Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Female Curator

Women are tremendously visible in the art world—as commodified bodies, underpaid “gallerinas,” debt-saddled MFA and PhD students, jet-setting oligarchess-patrons, and as curators—a predominately female profession whose conventional role remains the custodianship of the oeuvres and reputations of (predominately male) artists. This very visibility obfuscates the material inequality women still face as artists and professionals in the art world, where they comprise the bulk of administrative, supportive labor.”

Chloe Wyma wrote in Lean Back: Resisting Branded Feminism,

This month’s The Brooklyn Rail’s Critic’s Page produced a good many articles on the topic of feminism and the art world. It is a worthy read. Sue Scott’s article for the page, asked this: “[….we have invariably been asked about the role of female curators. How supportive have they been? We’ve not gathered those statistics but it would be an interesting exercise for the future.” Absolutely. Scott is asking this question in relation to the fact that art made by women is less likely to be shown in museums and galleries today-still. The article cites statistics that indicate that majority of exhibitions, at least those tallied in New York City and other major urban art venues, feature male artists where exhibitions that featured art by women has stagnated at 24 percent since the 1990s. This disparity between men and women in the art world continues, even as emerging disciplines in academe, like curatorial practice, produce more female curators.

There are some easy answers to the apparent lack of support for women artists by female curators. Obviously, institutional sexism exists even in relatively new disciplines like contemporary curatorial practice. The dictates of dominant culture will produce an unflinching prejudice against art made by women, especially if emerging curators have some insecurity about producing “serious” shows to advance their own curatorial careers. But why are female curators so scared? Why maintain the status quo? Everyone from artists to critics, even curators themselves say they are the people in power, the ones who determine the avant-garde and lead the way in determining the next best thing or the one to watch in the art world. Even I, teaching curatorial practice and working as a curator have espoused this belief. If white women are the gatekeepers to achieving visibility in the art world, then why are we abandoning our own, leaving women to fend for them selves outside the fortress? Why are women reticent to produce exhibitions of art made by women?

If we assign a certain power and control to curators, then analyzing curatorial practice unearths a number of tangential issues related to representation, such as self-determination, curatorial ethics and even affirmative action issues. I wonder about the extent to which these topics are covered in classes for curatorial programs today. Being a white middle class woman curating exhibitions of Native American art in particular, I have reflected on the issues at stake when a preponderance of white middle class women are producing exhibitions of objects made by people from other cultural, class and ethnic experiences. In fact, I wrote a grant to fund a curatorial fellowship designed specifically to train Native American students to curate exhibitions of Native American art. I can speak from experience that the students I worked with for this fellowship curated a much different exhibition in scope and focus from the ones I curated with the same or similar objects. Just watching the students conduct writing and oral analysis of native-made artwork yielded completely different and intriguing interpretations that reflected their life experiences.

This would be the case for anyone, as interpretation is a subjective activity that will inevitably vary from person to person. But the stakes seemed much higher to ask Native Americans to conduct object-based analysis of indigenous objects. It seemed much more dire and important to facilitate a connection between budding curators of indigenous descent with art and artifacts that spoke to their religion and heritage. The question was what would Native American curators do with these objects, what stories would be told and how would that enhance our knowledge of the past?

Beyond a goal of producing better exhibitions (which should be one of the most important goals), the curatorial fellowships addressed the matter of self-determination. The curatorial fellows and I met with Joe Horse Capture, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to see how he felt about the topic. Horse Capture mentioned that the NMAI holds a curatorial workshop and the majority of the people attending are white women. His conclusion, as well as mine, was that more Native Americans needed to curate exhibitions with native made objects. Otherwise, stories would be completely lost as the objects themselves are only one part of a tribe’s oral history. By themselves, objects are incomplete and insufficient to knowing one’s heritage.

Ideally, a diverse group of curators means that knowledge dispersed via exhibitions can embody a multicultural pluralism. No more one, authentic truth to be told but variants that often disagree with and contradict one another. Curators can have that power as storytellers. One of my favorite essays on curatorial practice is by Boris Groys, “The Curator as Iconoclast.” Groys says:

“A work of art can’t in fact present itself by virtue of its own definition and force the viewer into contemplation-artworks lack vitality, energy and health. They seem to be genuinely sick and helpless; a spectator has to be led to the artwork, as hospital workers might take a visitor to see a bedridden patient. It is no coincidence that the word “curator” is etymologically related to “cure.” Curating is curing. The process of curating cures the image’s powerlessness, its incapacity to present itself.”

The relationship between the curator and the hospital worker/nurse may lead us to understand why curatorial roles are dominated by women, especially if we buy the essentialist idea of the woman as nurturer. I think we are simply story tellers, but story tellers that, as Groys points out, smash the sacredness of the cornerstones of Modernism: art for arts sake, its sacredness, its autonomy. We, as curators, deny that an artwork can and should be revered for its own sake, which is basically stating that curators take objects and present them the way they want to present them for the purpose of their own stories. If we add gender to that analysis, then female curators are the pagan witches, who adulterate the holy water produced by the male genius of the art world.

I’m okay with that.

But then the question is can curators undermine the intentions of the artists and undermine the intentions of the institution that makes their exhibitions possible? What about audience? Do we really have control over them? The obvious answer would be “yes” but then, perhaps not really. If we can mold the stories and make the knowledge, how will that matter when our only audience is a wealthy elite? An art market? The market absorbs all things. And it has often been said that art goes to the museum to die, its political efficacy diminished by the very institution, its conservatism, which made the exhibition possible. Even Groys speaks of this when writing, “Curatings ineradicable and inevitable iconoclasm has never made artists happy; museums have been compared to graveyards, and curators to undertakers.” How revolutionary is our power really?

Which is perhaps why we are not very radical, not very “innovative” as we say, when it comes to curating exhibitions. At least on a surface level, if we are to look at only the statistics, it seems that the female curator is challenging very little of the dominant art world. According to several authors in the Brooklyn Rail’s critic’s page, this is why we still need more exhibitions featuring feminist art. Our curatorial revolutions, no doubt, will be contained ones because of the institutions that house them. But perhaps feminist art and feminist shows can subvert that. According to Chloe Wyma’s “Lean Back” article on the critic’s page she concludes, “For those of us who came of age after feminism became history, it’s all the more necessary that we renew its sense of urgency, not a periodized style or a marketable trend, but as a vital and necessary critique of a still entrenched patriarchy.”

Back in the 1990’s, Elizabeth Grosz wrote, “I have two contrary attitudes or inclinations: on the one hand, I am curious about why we want or need a clear-cut distinction between feminist and non feminist texts, what is invested or at stake in this distinction, and who wants the distinction to be drawn.” Well, lets try to answer that. At present, feminist art is a part of the art historical canon and thus, a commodity in the art market. Art dealers and collectors benefit from this. Certainly, the artists themselves do not benefit unless the elusive “recognition” after one’s death is considered a benefit. For the most part, most artists never fetch the gargantuan prices you see listed at auctions. Typically, private collectors are not collaborating with museums and generally stand apart from the educational mission of them. Society as a whole has little to gain. So in that case, determining and labeling, aka packaging, art as “feminist” serves a purpose to commodify its objects for private dealers, auction houses, and collectors.

And what is at stake? Is the female curator abandoning her fellow artists simply because the art market says so; because most art made by women will not fetch large amounts of money on the market? Sue Scott wrote “Even as the number of women graduating from MFA programs annually has risen to approximate 50 percent, when they get out into the art world, their chances of getting a solo show in a gallery are still 24 percent.” As the article points out, living women artists are least likely to recuperate the costs put into their education and training. Feminism, as a political movement and activist strategy, has been our best bet, our best way to mobilize and fight to recuperate the costs: either through designating new art spaces, new art collectives and creating new granting agencies that help women out. Ignoring the authority of the curator and especially, the extreme authority of an institution and art market, can be a feminist strategy in order to create a space for a growing group of neglected and highly trained artists.

But what about these women getting paid? Obviously there is money to be had. And what about reaching a wider audience, an audience that a larger institution can provide? Artists and artworks are certainly sick and helpless without the advocates to demand visibility via exhibitions and, hopefully, money. Here is where feminist curators can step in with the challenge of revolutionizing within the institution. But what would revolutionizing from within a museum (through exhibitions) look like?

While raising the visibility of underprivileged groups is important, we should not ignore the art that has received praise and ask why. Feminist curators can undermine the artist’s intention, their authorship, by doing the very thing that curators do. In that way, a curator can certainly create a feminist exhibition with art made by men, even if the artwork is deemed misogynist or offensive to women. It is about the kind of story she tells. I’d like to see a feminist show of Jeff Koon’s work, for instance. We, the female curator, should not shy away from potential controversy when developing exhibitions. It could be one of the many reasons women artists are less visible-their work challenges the status quo too much and bureaucrats hate controversy.

For example, I always go back to the exhibition Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna at Williams College Museum of Art. It is an interesting case study for curators on how to deal with controversial topics in exhibition development. This exhibition analyzed Hitler’s ability to manipulate the masses through aesthetics and spectacle, a skill he garnered from his experience as an artist. While the exhibition showed art made by Hitler, it did not purport his credentials as an artist but re-casted it: an iconoclastic, curatorial gesture. We read his art pieces in a completely different context, as a different audience, and in a historical period trying to understand fascism in order to see it in today’s material culture.

I still think about the legions of women who received their MFAs, women like me. I am an artist struggling to "make" it, and yet, I’ve been the so called gatekeeper, the curator having to deal with administrative bureaucracy, particularly it’s fixation on numbers and the surface appearance of diversity looming over my head. I think about the women who got the degrees and played the game in academia, following the art school traditions. They share with the men the subscribed qualifications. Yet their hard work at playing the same game as their male peers still does not mean a greater likelihood of a show in cities like NYC where the art market reigns. Perfectly phrased, Wyma states: “Regardless of the arguments for and against his work, the fracas surrounding Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Woolford” subterfuge in this year’s Whitney Biennial proves that one of the best ways for a black woman to get into the Whitney Biennial is to be a white man.

Eventually, I think there will have to be a tipping point when we (the female curator) cannot ignore women artists, especially in the contemporary art scene. Academia is churning enough of us out. I also wait for the day when our over educated, under employed twenty something’s will start to protest and start to make demands in order to take control of their futures. But watch the art market and patriarchy prove me wrong. If women artists could ever collectivize over anything, it would be this very issue. We need to storm the palace and covet the curators who do actively, purposefully work with women artists and work from a feminist lens. To suggest anything less, that institutions will just fix it and that we should continue to sit back and wait for the art world to address our creative voice, will be insufficient.

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