From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur - inventing a singular position

Heinich, Nathalie
Pollak, Michael

Heinich and Pollak begin by outlining the manner in which the professional position of curator has changed over its history. Whereas curators historically were charged primarily with safeguarding artifacts collected by cultural institutions, curators nowadays must not only enrich cultural heritage—largely through the purchasing of contemporary art—but also bring it to the public. Particular emphasis today is placed on the importance of connecting with people who have no special knowledge or experience with art. Accordingly, exhibitions have also changed from in the past having been displays of a particular collection to now predominantly being thematised shows that are conceived around an artist, movement or idea and that contain works owned by multiple different collecting bodies. Curators, like the group of artworks they assemble, are thus oftentimes not affiliated specifically with one institution but rather act more autonomously and authoritatively than they have in the past. Heinich and Pollak compare the curator-as-author to cinema’s concept of an auteur, a monolithic figure who carries out a multiplicity of tasks and operates as a singular name rather than as an institutional representative. This ‘autonomisation’ of the curator has been somewhat paradoxically accompanied by a de-professionalisation of the role that has permitted a wider understanding of who can be a curator.

John White

Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries

Carrier, David
Duke University Press

In Museum Skepticism, David Carrier explores both the development and what he argues to be the decline of the public art museum as a democratic institution. Carrier shows that by studying the history of museums and collecting we can understand the transformative point at which the art museum has now arrived; the public art museum has to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant to contemporary life and by extension to its visitors. Carrier argues that this reinvention should be inspired by popular or mass culture, as this is what nowadays attracts and interests the majority of people.

By looking at key figures in various fields of the museum world, such as collectors, curators and museum architects, Carrier shows that the public museum is something to be interpreted and studied instead of simply being taken as a container for high art. The book includes several case studies of important figures in the history of collection and display - such as Baron Dominique vivant Denon, the 1st director of the Louvre, Bernard Berenson who was Isabella Gardner’s art adviser and helped her to establish her collection and Richard Meier, the architect of the J. Paul Getty Museum - which show that all these various roles within the art world have had a tremendous impact on how museums and collections have developed, and how we currently view the art museum and its need for transformation.

Liesbeth Visee

Collecting the New

Altshuler, Bruce
Princeton University Press

This collection of essays addresses both the conceptual and practical challenges facing museum collections in the twenty first century. Authors wrestle with reconciling contemporary acquisitions into permanent collections, considering the ongoing challenge of determining just what ‘contemporary’ art is. Questions arise such as when is contemporary; is it best to collect only living artists; established artists? The permanent collections of contemporary art embodies a paradox, argues Jeffrey Weiss of the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.), as the older ‘contemporary’ art is pushed further into history and the collection of new art (of the present) is historicised by the identity of the museum ‘undeniably confers instant pastness onto present art.’ Other essays in the book address traditional narratives of encyclopaedic collections that are threatened by globalised trends of contemporary art that potentially rupture the established categories. Likewise, curators reconsider out-dated treatment of minority artists within collections which have been mistreated or misunderstood by past curatorial methodologies. One of the most practical concerns facing museums collecting contemporary art is new media, which can too quickly become old media. Technological restraints or poor understanding of technical art prevents the adequate collection of ‘new media’ art. Several curators outline their approach to collecting, displaying and conserving media art such as film, internet and other digital art.

Shelby Lakins