Monday, October 10, 2016

The Curator is Dead and Long Live the Curator: Search for a New Word Instead

( a conservator at work)

Recently I had an opportunity to attend an international conservators’ forum which was held in Delhi’s IGNCA. Conservators from Mexico, Spain, the United States and so on presented the problems that they face while going around and ahead with their works. For me, as an Indian it was quite heartening to listen that they face bureaucratic hurdles and they too have brainless councillors and politicians who give conservation works to contractors who in the name of beautifying and conserving either wash down the patina-ted bronze sculptures with acid or over paint them with black paint. It is not just an Indian problem. Suddenly came another issue that the conservators in the public museums face there; the ego of the curators. In the hierarchy of museum administration, it is generally viewed that curator wields more power than the conservator. Or at times, the curator him/herself doubles up as a conservator often challenging the specialization of the conservators. Luckily in India the competition and the hierarchic disputes within the museums (and the museum discourse as well) remain as ego issues between ‘officials’ who carry these designations around, without never flowering into a full-fledged discourse that would make the museum practices more sophisticated than as they are today in our country.

(a conservator at work)

What caught my attention was the curator-conservator tussle that had been irritating the conservators from the foreign countries. It put me into thinking. In India we do not have so many celebrity conservators as we treat them as mechanics who mend cars and motorbikes. The kind of reputation and regard that the vintage car restorers get these days still evades the Indian conservators who toil with the paintings and sculptures in the dusty store rooms and workshops of the museums. We do have organizations like INTACH that does large scale conservations in India and elsewhere. Interestingly, the name INTACH also reminds one of the institutions like the Archaeological Survey of India that does very interesting and important excavations in different parts of India, at times helping in changing our historical views and at other times paving way for ideological disputes that involves not only scholars but also ill informed politicians. Unfortunately, like any other excavation agency in the world, due to the fear of changing the historical discourse which is conducive for maintaining the history as a given, the ASI is also forced to suppress many of its findings and interventions in the historical narrative. I am not scholar to comment on either the practice of conservation in India or the excavations that have been happening under the aegis of the ASI. However, I would say, the specialisation that several of our conservators and the excavators has been underused in our country. When conservation and restoration together slips over to the practice of authentication of a work of art, it suddenly enters into a different economic discourse, which takes away the technical as well as historical nature of the work. This issue has to be discussed further by the experts in the respective fields.

(Curator Scot Schaffer- all pics for representational purpose only)

My interest here is to discuss the role of the curator in today’s art discourse. It has become a child’s knowledge that the world curator comes from the Latin ‘curare’ which means ‘to take care’ or manage. There is also a saying that the word curator comes from the root ‘cure’ which means ‘helping something out of a bad physical condition’. That’s why Carold Duncan once observed that a work of art is ‘sick’ in a museum that needs a ‘curator’ to nurse it out of a sick condition. The world curator also has references to the medical practice of preserving dead bodies. That means whatever art objects that we see today in a museum are dead bodies because the word museum comes from the world ‘mausoleum’ which means a place where the dead are preserved. That means both literally and metaphorically a museum means a house of the dead. Interestingly, we have contemporary museums where living artists’ works are also preserved and exhibited. That means, those works that are capable of reaching to a museum, whether they are the works of a dead master or a modern contemporary living artist, we could say they are dead bodies. In the economic circuit of art, which is the auction circuit, it is said that a work of art becomes economically dead when it reaches a museum. That means museum is the ultimate space where the dead objects are brought to rest. When a work of art plays out all its economic values and is transacted in the market, it is a body in action which needs rest. The death of a work of art is celebrated in the museum and the curator is the presiding official of that death ritual.

 (Inside a mausoleum)

Today, however, both these words, Museum and Curator, have been taken out of the old discourse and are used for the contemporary purposes. Museums, moving away from the conventional sense, have become to play the role of expansive galleries that could afford to showcase high value art objects for longer durations and in the meanwhile, curators have come out of the old museum practice and have become itinerant professionals who do not really need specialization in any particular area of art. Pushing further for contemporary purposes, the word and designation ‘curator’ has migrated to various areas of commercial market where utility objects are sold not just for their functionality but for their aesthetical value. That means today’s curator is not simply a specialist who ‘takes care of the works of art’ or one who arranges the works of art. Within the museum as well as gallery parlance, the word curator till recently had some umbilical relationship with the original word but that too seems to have severed by the market forces. When the discretionary status of the word curator is collapsed for accommodating various practices within its blanket coverage, it has become a word that connotes someone who arranges a few examples from certain disciplines tastefully, intelligently and convincingly. This fluidity of position that the word curator has acquired by now helped not only the gallerists and freelancers to call themselves curators but also it has helped those people who delves in the business of life style products and home interiors. (To cite a stray example, recently I came across a news item in the reputed Hindustan Times newspaper, in which Gauri Khan, wife of the super star, Shah Rukh Khan has been qualified as the curator of her life style shop in Mumbai. Interestingly, Sakshi Gallery of Mumbai had collaborated with Mrs.Khan in showcasing some works of art in her shop as ‘curatorial efforts’ befitting for the new market realities. I am yet to know whether such a collaboration has given Mrs.Khan the confidence to use the term liberally in her business activities or it was just an attribution of an over enthusiastic journalist).

 (Gauri Khan, life style curator)

I am a curator (with a post graduate degree in curatorial practice from the Goldsmiths College, University of London) who curates very less number of shows and of late I have been feeling a strong urge to call myself something else other than a curator in the professional context. The reason is simple: when everyone in every field is a curator, within the art sphere it does not make much a difference. We have curated talks, curated seminars, curated film shows, curated food festivals, curated furniture expos and so on. (It is just a question of time we have curated medical attendance. I think the medical packages offered by the high end private medical facilities in our country are nothing but curated medical packages which for some reason the doctors are not yet calling them, and themselves curators). We need to find a different word for this. In the case of music, sampling and arranging were started long back with the advent of the music and sound softwares. In India, A.R.Rahman is set to have pioneered this way of music production in mid 1990s itself. Luckily we have not yet started calling him a music curator but we have music curators and I have been hearing the name of TM Krishna, the rebellious Carnatic musician for quite some time and many other previously unheard of names. In a forth coming art festival Goa, I am told that there are fourteen curators from different creative disciplines that include the noted singer Shubha Mudgal.


If sampling and arranging could make good audible music, why the same couldn’t create good art, food, textile, theatre, dance, literature and so on? If that is true, then curator is a word that has lost its meaning and purpose. The word curator has become an obsolete word in the contemporary art practices and expose. This word should be replaced by something like ‘sampler’ or ‘arranger’. There will be many questions raised at this juncture, of which the main would be, if museums are still called museums then why can’t the word curator remain in parlance. This is where the old habits of the market come to take an upper hand. Market always plays with the familiar and the comfortable. Even if the product is radically different and new, the advertisements use the age old belief systems to sell the products. If at all there are locations and events depicted in the advertisements that are unfamiliar for the consumers for the time being, the underlying message would be the same as in any conventional belief system; trust in the family unit, live and die for it. There are several advertisements that ask women to be bold and more forthcoming in the social life. However, the point of reference for them would be eventually to confirm with the familial values.


Hence, even if museums are dead and the curators also have become an extinct category, the parlance has to remain the same for some more time and in due course it will migrate to other practices in order to confirm the patterns of the market, the desire that it creates and its ultimate target, the family unit. Immediately after the Abstract Expressionist period in 1940s and 50s in the US there was a short lived movement of photo-realism (not the same photo realism that resurfaced in 1990s). The critics and writers found it difficult to find a suitable jargon to qualify the new style of art and due to this lack they resorted to the previous parlance that was used for writing about the abstract expressionist works. In this curious mixture we got Zen Buddhist and oriental spiritual jargons desperately trying to highlight the concentration and meditation of the artist to make the verisimilitude of an image. This has just happened in India, in the case of curatorial practice. I would say, it is time that we rethink on it and call it Art Arranging or Art Sampling or Art Jokey, Visual Art Jokey or something that would find place in the art historical and critical discourse of our times.

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