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Collaborative Curating

Posted By John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Collections, Exhibitions and Commissions, SFMOMA, Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Collaborative Curating” at AAMC10 (May 16, 2011)


By John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Collections, Exhibitions and Commissions, SFMOMA



Unlike many intellectual producers, the job of the curator is to collaborate with others in order to generate a project in public.  It is impossible to work alone, even to create a small, in-house exhibition, and indeed most projects curators are involved in—whether acquisitions, exhibitions, or collections care—require building a network of support and producing a consensus on how to move forward.  A synonym for curator could be negotiator.


Even so, many curators are not content simply to work with a team of professionals and supporters at their own museums, artists, dealers, and partner venues. Some want to extend their immersion into the world at large and engage with, among others, filmmakers, neuroscientists, and community groups.  Would any curator in her right mind take on the challenge of working with artists-as-curators, academic art historians-as-curators, and perhaps worst of all, an international and local team of arts organizations coordinating a city-wide print festival?  Apparently so.  Collaborating would appear to be, for some, a sort of addiction.  Too much is never enough.  Perhaps we are all enamored of listening to people tell us how to do what we do (and politely ignoring them).


Or, it could be that the cause lay elsewhere.  It could be, though I am not sure by any means, that curators—those arbiters of everything but especially taste—are not in fact the deciders (as W would have it) but they actually seek to empower others through their work.  There are as many ways to think of a curatorial project as there are curators, but a few categories might help here.  One means of collaborating is to bring others in to a project one does at the museum (or with other museums); another is to work with outsiders on a project that can be seen both at the museum and in another form; and a third is to use a curatorial project to shine a spotlight on the actions of others outside of the museum.  Among the five panelists at the "Collaborative Curating” panel, Cindy Burlingham, (Deputy Director of Collections, Hammer Museum and Director, Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts) and Sarah Schroth (Nancy Hanks Senior Curator, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) would fit into the first group, Adriana Proser (John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Asia Society Museum) and Joneath Spicer (James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art, The Walters Art Museum) exemplify the second category, and Shelley Langdale’s (Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Philadelphia Museum of Art) involvement with Philagraphika would seem to be a means of extending beyond the institution while still working within it.


Burlingham and Schroth discussed their projects at the Hammer Museum and the Nasher Center at Duke University, respectively.  Burlingham worked to organize an exhibition of Charles Burchfield’s watercolors (Heatwaves in a Swamp, 2009) with the artist Robert Gober acting as a co-curator while Schroth worked with the art historian Mark Antliff as co-curator (as well as Vivien Greene) on The Vorticists exhibition (2010).  In the presentations of Schroth and Burlingham, the audience learned how extending beyond the pool of experienced curators transformed and enhanced their exhibition projects in their respective institutions and the other venues where these shows were viewed.


 Adriana Proser discussed her collaboration with filmmaker David Grubin which extended her Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art exhibition (Asia Society, 2010) into another domain, the PBS documentary.  While Proser was careful to qualify her successes, it is clear that the great benefits to her project were 1) the huge grant from the NEH that allowed for the film and the development of her show; 2) the opportunity to work with a producer outside of the museum context to leverage greater potential for the project research and to develop a larger audience base as a result of heightened exposure.  Spicer’s exhibition project (Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes, 2011) involved working with a neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins in order to develop a beneficial collaboration between the domains of art and science.  Further, she sought to extend the examination of Renaissance statuettes in the collection of the Walters Art Museum.  By working with a specialist in the psychology of perception and presenting results in an interdisciplinary symposium, Spicer’s own research on the Walters’ collection was enriched and expanded.


Langdale’s collaboration with Philagraphika (2010) resulted in a curated exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art but it truly extended her curatorial reach beyond the museum and into the city at large.  Langdale struggled to convey the size and complexity of Philagraphika during her ten-minute presentation but it was clear that the project had a lot of moving parts and that Langdale, as a member of the collective curatorial committee led by José Roca, participated in a city-wide art exhibition/festival that included some 90 institutions and over 400 artists.  To my mind, it is here one comes to the core of collaboration because there is no way that the particular perspective of an individual curator can withstand in such an instance.  In this context, a curator can only participate, not determine, and the result is that the activity of the curator becomes part of a collective, not owned by the individual or the institution for which she works.  This kind of generosity is never reimbursed, but when a curator can use their skills and connections to mobilize something much bigger than herself—and literally beyond her control—the curator realizes most fully the public dimension of her role.


What I took away from the panel is that there are many ways to collaborate but each one pays dividends to the curator who is willing to extend her reach beyond the walls of the museum and engage the world at large. Collaboration is both the implicit nature of our work and its greatest potential.

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