Yes, thanks to the Philistines of Cyberspace the word CURATOR is being stretched to the very limits of semantic significance, but rather than join the chorus of affronted cultural elites pointing fingers at every blogger or boutique-owner who dares to don that hallowed mantle, I thought it might be more productive to speak with two persons right here in the Bay Area who hold inarguable rights to the title yet work in vastly different contexts. Even when confined to the concerns of the art world, the role of the curator involves a wide range of responsibilities, often working at cross-purposes. Not surprisingly, neither one of them seem to be concerned with what the delusioned aggregators of the information superhighway are up to.
In addition to a string of faculty posts including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford Universities, Margaretta Lovell has authored numerous books on 19th-century American art, and was the Curator of American Art for the De Young and the Legion of Honor, together knowns as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), at a time when their collection of American art was little more than stacks of paintings in the basement. “There was a lot of what I like to call ‘housekeeping’ that had never been done with their American painting collection before,” she says. “There weren't even folders on many of these objects. Many of them hadn't been photographed. There were no records. There was no curator of this collection before I came along. And there were 3000 objects.” After starting from scratch, Lovell completely re-evaluated, and curated several international exhibitions with FAMSF’s American painting collection. She now lectures on American Art at the University of California, Berkeley, with special interest on issues of patronage and vernacular aesthetic theory, a uniquely American twinset of concerns, given that historical public museums in the United States are uniquely rooted in the interest of elevating public taste—unlike the liberated royal collections of most of our European counterparts. So I asked Margaretta to explain the duties of a museum curator to that end:
"The primary mission of the curator is to safeguard the collection in their purview. Second is to make it accessible to the public, and interpret it for the public, finding ways to arrange space that is thoughtful and thought-provoking. In some cases that involves arranging special exhibitions that involve the cooperation of many institutions. And third, to grow the collection, which can mean developing relationships with collectors of various kinds, evaluating gifts, and in rare cases, buying objects... Most of our large, urban museums were founded in the 1870s to the 1890s, and the curator's job has not changed appreciably, except there's more emphasis now on blockbuster exhibitions."
The provenance of the various other movers of art is a bit more oblique. “Generally speaking, artists worked directly with their patrons up through the middle of the 19th century. From then on this new class of human being called ‘art dealer’ was born, usually born out of book dealers. They're a relatively new phenomenon, and they never took it upon themselves to claim an educational function.”
But what about the role of a curator in a gallery?
“Their job is to sell artworks.”
“Obviously,” she continues, “presenting these commodities called artworks to the public does educate the public, because it's simply a thing they haven't seen before, but their job is not to interpret it or in any way say why it's good or bad. It's an object with a price tag, like the other objects within that context. I think galleries today tend to position themselves as much more parallel with museums...but that's a very different enterprise.”
Lovell seems to use the terms Art Dealer and Commercial Gallery Curator interchangeably, and I’m not sure she and I have the same figure in mind. I like to think that there is more depth and texture to the art world than the public museum / commercial gallery dichotomy, that a body can sell artwork while retaining a fidelity to history and elevating public taste—whatever the hell that could possibly mean anymore. Perhaps I’m betraying my own naïveté about the business of art, but there is a difference between a big name, swinging-dick chain gallery and a group of people shuffling pieces around a storefront space, trying to keep the lights on.
Beat by the Bay: San Francisco Artists of the Fifties and their Galleries, installation view, EverGold Gallery, 2011; Courtesy of EverGold Gallery.
Andrew McClintock is co-founder and curator of the Tenderloin exhibition space Ever Gold Gallery, Interim Director of Exhibitions at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), Editor-in-Chief of the San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ) and sometimes even finds time “to make my own work here and there.” Ever Gold is the focal point of an operation working somewhere at the nexus of commercial gallery, de facto historical museum, and the potentially pernicious penumbra of the alternative exhibition space. When they opened as an artist-run entity in 2009, he says, “our original mission was ‘we're going to do something totally different, every month, so nobody knows what the fuck is going on.’” Such sentiment is exactly what makes the experimental art space the necessary yet ephemeral creature that it is, bursting onto our consciousness in the name of art but also FUN and not money but COMMUNITY and wilting almost as quickly as they bloom because no one can see in the dark.
Ever Gold has survived by falling in line a bit. “I feel like with every show we learn a lot and become a bit more professional,” McClintock says. He and his partner Gregory Ito retain a core group of artists to represent, and make the rounds at art fairs throughout the year, “but we also give our artists stipends and help them envision shows that typical commercial galleries wouldn’t mount because there’s not really anything for sale...that chaotic nature is still in line with what we do, but now our main interest is in creating an environment for artists to come in and realize projects that other galleries might look at and then say they're fucking nuts.” Spurred by McClintock’s interactions with former teachers of SFAI, receiving a whole other education on lesser-known art movements from the surviving participants themselves, Ever Gold also creates small historical shows in collaboration with adjunct curator John Held Jr. —like their recent Beat by the Bay—that focus on elided movements of the 20th century, “the ones they show you two slides of in art history class and then move on.”
If McClintock works in living history, shaping it as he goes along with a simultaneous backward-forward gaze, then Lovell and her scholarly ilk follow behind at a dutifully slower pace, conducting the housekeeping and giving the canon the twice-over. “After all,” she says, “the canon changes every day. Part of a curator's job is to look very closely at a collection and re-think it in entirely new ways.” Of course, the increasingly rapid modes of communication are only aiding our rapidly telescoping view of history in ways that can narrow the space between "alternative" and "mainstream" histories.
Overlapping histories are a good thing, because it is then that curatorial practice—the granted, ever-present chi of art world—is thrown into relief. When I asked McClintock about Ever Gold’s future plans for historical exhibitions, he explained that he and Held Jr. were working on an exhibition about the postwar Japanese avant-garde movement Gutai, “but we moved it to the Walter and McBean galleries at SFAI. The Guggenheim is actually doing a huge one, the first retrospective of Gutai in America, and it opens a week after our show opens over here. That's created an interesting dialogue with them.”
I seriously doubt that dialogue is as pleasurable for one party as it may be for the other, but only time will tell.
(Image at top: The Legion of Honor, San Francisco.)