The Artists as Curators and Critics
Fortunately, change is inevitable. Even for those individuals in the art establishment who assert that artists cannot and should not be active as curators or critics. This assertion is part of a traditional art would – one built on a foundation of hierarchies and exclusions that erode any modicum of power, control, influence, and authority that an individual artist has on or within the system.
When artists actively participate as curators and critics, or arts administrators, this foundation starts to crumble. While I do not advocate adopting the “out with the old, in with the new” slogan completely, I believe that anyone involved with art cannot remain contemporary without identifying and acknowledging new models, approaches, and tendencies with regard to curatorial practice and art criticism. Contemporary artists have recognized and are embracing these new approaches, and are taking charge as curators, critics, and administrators – shifting the division of power in the art world.
Of course, artists have been consciously redefining the art world since the organization of the famous 1863 Salon des Refuses. Following this event, many artists continued to question and challenge the confines of the art establishment, not just as artists, but as curators exhibition organizers, gallery owners, arts administrators editors, publishers, and writers. Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson have all written about art and are well respected for their achievements. Artist David Hockney is currently shaking up the art world with his book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Hockney is attempting to rewrite the history of modern painting by theorizing that artists like Velazquez, Van Eyck, and Caravaggio used optics and lenses to aid in the creation of their masterpieces. In craft, several artists have contribute to the written discourse surrounding the field including: William Morris, Rob Barnard, Margie Hughto, Bernard Leach, and Bruce Metcalf, among others.
The current notion of the artist as curator emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York with the birth of what we commonly refer to today as “alternative spaces.” The development of alternative spaces like White Columns and Franklin Furnace was initiated by artists who were striving for a new method of presenting their workâa method that ensured the artist’s authority and control. These first spaces were instrumental in serving artists who had been overlooked by curators and critics and underrepresented in the institutional art world, such as women artists and artists with ethnically diverse backgrounds. Alternative spaces were also among the first to support artists working in an interdisciplinary manner to create art. Contemporary alternative spaces still function in this capacity by providing artists with the physical space and resources to exhibit their own artwork, as well as the means to curate and organize exhibitions of fellow artists. These opportunities give artists a voice in dictating and defining what is relevant in the art world. What once was a radical new model is now a mainstay.
The art establishment has been and will always be the focus of reform and critique. Today, even formally trained art professionals are recognizing the constraints and limitations of the traditional art world. A new breed has emerged, and many professionals are leaving or opting out of institutional service. Adopting the distinguished title of “independent curator,” they are attempting to reconfigure and reform their practice. Contemporary artists like Fred Wilson are also involved in this current wave of reform. Wilson uses the methodology of curatorial practice and art criticism to critique and examine the many divisions of power in the art world.
With this history and the overall success of artists implementing change, one might ask why there is still resistance from the art establishment toward artists occupying positions of influence outside of their studio practice. Much of the debate over artists serving as curators and critics comes from academically trained professionals who tend to believe that the majority of artists do not possess the capabilities to perform outside the studio environment. This attitude plays into the stereotypical view of the artist as inarticulate, unorganized, and uneducated with respect to the history of art. The art world has successfully perpetuated the belief that formally trained critics and curators are needed to provide artists with the concepts and vocabulary required to discuss their work.  This assumption is terribly antiquated and tiresome. As Christopher Knight points out in his Los Angeles Times article “Art for School’s Sake,” the majority of practicing artists are products of the modern university system.  While this system is responsible for instituting and sanctioning art criticism as an academic discipline, it has at the same time also educated a generation of “smart” artists, who are very articulate and have the ability to discuss the influences, ideas, concepts, and theories that inform their own work in particular and art practice in general.
Some in the art world would argue that artists active as curators and critics lack the ability to remain objective and avoid possible conflicts of interest. But professional curators and critics are just as likely as artists to bring their own agendas and limited interests to a curatorial project or critical review. And to a certain extent, don’t we expect them to contribute their point of view? Ultimately, we should encourage a diversity of viewpoints including those of artists. As for potential conflicts of interest, it is ridiculous to assume that artists are the only players preoccupied with mutual recognitionâcurators and critics are just as guilty of this practice. These professionals use the same networking strategies and structures as artists, and like artist, recognize and promote their friends and colleagues. I am not sure I believe there even is an “independent art world,” since everyone is dependent on someone in this field. And, artists are just as qualified, capable, and well-positioned as any academically trained art professional to record the activities of fellow artists and help define the history of art.
I personally made the decision to start writing and curating because I wanted to stay involved in the art world outside of my studio practice. With the metalsmithing field divided into two distinct groupsâthose situated within an academic environment and those practicing in the marketplaceâartists like myself who choose to operate outside of these contexts are often isolated, lacking the sense of community and connection to the field that these groups can provide. Actively participating on many different levels within the art world has proved overwhelmingly beneficial to my development as an artist. The more I am involved in critiquing, questioning, and examining the work of others, the more informed my own artwork becomes. Writing and curating stimulate my thought processes and are another way in which I can express and explore my ideas. In addition to these activities, I have established a career in arts administration, which allows me to contribute an artist’s perspective to the decision-making process while also promoting artists’ needs and concerns.
I view all of these involvements as interdependent practices integral to my life as an artist. As a young artist, I am eager to have my voice heard and to help shape the future of craft and maybe even my small corner of the art world. That may sound ambitious but I think it is possibleâbecause the reality of change is unfailing.
- Janet Koplos, âWhat’s Crafts Criticism Anyway?â in Exploring Contemporary Craft: History, Theory & Critical Writing (Coach House Books and Harbourfront Centre, 2002), 84.
- Christopher Knight, âArt for School’s Sake.â The Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2001