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The role of the curator

‘After a time, you train yourself that once the work is out of the studio, it’s up to somebody else how it gets shown and where it gets shown. You can’t spend all your time being responsible for how the work goes out in the world, so you do have to let go.’

- Bruce Nauman, interview with Tony Oursler, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, Janet Kraynak (ed.), 2002,The MIT Press / Cambridge, MA / London, England, 2003 p. 381

The ‘somebody else’ who is usually primarily responsible for how and where a work of art is shown is the curator. The curator selects a work for exhibition and makes decisions about the context within which it will be displayed. This requires sensitivity to the interests and intentions of the artist. The curator also needs to ensure that the work is displayed in such a way that it is accessible and meaningful to the public.  Furthermore, curators working within a museum environment, have an added responsibility to their institution. It is their role, along with conservators and art technicians, to delineate a comprehensive and accurate record of the artwork for the future.

The Curator and the Artist

Artists working with less traditional forms of art - including video and installation are increasingly realising the importance of providing detailed information to curators to ensure that aspects such as size, placement, and technical specifications for works of installation art, are understood. This provides curators planning an installation with parameters within which to work, helping to ensure that there is consistency to the installation each time it is shown.

- VIDEO: Tate Curator Jessica Morgan discussing the artist’s role in planning an installation

Read transcript

A work such as Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip/flop, flip and flop (Fat Chance John Cage) has a strong logical structure which provides the skeleton of the installation – the relationship to the studio, the level and quality of the sound, the scale and quality of the images, the darkness of the room and the duration of the piece. As Michael Short, who oversaw its installation at Tate notes, the piece was created in such a way that if it is set up according to the artist’s specifications, ‘it guarantees its own success and guarantees the identity of the piece – the identity is built into the elements, so it’s consistent’.

However, while some artists are very precise about how the work is realised in the gallery, providing detailed instructions for the layout of the work, other artists specify their work more loosely, leaving it to the custodians of the work to be sensitive to what is important to its realisation. In earlier discussion on this site relating to the preservation of installation art an analogy to the performance of musical works was made. With musical works there is no one answer as to the role of the performer, different composers and musical traditions allow for different degrees of interpretation, and the same is true of artists’ installations. One could argue that the role of those installing the piece is to present "the work" accurately and the role of interpretation is to endeavour to understand what that means for any given “work”. In interviewing artists you find a variety of views. Some artists want to limit the influence of those installing the work and others directly invite the involvement of installation staff.

Tate Curator Jessica Morgan makes the point that the context of a display will also affect the curator's approach. She makes a distinction between the approach taken to curating exhibitions and the approach taken to curating the work as part of a Collection.

‘As a collecting institution, the curator takes a different approach to a curated exhibition – where somehow the curator has more license with how to present the work…the work is chosen for a particular reason, or to fit a particular concept.’

- Interview with Jessica Morgan by Pip Laurenson, 2005

 The Curator and the Public

In installing any work of art, a curator is very aware of how it will be seen or experienced by the viewer.  They aim to ensure that the viewer's response to the work is as useful, inspiring and enjoyable as possible.

Non-traditional art forms such as installation and time-based media, are often perceived of as less accessible to many people, so the curator is faced with an added challenge of overcoming an audience's possible unfamiliarity with the medium. Interpretative tools such as display and catalogue texts and audio guides play an important role in informing the viewer, but the actual installation of the work, impacts immediately on how the work is experienced. 

Visitors to an installation such as Mapping the Studio II, may be slightly overwhelmed by the piece - by its scale and duration as much as by the fact that it is a non traditional art form. However, there is usually something that the viewer can relate to, and which acts as a 'way in' to the work: this is an important key to inviting a viewer's response.  Tate Curator Jessica Morgan suggests in relation to Mapping the Studio II, (interview with Pip Laurenson), that the notion of ‘the artist’s studio’ as a subject is a familiar one to most viewers and is a route in to the work. Added to this, is the fact that the video footage has a real time quality. This is immediately engaging in that it makes the studio appear as if it is being seen through security cameras, providing an intriguing sense of the voyeuristic – a privileged view into the artist’s domain. As Mapping the Studio II references a very specific location, it is obviously desirable to show the projection in a space that approximates the original studio subject.  This not only reflects the artist's intention (Bruce Nauman specifies that the work should be shown in a space that approximates his studio), but also creates a viewing environment which reads like a real space, helping to contextualise the video projections for the viewer.

The duration of a work of time-based media, and the artist's approach to its content will obviously affect how it is installed. With many video or audio works, it is not necessary to watch all of the film or listen to the full length of a soundtrack in order to 'experience' the work. With Mapping the Studio II, its sameness is part of its point, and the audience can come and go as the day unfolds. Thus the gallery has to be a room which is easily accessible and sufficiently informal to welcome the presence of the viewer and allow them to feel comfortable about entering and exiting the space. Whether to provide seating – and the type of seating selected will also affect how a viewer experiences a work of art. The inclusion of seating in an installation encourages the viewer to linger and spend more time in the gallery.

Maintaining a flow through an exhibition if possible, and ensuring that a video work does not feel cut off from other works on display, is something that Jessica Morgan has suggested is important. In an interview with Pip Laurenson she discusses her dislike of 'black box' spaces for showing video and film. These can be defined as pitch black rooms, with a door or curtain enclosing the space.

‘I am very interested with video installation in trying to avoid these black box situations, because, particularly in a museum…there are many reasons why it doesn’t work. They are dead end situations where people don’t want to enter the work; the obstruction of total darkness which one has in these environments is unwelcoming; and I’m not sure if many of the artists who are making this work, Nauman included, really think of the work in this way either. They think of themselves as multi-media artists, they are not exclusively video artists in that sense and certainly not cinema film artists, so why try and create that type of environment for the piece? But, more importantly, the flow through the museum is very important and to try not to create this separate, entirely other type of experience in terms of darkness and seating and so on is desirable…to create a good looking and good feeling environment.’