March was a tough month for New York museum curators, as the critics hastened to harrow their best efforts. Whitney Museum curator Lawrence Rinder wears out shoe leather traveling far and wide for his "2002 Biennial Exhibition," and New York Times star critic Roberta Smith calls it "bleak, pious, naïve, monotonous, isolated and isolating." Norman Kleeblatt goes out on a limb at the Jewish Museum for the admittedly provocative "Mirroring Evil" and Hilton Kramer headlines his New York Observer review of the show, "Vile crap, not to be forgiven." And Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr includes Gerhard Richter's widely noted masterpiece, the 15-painting Baader-Meinhof series, in "Gerhard Richter: A Retrospective," only to have Eric Gibson call him soft on terrorism in the Wall Street Journal.
This calumny is all constitutionally protected, of course, but you can't blame an amused reader for wondering what's going on. Are the critics looking for some kind of fight?
Back in 1997, when Peter Schjeldahl did a hatchet job on Mark Tansey in the Village Voice, likening his paint to pond scum, the uncompromising critic was heard to say that it was time to bring the painter, then high-flying to the point of sainthood, down a peg.
So perhaps that's what's going on, subliminally, anyway. The growth of the contemporary art industry -- the Old Master dealer Richard Feigen recently told David D'Arcy on National Public Radio that some $3 billion in new museum construction is currently underway in the U.S., and there's hardly enough classic stuff to fill it -- has buffed a new sheen on the profession of contemporary curator.
While the critics continue to languish in institutional never-never land, with little capital other than their own strong opinions, the museum jockey is riding high. One result has been, in the past year or two, a bit of a publishing mini-boom, featuring four navel-gazing paperbacks for contemporary-art curators. The profession seems to be taking stock, as if gathering its forces for further conquest.
"Curating has become cool," opines the aforementioned Lawrence Rinder in Words of Wisdom: A Curator's Vade Medum on Contemporary Art (ICI, New York 2001). This handy book, published by Independent Curators International, a respected organizer of venturesome art shows, includes encomiums on the craft from 61 top contemporary curators, from Jean-Christophe Ammann (Kunsthalle Basel, Kunstmuseum Lucerne) and Bart de Baere ("Dokumenta IX," SMAK, Ghent) to Barbara Vanderlinden (Roomade, Brussels) and Igor Zabel (Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana).
What makes it cool? Globetrotting, for one thing. As former Musée National d'Art Moderne director Jean-Hubert Martin says, "We really need to see contemporary art from Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania presented on the same level as European and North American art." And insight, for another. The curator is "an intrepid explorer with radar capable of picking up almost imperceptible signals," says Rosa Martinez, former director of the 1999 Site Santa Fe Biennial and "Manifesta 1."
What else? The adventure of avant-garde exhibitions that break out of the conventional museum framework. Today's museum is "elastic," "takes risks," has "new and dynamic displays" and is "in a state of permanent transformation," to use only a handful of the motifs in the vade mecum of Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator at the Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The ICI book offers a wealth of info like this, and even includes a tiny thumbnail portrait and resume of each curator.
The new global scope of the 21st-century art world is very much on the mind of Carolee Thea, the well-known freelance critic and author of Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators (Apexart, New York, 2001). Thea goes straight to the fountainhead, focusing on the men and women who have organized the big global blockbusters of recent years, including 2002 Shanghai Biennial curator Hou Hanru, 1999 and 2001 Venice Biennale curator Harald Szeemann and 2001 Istanbul Biennial curator Yuko Hasegawa.
Thea gets a lot from her subjects on the vicissitudes of working with artists and institutions, not to mention insider details of their important exhibitions. But in all of this, no one seems to care much about critical reception. Sure, Hasegawa, in her interview, refers to the "harsh criticisms and mistaken judgments" that have bedeviled her curatorial efforts. And New Museum curator Dan Cameron notes the "tyranny" of Minimalism and the "scary" hold that Greenbergian Formalism still has on our thinking. But overall, the curators seem to look past contemporary criticism towards the redemption of history. "The critics in the 1970s did not consider Martha Rosler a remarkable artist," Cameron observes, "but now she has gained recognition."
No wonder critics are turning up the volume. They think they're being ignored. Even worse, critics and curators were both made obsolete by the 1980s art boom, according to veteran London art dealer Karsten Schubert, author of The Curator's Egg (One-Off Press, London, 2000). Schubert's book is subtitled "the evolution of the museum concept from the French Revolution to the present day," and in fact it's a quick skip along the route from the British Museum in 1759 to contemporary supercollectors like Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, and Charles Saatchi.
According to Schubert, today's museum is newly positioned at the center of cultural discourse, surrounded by a "minefield" of demands from artists, politicians, patrons and fellow museum staffers. And the press? "Instant critical panning," he says, discourages "the odd slip-up" on the museum's part -- positing the critic as quality control in the big green art machine. "How to maintain an institution's place in the limelight?" asks Schubert in his penultimate chapter. How about by offering the curator's head on a pike?
Several of the participants in Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility (Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), a symposium of top museum people held in the City of Brotherly Love in 2000, do mention a certain fear for their jobs -- to name names, Robert Storr of the Museum of Modern Art and Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, who are both still in place, and Thelma Golden, who refers ruefully to her departure from the Whitney Museum (she's at the Studio Museum in Harlem now). The book is a rich trove of extemporizing by top museum curators and directors, full of high-minded rhetoric on museums and their missions as well as homely comments and non sequiturs. The conference proceedings were edited by Paula Marincola, director of the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, a program of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the University of the Arts, Philadelphia.
PEI invited the curmudgeonly art writer and recent MacArthur Foundation "genius" award-winner Dave Hickey to act as respondent, and he doesn't let us down, doing his Don Rickles act for the assembled institutional types after listening to two days of their presentations. "Never use your sales talk on your peers," he tells them, suggesting they might consider dispensing with their "line of public bullshit" in favor of "specifics" on art-world power and money. Museum curators tend to act as promoters for artists, Hickey notes, as well as bagmen for collectors and patrons. These points are well taken, though Hickey takes them no further.
It would be nice if critics and curators both could spend a little more time on real social and economic behavior in the art world, but it doesn't seem to be in the cards. In the meantime, we count on critics to amuse us with the bad news. Like with the Whitney Biennial, "Mirroring Evil" and the Richter show, everybody puts their heart and soul on the line only to have the critic come in, look around and call the entire thing a sorry mess. This power is all they've got, so it's no wonder they like to use it once in a while.