answers. Mostly, people describe a curator as an organizer, a director, a manager, and there are a lot of people that would think curators are personnel responsible for exhibition planning and art dealing. In the context of contemporary arts, the definitions are limited, or defined with preconceived bias. However at least, it seems ‘curator’ is a role filled with multiple identities and responsibilities.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, the ‘curator’ refers to ‘a person in charge of a museum, art gallery, etc’. (Crowther, 1995) Its etymology comes from the Latin word ‘cura’ which means ‘take care of’. Although the definition of ‘curator’ remains inexplicit, at least from its definition we could find out that ‘curator’ is related to a very significant role in the fields of museums and galleries.

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the concept of ‘curator’, it is necessary to introduce the origin of the word ‘curator’. The first use of the word ‘curator’ has nothing to do with arts and exhibitions, but related to the person who takes charge of props and instruments for religious rituals at churches, the meaning of which emphasizes ‘looking after and taking care of’. The development of ‘curator’ in the modern context can be traced back to the 17th century (Ambrose & Paine, 2007) when the first modern museum was born in the United Kingdom. Mr Elias Ashmole donated a series of rare personal collections to the University of Oxford, which forms the preliminary development of the Ashmolean Museum, where the person in charge of the custody of those collections is called ‘curator’. Furthermore, over the time the function and concept of museum have been evolving, and as a result, the responsibilities of ‘curator’ have been transmitting from taking care of collections to conducting researches and studies of collections. Later on, in addition to its collecting and exhibiting functions, museums also take up more and more public education functions. And in order to raise more national funding, museums need to expand their visitors and beneficiaries. Therefore, as the expertise of the collections and relevant knowledge, the curator becomes the main figure in planning high standard exhibitions. As a result, the curator being the connector between the exhibitions and visitors becomes moving forwards to the front stage.

From a broader point of view, the definition of ‘curator’ differs from art institutions in different countries. Although the different art institutions have geographical and cultural differences, there are some principles in common with regard to the concept of ‘curator’. For instance, a curator should be well-educated, working in a museum or a gallery, and in charge of taking care of the collections. Even though the definition of ‘curator’ can basically be sketched out for a rough outline, there are some important issues that are still not mentioned. For example, does the curator who works independently also meet the definition? Are there any qualifications of being a curator? What are the roles and responsibilities of a curator?

In order to find out a clear definition for this term, it is important to address two essential problems of the curatorship of contemporary arts: what the role of a curator is in the contemporary context and what a curator is doing in the contemporary arts fields.

The role of a curator

There are many different descriptions of the role of ‘curator’ in the contemporary arts fields. Liah Greenfeld describes curators as ‘gatekeepers’ (1988), he believes that the curators are certainly powerful and their jobs are to select ‘great artists’. I partly agree with his point. The curators introduce the subjects into the art world, and write articles to explain why the artists do so. Based on their professional knowledge of the arts and their own concepts, curators have the power and privilege to define what the great art is and what is not. Indeed, the work of curators is quite like that of gatekeepers. However, ‘gatekeeper’ seems too cold and stereotyped. From the perspective of contemporary arts, curators study the art history, communicate with the artists and devote their passion to making exhibitions because they want to discover the new arts, enrich the art world and explore the new area of arts. Therefore, the definition of ‘gatekeeper’ is not really suitable to describe that of the ‘curator’ at present, because it does not embody the basic elements of the curators. However, the curators are still playing the roles like ‘gatekeepers’, while curators are more proactive, versatile and with unique personality charms.

With regard to the description of ‘curator’, Seth Siegelaub holds another different opinion. He thinks curators do not represent the so-called ‘right’ artistic values, nor do they play the role of ‘God’ messengers in the arts fields. Instead, if the entire art history is compared to a show in progress, the ‘curator’ is nothing more than just a role or part of the roles for the show (Obrist, 2001). From the perspective of historical development, I agree with his point. If the whole art history is a big show, every one involved would be playing a role, including the artists, curators, collectors and so forth. But even if in a show, there are some roles that are still more important than the others. Seth Siegelaub’s opinion only points out that the curator is one part of the art history but he does not mention if the role of the curator is important or not.

There are many others descriptions and metaphors of ‘curator’. Many scholars describe the ‘curator’ as ‘trigger’, ‘chef’, ‘teacher’, ‘conservator’, ‘translator’, and ‘experimenter’. Among these metaphors, I prefer the comparison to a translator. On the one hand, Gair Boase says:

For most exhibition-goers, curators are producers, mediators, even editors of arts. While the curator and the translator work in much the same way, a good translator’s work seldom leaves any of his or her own presence on the work itself. Therefore, curators should in no way obfuscate or obliterate the art works or the artistic concepts. (Boase, 2003)

I agree that the curator is a bridge between the art world and the public, and the curators’ job is to use different methods to improve the communication between the art world and the public. A curator should focus on the communication but not to judge. On the other hand, Suzana Milevska believes that the curators are playing the role of translators when they are curating within the scope of theoretical and academic contexts. She says:

The usage of the term “translation” (rather than “application”) stands for the awareness of the confinements that appear whenever theoretical concepts are used as justification for curatorial choices of models, strategies and attitudes towards art, rather than as starting points for self-assessment and for pondering of our selection of art and curatorial models. (Milevska, 2007)

I approve of her viewpoint, because the concept of ‘curator’ presents a double identity combining ‘scholar’ and ‘executant’. A curator, as being bringing theories into practice, is a cross-disciplinary profession that often ‘translates’ different theoretical concepts uncritically into exhibitions or other curatorial projects and events. So the ‘translator’ is a very vivid description for contemporary art curators who based on their professional knowledge and practice effectively process information in various fields, and to promote mutual communication and understanding among the different fields.

What a curator does

Nowadays, the word ‘curator’ is becoming more and more popular, but the public is still not clear what curators are literally doing. Seth Siegelaub points out that the key issue of the contemporary art curatorship is ‘demystification’ which is a process in which curators attempt to understand and be conscious of their actions(Obrist, 2001). For this section, it is essential to make clear what contemporary art curators are doing.

The famous contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once in his book mentioned Harald Szeemann for his definition of ‘curator’:

As an administrator, amateur, writer (author of introduction), librarian, manager, accountant, animator, conservator, financier, diplomat and etc. This list can even be expanded including the guard, the transporter, the communicator, the researcher and etc. (Obrist, 2008)

This is a true portrayal of curators who are working in the contemporary art fields. Because during the development of the contemporary arts, curators always explore new artistic fields and directions, and always play the ‘translator’ role between different fields, as a result, what those pioneers should or have to do had not been told. Fortunately, there are many curators working for the contemporary art organizations, and their job descriptions will help us to discover what they are doing.

There are some job descriptions of the contemporary art curators at Tate Modern and other art organizations. To analyse these samples, I summarize the general duties of a curator as follows:

1.Acquisitions:

  • A curator is in charge of building the organizations’ permanent collection. Including researches and proposing acquisitions, such as identifying the gaps in the collection and actively seeking the resources and new areas of collecting or making recommendations and decisions to eliminate items which are not suitable for the missions and principles of the organization.
  • The curator should deal with the paperwork, including signing the agreement, such as the Deed of the Gift agreement, assigning it an accessions number, cataloging it and numbering it.
  • The curator also need to maintain and develop an appropriate network of contacts among artists, gallerists, critics, scholars and auction houses. Furthermore, curators need to cooperate with other department and build relationships with potential benefactors.

2.Collections and Exhibition:

  • The curator must be competent and knowledgeable about the collections of the organization, in order to lead, cooperate and manage the exhibition, and collection, as well as display project team.
  • The curator makes the exhibition plan. According to the different exhibition purposes, the curator holds the responsibility for project budgets; drawing up, managing, monitoring accurate detailed budget estimates for expenditure and income, to obtain best value without comprising high standards of presentation and also the curator holds responsibility for establishing and maintaining important schedule dates for the project.
  • The curator negotiates about loans and liaise with artists, collectors, public and private institutions.
  • Research existing or new proposals for exhibition and collection display projects.
  • Lead tours and presentations of displays and collection exhibitions. Research, Development and Writing.
  • Draw upon art historical and curatorial expertise to research and develop existing and new concepts for exhibition and collection display projects.
  • Present researches and critical thinking about art historical and social issues, the curatorial role.
  • Follow and engage in scholarly debate about modern and contemporary art.
  • Maintain and expand expertise in the specialist area(s).
  • Contribute to organizations’ overall research program.
  • Increase expertise in specialist areas by visiting exhibitions, researching and writing papers or articles, presenting lectures, attending conferences.
  • Write informative and scholarly texts for publications, including editorial supervision for exhibition catalogues. Write/present project descriptions for the organization. Write accessible gallery wall texts and captions.

3.Administration and management

  • Supervise junior staff as line manager.
  • Supervise interns or volunteers.
  • Give expert advice to external bodies.
  • Take on administration-related tasks and projects.

In general, the above job descriptions show all duties of a contemporary art curator who is no matter working for an organization or working independently. It helps to demonstrate the purpose of a curator’s job, which is to devise, develop and deliver exhibitions and collection displays and to contribute intellectual, art historical and curatorial expertise to all through research, curating and writing. In addition, to research and propose acquisitions within organizations’ acquisition strategy is required. From the job descriptions, it can be seen that there are many essentials of a curator: he or she must be a specialist being knowledgeable for his or her job, and must have great writing and research skills, and also must be good at communication and cooperation with different people. The emphasis of the curator is moving away from a purely academic research function towards a broader-ranging career which sets foot in many different fields, such as education, entertainment and communication.

Form the paragraph above, in order to help understand the term of ‘curator’, I wanted to find out a legible definition of ‘curator’ for the contemporary arts, but it is really difficult to define the word ‘curator’. However, I still tried to discuss about when the curator appeared, what the role of the curator is and how a curator works, so it proves the reason that why the ‘curator’ is so hard to define is because the ‘curator’ plays many different roles and holds many different responsibilities at the same time. However, some essential elements and principles of the curators have been mentioned, and I would try to give a definition of the contemporary art curator for this study: the definition of ‘curator’ is an open concept. A contemporary art curator is working with an art organization or working independently to apply his or her expertise, creativities and activities to research and develop the collections and concepts, meanwhile organizing and delivering exhibitions or events in order to be affluent in intellectual, art historical and curatorial knowledge to human beings.

當提及“策展人”這個名詞的時候,人們會有各種不同的認識,很多人會把“策展人”描述成為組織者、總監、經理人,還有很多人會認為策展人是負責布展的人員或者是藝術經銷商,這樣的答案不一而足。不過在當代藝術語境當中,對策展人如此的描述顯然是片面的,或者說是充滿了先入為主的偏見的,但不管怎麼說,人們對“策展人”概念的一個統一的認識就是:“策展人”是一個具有多重身份和職能的重要角色。

在高階牛津字典的定義里,“策展人(Curator)”是指代博物館或者藝術畫廊的管理者,其詞源是來自於拉丁語的“Cura”,意為“照料”,雖然這樣的定義依舊是含糊不清,但至少從這個定義中,我們可以看到策展人是一個在博物館和藝術領域中至關重要的一個職位。

為了讓大家對“策展人”的概念能有一個比較全面的認識,這裡有必要簡單地介紹一下“策展人”這個名詞的來由。最早的“策展人”一詞和展覽展示或者藝術都沒有半點關係,它最早是指代在教堂和教會當中負責保管宗教儀式所使用道具和法器的人,其詞義更多強調的是“保管和照料”。“策展人”在現代語境中的發展可以追溯到17世紀,當時在英國誕生了第一個現代意義上的博物館,阿什莫林先生捐贈了一批珍貴稀有的個人收藏品給牛津大學,也就是後來阿什莫林博物館(Ashmolean Museum)最初的雛形,那時候負責保管這些藏品的人被稱作“策展人”。進而,隨著時間的發展,博物館的概念和職能也在不斷地演化,策展人們的主要職能也從保管藏品慢慢地轉變為對藏品的研究和梳理,再後來,博物館除了具有收藏和展示陳列的功能以外,也越來越多地肩負起了公眾教育的職能,同時為了籌得更多的國家基金,博物館機構需要擴大自己的受眾群體和受益人群,於是,作為熟悉藏品屬性和具有專業知識的策展人群體成為了策劃優質展覽的中流砥柱,從這時起,策展人開始逐漸走向台前,成為了鏈接展品和受眾的一個橋樑。

從更廣闊的角度上來看,不同國家地區的不同藝術機構中,對策展人的定義也是不一樣的。雖然這些機構和組織所處的地理位置及文化語境都不盡相同,但在對於“策展人”概念的描述中卻是有很多相同之處,例如,策展人需要具有一定的學術能力和知識儲備、在博物館或者美術館畫廊之類的機構服務、需要肩負對藏品的保管照料的責任等等。雖然在這個層面我們基本上可以勾勒出一個關於“策展人”概念的大致輪廓,不過對於很多方面依舊存在沒有回答的問題:那些不為機構和組織服務的獨立的策展人是否符合這個定義?策展人需要什麼樣的資質認證?策展人的職責和角色又是什麼?

為了能從操作層面上來展示策展人的概念,我們不妨來看一看策展人在當代藝術領域扮演的角色,同時審視一下他們實際工作的範疇。

策展人的角色

在當代藝術範疇,對策展人的角色的描述有很多種版本,雷阿·格林菲爾德(Liah Greenfeld)認為策展人是扮演“守門人”的角色,他們擁有很大的影響力,他們的工作就是去篩選“偉大的藝術家”。這樣的描述在某種意義上是成立的,策展人根據自己的專業知識或者自己的理念來審視藝術作品,在展出的過程中選取他們認為是“好的藝術”的作品參加展覽,同時撰寫文章來介紹和評價作品,的確,他們擁有這樣的特權和影響力,的確很像“守門人”一般,但同時,“守門人”這個描述所散發出來的刻板和冷漠往往又不能惟妙惟肖地展現“策展人”的全貌。從當代藝術的角度出發,很多策展人研究藝術史,與藝術家們進行大量的交流,投入大量的精力去組織策劃展覽,這些很多都是因為策展人對於發現新的藝術和推動藝術史的發展充滿激情,這種激情絕不會是“守門人”所應該具有的特質,當代藝術中的策展人更多表現出來的是積極主動的行事風格、靈活多樣的工作方式以及擁有獨特的人格魅力。

已故的美國策展人賽斯·西格爾勞布(Seth Siegelaub)對“策展人”有著另外一種描述,他覺得策展人並不能代表所謂的“正確”的藝術價值,也不能扮演藝術領域當中“上帝”信使的角色,如果將整個藝術史看作是一部在進行中的表演,那麼“策展人”無非僅僅就是這個演出當中的一個或一部份角色而已。從歷史發展的角度來看,這種說法無懈可擊,而且不論是藝術家、策展人、收藏家亦或者是我們每一個人,在歷史的舞台上都是一個“演員”而已,而從這樣的形容中我們卻無法判斷“策展人”之於歷史的重要程度到底是怎麼樣的。

當然,對於“策展人”的描述和比喻還有很多,有很多學者用“扳機”、“主廚”、“老師”、“保管員”、“翻譯”、“實驗者”等等詞彙來詮釋對“策展人”概念的理解。在這些當中,筆者覺得“翻譯”這個形容比較接近我們所討論的“策展人”概念。首先正如蓋爾·波斯(Gair Boase)所說:“對於大多數去看展覽的人來說,他們把策展人看作是製片人、調解員、甚至是藝術編輯,雖然策展人和翻譯這兩個工作在某些時候是非常相似的工作方式,但人們就很少感覺到翻譯人員在其作品中所留下的痕跡,同樣的,策展人的工作也應該是‘潤物細無聲’的形式,他們的工作不應該混淆和泯滅藝術家所要表達的藝術觀念。”

策展人是一座溝通公眾和藝術世界的橋樑,他們通過運用知識和不同方式來促進公眾和藝術世界之間的交流和互動,而每一位策展人都應該將這種“交流”置於最為首要的位置,而不僅僅是對於藝術作品作出評判。策展人蘇珊娜·繆拉夫斯卡(Suzana Milevska)也認為策展人在理論和學術範圍內從事策展工作的時候其實就是在扮演“翻譯”的角色:“‘翻譯’這個術語要優於‘應用’,因為它蘊含了一種潛在的自覺,是出於將理論概念作為策展的最初判斷,從而進行選擇展示手段、策略以及對藝術的態度,而不僅僅是以自我審視和思考我們所選取的藝術或者策展形式為出發點。”

對於她的觀點我是很認同的,因為“策展人”的概念結合了“學者”和“執行者”的雙重身份,策展人將理論付諸實踐,這是一個跨學科的角色,需要將很多學術概念原原本本地“翻譯”成為可以在展覽或者其他策展項目或者活動中可以呈現的狀態。從這個層面上“翻譯者”的角色和描述非常恰當地展現了策展人在依據其專業知識和實踐的過程中將信息有效地在不同領域內進行轉換,并促進相互交流和理解的特性。

策展人到底做些什麼

現在,“策展人”這個詞兒越來越流行,但其實很多人都不知道策展人具體要做哪些事情。賽斯·西格爾勞布曾經指出,對於當代藝術策展的一個關鍵問題就是“去神秘化”,也就是一個策展人嘗試去理解他們所作所為的過程。下面我們來看一下到底策展人都在做些什麼。

策展人漢斯·烏爾里希·奧布里斯特(Hans Ulrich Obrist)曾經在他的著作中提到了哈拉爾德·塞曼(Harald Szeemann)對於策展人職能的描述:“策展人擔當行政管理者、撰寫人(介紹文字的撰寫)、庫管員、經理、會計、漫畫師、保管員、融資達人、外交大師等等。而且這一長串的單子還可以無限擴大,例如保安、搬運工、協調員以及研究員等等。”

雖然看上去不是那麼嚴肅,但這就是當代藝術策展人大部份工作狀態的真實寫照。因為隨著當代藝術的發展,策展人們始終在探索新的藝術領域和方向,而且作為橋樑他們將不同領域的內容“翻譯”給其他的受眾,於是乎這些先行者並沒有前車之鑑可以遵循,也沒有人會知道“應該或者必須做些什麼”。所幸的是,在很多藝術機構中都設有策展人職位,他們所公開的關於策展人招聘時候所提出的工作要求可以幫助我們窺視一下策展人所面對的工作內容。

我們搜集了包括英國泰特現代美術館的一些藝術機構的招聘信息,將其中對於策展人職位的相關內容進行了彙總,這些基本上展示了策展人在實際操作中需要面對的問題和需要掌握的技能。

1.購買

  • 策展人需要負責規劃藝術組織的永久收藏。負責研究及提出收購計劃,例如確認已有藏品的斷檔以及積極地開拓新的收藏領域,為優化符合機構主旨和使命的藏品提供建議和作出決定。
  • 策展人需要負責一部份的文案工作,包括簽署協議。例如起草和簽署關於作品贈與的協議、備案及歸檔。
  • 建立和維護機構與藝術家、批評家、學者、拍賣行之間的網絡。此外、策展人需要和其他部門進行協同工作,建立與潛在的贊助者的關係。

2.收藏和展覽

  • 策展人必須對機構擁有的藏品具有足夠的知識儲備和管理能力,從而可以帶領、協調、以及管理關於展覽和藏品,以及展覽團隊。
  • 策展人負責起草展覽方案。根據不同的展覽方案,策展人負責規劃預算、項目管理、合算并監督資金的支配並在預算範圍內達到最佳的展覽質量,同時策展人也要負責規劃展覽項目的日程安排。
  • 策展人負責與藝術家、藏家以及公共或者私人機構的展品租借事宜。
  • 對現有的或新的展覽展示方案進行調研和開發。
  • 負責藏品展示和演示,包括研究、調研以及撰寫專業文章。
  • 依據藝術史和策展專業知識來研究并開發現有的或新的展覽展示方案。
  • 策展人根據藝術史和社會現象進行研究和批評性思考。
  • 關注並參與關於當代和現代藝術的學術討論。
  • 在專業領域內保持和更新自己的知識結構和必要技能。
  • 為機構整體的研究項目作應有的貢獻。
  • 為出版物撰寫學術文章,例如為展覽畫冊撰寫重要評論文章;為組織機構撰寫項目介紹文案;撰寫展覽前言及展品介紹。

3.行政管理

  • 擔負項目經理的職責,監督基層員工的工作。
  • 負責指導實習生和志願者。
  • 為第三方機構提供專業建議。
  • 負責項目的行政管理相關工作。

簡而言之,以上的策展人職位描述已經涵蓋了所有的當代藝術策展人工作範圍,不論是機構策展人,抑或是獨立策展人。從實際的層面上來認識“策展人”作為一個職位所肩負的責任,從企劃、開發到執行一個展覽或藏品的展示,並且要依據其研究、策展角度以及撰寫的專業論文來為人類的知識、藝術史發展、策展實踐等領域作出貢獻。除此之外,策展人還需要為機構藏品的建設提供相應研究和符合機構需求的購買建議。從職位描述上來看,策展人必須具備的素質包括:勝任其工作的知識儲備,優秀的寫作和研究技能,還要有不錯的人際交流和團隊協作的能力。不難看出,策展人已經遠遠不是一個肩負純粹學術研究的功能職位,它已經發展成為了一個含義更為寬泛的職位或者職業,進而“策展人”概念已經開始滲入到其他的行業領域,包括教育、娛樂以及傳媒行業。

綜上所述,為了能讓讀者更好地了解“策展人”在當代藝術中的概念,我們試圖找到一個清晰的關於策展人概念的定義,但是很快我們發現,“策展人”是一個非常難以給出準確定義的名詞。然而我們還是進一步討論了“策展人”的概念興起、扮演的角色以及策展人實質的工作內容,藉此,大家也就可以明白為什麼“策展人”的概念很難被限定,因為“策展人”一詞同時兼具的角色和職責過於豐富。不管怎麼說,我們希望上面的文字可以幫助大家從一個宏觀的角度來了解“策展人”這一概念,在此,我們也會給出一個我們認為比較全面的關於“策展人”的定義:“當代藝術策展人,不論是為機構服務,抑或是獨立為之,都是將其自身專業知識運用於對藝術品的研究和策展理念的發展,并將其開創性的成果通過組織展覽或者活動的形式進行表達,以達到為人類知識、藝術史發展以及策展實踐理論作出貢獻的人。”