German Pavilion Biennale

What does 'curating' mean today?

The role of the curator has changed over the decades. The art historian Annette von Tietenberg has been working on modern exhibition work challenges as part of ifa’s Research Programme 'Culture and Foreign Policy'.

'Ausstellen heißt, die Harmonie trüben.' ('To exhibit means to roil harmony')
Marc Olivier Gonseth

The term 'curating' has been used in such an inflationary manner for a number of years we should first get some clarifications out of the way. When we speak of 'curating', we usually mean the ability to select things in order to present them spatially at venues and thereby allow them to come together in constellations or to incorporate them into narratives. But the term is complex; it can also denote the initiation of thought processes, the organization of conferences and the editing of texts. As a vogue word, it conjures up an upscale lifestyle, a jet-set life and an elegant way out of the dead-end of directive-bound gainful employment. Thus a luxury label has recently been luring customers with a 'curator's dress', which, as we can read in the product catalogue, is best combined with a 'statement necklace'. There could hardly be a better way to prove that the ring of the word 'curating' for many evokes the 'idea of a creative self that roams the world freely and makes aesthetic decisions about where to go, what to eat, wear and do' (Obrist 2015 b: 36). The growing longing for a self-determined form of existence and the resulting ubiquity of 'curating' in everyday language has, probably not without good reason, attracted scorn and ridicule. Some time ago, you could read in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, under the heading 'Already curated today?', the following: 'If you can't come to grips with your life in the analog world, you can at least curate it using "Timeline" on Facebook. The same applies to smartphone photographers and their selfies on Instagram. We can only advise everyone in future not simply to look after his or her needs and worries – curating them is more up-to-date and just sounds chicer' (Güntner 2014).

The study 'What does "curating" mean today?', which was written as part of the ifa research program 'Culture and Foreign Policy', uses the term 'curating' in a clearly defined framework: as a technical term in the context of the fine arts that has a history and significance in museology and art history. One of the attractions of curating, as has been described many times, is to 'switch off the dimension of property' when designing and realizing an exhibition project (Szeemann 2004: 25); that is, to be able largely to ignore the categories of use value and exchange value and to show something publicly because of its exhibition value. Hence, by making something perceptible that cannot be tied back to labour, but is instead nourished by aesthetic experience, sensual knowledge and communicative practice, curators occupy and define 'the interface between artist, institution and audience' (Huber 2002, p. 226).

Curating is not a lonely business; it is always aimed at creating a public sphere and ideally opens up, through links, a 'discursive space of possibility with an open outcome' (Sternfeld 2015: 345). If in the twentieth century curators, who consciously distinguished themselves from mere museum custodians and conservers through their nomadic form of existence, were still admired as self-made men, stars, heroes or magicians who had the rare intuitive talent of placing paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings in exhibition space so as to 'make works of art precious' (Grasskamp 2015: 218), their field of activity in the twenty-first century has undergone a surge of professionalism and academization. The need for guidebooks for curators (George: 2015), the increase in conferences that discuss curating on a meta level, but above all the establishment of numerous courses in this sphere in Western Europe and North America, allow the inference that curating will no longer continue to exist as an intellectual playground for border crossers and ingenious dilettantes, as was still the case in the 1960s and 1970s. On the contrary, curating is increasingly seen as a profession that requires, in addition to university certificates, methodological skills, a network of international relationships, multilingualism, location independence and a high degree of flexibility and commitment, also excellent knowledge in the fields of art, art studies, cultural studies, scenography, art education, project costing and marketing.

Parallel to tendencies to professionalization, and in a dialectical turn of re-enchantment, the times have simultaneously conjured up the image of a dynamic curating which can do without such academic qualifications and sets in motion a hierarchy-free play of thoughts, actions and forces. Understood in this way, we can imagine curating 'as an undefined, open vector', 'in which different groups, objects, individuals and spheres of information intersect and influence each another' (Esche 2002: 179). From this perspective, the spatio-temporal constellation of an exhibition becomes the venue for 'the generation, design and re-articulation of the relationships between those participating in it' (von Bismarck 2019: 65).

The focus of the study 'What does "curate" mean today?' falls neither on the methods of a long-term accumulation of art and cultural objects in museums nor on the crisis of representation (Clifford 1988: 22). Instead, it examines the mobile, temporary and ephemeral elements of the art exhibition and its expanded fields of activity. The central questions on which the study concentrates are 'How can curatorial activity contribute to transnational networking?' 'What organizational and institutional efforts, what funding formats, are required to foster this?' 'What options are available to open up spaces of experience for those engaged in the curating process – artists, curators, scholars and temporary players and recipients of all nationalities and social origins – in which self-perception and the perception of others interlock, tolerance, curiosity and mutual consideration are encouraged, acceptance of otherness is practiced and collective action is tried out?'

'Outside the Western industrialised world, art
galleries hold little attraction for the majority of
citizens and the creation of art is a marginal
activity in the formation of cultural consciousness.'
Charlotte Klonk

The model of the 'international circulation of ideas' outlined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 2004) provides a frame of reference. Bourdieu countered the myth of a completely free flow of ideas that easily crosses the boundaries of cultural spaces by pointing out that the circulation of ideas is bound to social conditions. Also relevant to the study are the attempts to rehabilitate an ethnographic approach that the curator Okwui Enwezor has formulated to describe heterogeneity in cultural spaces and the variability of constructions of identity. According to Enwezor, ethnographic methods could contribute, in a curatorial framework, to 'shedding light on the historical conditions in which art and cultural production takes place' (Enwezor 2002: 13). Last but not least, the study reflects the model of a 'dialectical contemporaneity' proposed by art historian Claire Bishop to describe a temporality that is neither chronologically structured nor assigns works of art a fixed place at a specific point of origin in a closed phase of time (Bishop 2013).

Against the background of these discursive formations, and cognizant of the historical prerequisites of curating, the study presents a few selected examples of curatorial activity that have the potential to expand the genuinely European invention of the art exhibition, in whose insistence on free expression a spark of the pathos of the French Revolution still glimmers, to embrace transcultural practices and transmodern aesthetic constructs of the perception of the self and others (Kravagna 2017). These include freeing curating from the fetishization of the original, which therefore must travel, and the expansion of curatorial activity to include publishing practices on online platforms. Based on the idea that the foreign cultural policy of the Federal Republic cannot be restricted to conveying a positive image of Germany abroad with the help of art that has been produced in the country, but must also pursue global public policy objectives (Weigel 2019), the study outlines measures that could be appropriate for strengthening the participatory and collaborative parts of curating in the context of foreign cultural policy. Ideally, observers and observed, hosts and guests, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, givers and takers, should all be allowed to slip into different roles within the framework of curatorial processes and be able to complement one another.

A positive effect could be had, for example, by a transnational exchange program that enables exhibition institutions (whether museums, art associations or art galleries) which want to tackle a long-term cooperation with a partner organization abroad to rotate employees for a period of three months in the preparatory phase of a curatorial project. Regardless of their age and area of activity, be it scholarly, organizational, administrative, intermediary or communicative, employees of exhibition spaces would be temporarily given the opportunity to get to know not only the working conditions and processes but also the social environment of their respective cooperation partners. For instance, an exhibition institution based in Germany that is planning projects with an exhibition institution in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa would receive a guest who works at the respective partner institution and, in return, send an employee from their own institution.

In addition, the establishment of a transnational program for researching and presenting object biographies, which museums and exhibition spaces at home and abroad compile with the support of local academic institutions, could also be fruitful. In terms of method, the research project 'Object Biographies', which was carried out in 2015 under the direction of Margarete von Oswald and Verena Rodatus in the context of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, would serve as a model. Ideally, this methodological approach could be carried forward through the funding of a limited number of research volunteers, an arrangement that would allow young scholars and prospective curators to enter into dialogue with exhibition and educational institutions in the partner countries and to participate at various locations in co-operative research.

One conclusion of the study is that curatorial activity is increasingly assuming a relevant social function. It puts the middle-class self-image in democracies to the test in an exemplary way. For curatorial activity not only draws attention to art, the order of knowledge, social criticism and the effectiveness of educational instruments; it also actively creates a public and thus gives rise to temporary heterogeneous communities of production and reception that have to come to an understanding with an open-ended outcome on aesthetic preferences, desired traditions, multidirectional forms of memory, socio-political goals and lifestyles that are considered appropriate.

This study would not have come about without dialogue. A big 'thank you' therefore to Dr. Claudia Banz, Prof. Dr. Stephan Berg, Dr. Annette Bhagwati, Dr. Yilmaz Dziewior, Sergey Harutoonian, Prof. Axel Heil, Dr. Annette Löseke, Dr. Friedemann Malsch, Prof. Dr. Olaf Nicolai, Dr. Uta Ruhkamp, Dr. Britta Schmitz, Christina Végh and Dr. Sabine B. Vogel for valuable tips and suggestions.

Read the study "What does 'curating' mean today? Potential for transnational collaborations"


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About the author
Annette Tietenberg
Professor of Art Studies at Braunschweig University of Art

Dr Annette Tietenberg is a Professor of Art Studies focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries at Braunschweig University of Art. She has been a Senior Fellow at the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald since 2014. She researches and publishes on the history of art exhibitions, the anachronism of exhibition copies, modern textiles, and interior photography.

Research Programmes

In the research programme "Culture and Foreign Policy" and the programme line "Research" of the Martin Roth Initiative, experts investigate current issues of foreign cultural and educational policy. The research programmes set topics and develop recommendations to strengthen and further develop international cultural relations. The research assignments are accompanied by conferences and workshops. The research results are published in the ifa edition Culture and Foreign Policy, as ifa Input or as Policy Brief.
Find out more on the ifa website.