Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED.org.
I’m an artist and art writer and would like to complete the trifecta by seriously trying to curate. However, since I’ve only been on the curated side of the table I know embarrassingly little about the nitty-gritty of it. For example, when I have a proposal ready, do I inform the proposed artists of my intentions before or after I submit the proposal? Who arranges and pays for shipping work? I only know how I’ve personally been treated and not what is typical. I’m too afraid of looking like a fool to give it a shot.
Last things first: if you’re an artist and a writer, you must be used to sticking your neck out by now—at least a little—so I don’t believe that part about looking like a fool. You already know that the best way to learn is by doing, so stop worrying what other people think and get to work.
If you want to curate, you’ll need an idea or curatorial premise, some artists and artworks, and a space to exhibit the show. The process of putting together those items will often provide answers to many of the other questions, such as who pays for shipping. If the space you’re working with does not, you’ll have to pay for it yourself, or split the costs with the artists, or only work with local artists, or get a grant. You have lots of options for workarounds, and you’ll find that many of the smaller details will fall into place once you account for the fundamental parts of the exhibition.
A proposal is important, and you should talk to the artists. I forwarded your question to curator Dena Beard and she noted, “It is exceedingly important that your curatorial proposal conveys to the artist both your intentions for the exhibition and that, in requesting their participation, you will be taking responsibility for their artwork, conceptually, logistically, financially, and physically. The latter bit is often overlooked, but it is absolutely the backbone of the curator/artist relationship.”
Ms. Beard was kind enough to give you some real insight into her process: “I generally start out with a couple of paragraphs detailing the exhibition and explaining why I consider their art to be an invaluable part of the project. How will their work translate in the context of the exhibition space and, if applicable, in relation to the other artists included? How will the exhibition create a new dialogue or audience for their work? [You can] follow those paragraphs with a formal request to borrow the work (list title, date, medium) and state that, in close consultation with the artist, you will be covering the costs of safe transportation of the work to and from the exhibition space, insurance, installation, and deinstallation.”
Ms. Beard also said, “Consider your email communications to be contractual agreements—the more thorough you are, the better. Also, as with any contract, include prompts within the email to verify the artists’ mutual agreement to the terms of the project and the loan of their artwork.” I should note that Dena Beard curates for a major arts institution with resources and concerns far beyond those of an upstart independent curator. However, her advice is especially valuable for the beginner because it is absolutely essential to act as a professional from the very start. You should do so in order to establish good habits, a good reputation, and long-term credibility. So be as clear as possible in your communications with artists and other exhibition participants.
That information ought to get you started, but curating can be about more than just writing documents and plonking the art in a space. I also contacted curator Jesse McKee, and he recommended that you, “speak with all the artists and parties [you] would like to be involved from the beginning, before the proposals and pitches are sent out. Having a congress and momentum of the group behind you is always the best place to start a project.” For first timers, Mr. McKee suggests you look at the Constitution for Temporary Display, a document produced by the Tranzit Network for organizing the 8th Manifesta Biennial in Murcia, Spain (2010). He says, “A couple of documents pertaining to this constitution can be found here. It’s not so much a how-to, instead it puts the exhibition maker in a position of questioning their own context and allowing the group (artists, curators, and other actors) to answer the questions in a way that best suits their needs and demands of the time and place.”
I checked out these documents and indeed found them very interesting, especially the Constitution Questions, which encourage non-traditional thinking by opening up the curatorial process as a form of inquiry. Now that curating is a thing and it feels almost obligatory for an artist/writer to “complete the trifecta,” it would be easy to follow the conventional model in order to just get an exhibition made and tick the box labeled “curator.” Don’t do it! Curating is a chance to define what an exhibition could or should be on your own terms. Work with artists and other art workers who are genuinely enthusiastic about doing something new. Take the opportunity to make something that you really believe in. Think of it this way: when you are exhibiting your own work, what do you want to get out of a show? Your experience as an artist will give you some insight into what a great exhibition might be, and as an independent curator you won’t be tied to institutional concerns. So what if you think you might look like a fool? Be a determined fool, a brave fool, a fool who makes things happen. Good luck!