The title of “curator” has become increasingly present both in and out of an art world context and, perhaps in response, there has been a rise in popularity of curatorial programs in higher education. As public access to art and modes of viewing change, what it means to “curate” has been repeatedly confronted and challenged. For example, in his 2015 book, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, David Balzer traces the history of the curator and the many forms of its appropriation within popular culture.
Although the state of curatorial education has recently become a hot topic, are these academic programs really that new? The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College was founded in 1990, with the graduate program starting in 1994, and California College of the Arts Master of Arts in Curatorial Practice program began in 2003. Other programs have incorporated this focus into their curriculum such as Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Modern and Contemporary Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies, which began in 1997. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, curatorial studies is one of many areas of focus a student can take on during their degree program.
In relation to other subjects, like art history, these curatorial programs are just toddlers. So what does one learn in a job-specific program such as this? What might the curriculum look like for a student learning what it means to curate? Although these types of programs have had their share of criticism, perhaps we must look to the experiences of the students to gain a deeper understanding of what can be gained or lost from a curatorial degree.
Here, we are challenged to think and question how infrastructure, location and context affect how contemporary art made by artists in places outside art ‘centers’ is accessed and made visible.
Maddie Klett, currently finishing her Master of Arts in Curatorial Practice at California College of the Arts (CCA), shines light on specific courses and discusses the unique aspects of this program.
“Our Exhibition Form class with J. Myers-Szupinska mapped out the history of exhibitions. It taught me that what we may see as a ‘standard’ exhibition display comes out of a context, and has been developed and changed over time—often by artists—for different purposes and audiences. I am currently in a class called Binding Agents: Toward an Aesthetic of the Postcolonial in Contemporary Exhibition that focuses on the discourse surrounding Postcolonialism in contemporary art. Here, we are challenged to think and question how infrastructure, location and context affect how contemporary art made by artists in places outside art ‘centers’ is accessed and made visible. These small seminar classes are not lecture-based, and offer space and time for discussion, which is something that I’ve really valued during my time in the program.”
When asked about what aspect of the program was the most valuable to her development as a curator, Klett described her experience organizing and curating her thesis exhibition. Unique to CCA’s program, the students curate an exhibition at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. As the institute hosts the exhibition, the group of students’ role is similar to that of “guest curators.” Klett explains that, “Making a show with six curators involves collaboration. There is a lot of practical knowledge gained through this, and I think more than in curatorial programs where students curate individual thesis shows, it resembles working in a large institution.”
As with many graduate programs, there are areas that are covered thoroughly, and some that may not have been focused on enough. Klett expressed wanting more time in her study to devote to developing her own ideas and theories as part of her personal curatorial practice.
Becky Nahom, a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts Master of Arts in Curatorial Practice program, expressed the same concern, but also told us some of the benefits of the curatorial program at School of Visual Arts. “Each course is taught by someone working in the field. This is great because you can just talk to your instructor and ask them specific, practical questions about their daily responsibilities and their lived experience,” Nahom said.
Nahom, who graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2017, now works as Exhibitions Coordinator at Independent Curators International (ICI). ICI organizes exhibitions, events, and publications, while also creating professional development programs for curators. One of their current touring exhibitions, EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, was recipient of the Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award in 2012.
This ambitious exhibition demonstrates the changing landscape of curating contemporary art and what it can encompass, as it emphasizes performance and the role Carnival and other traditions in the Caribbean have had within the art form, culminating in a series of performances and video-based exhibitions. Performance-based exhibitions present their own set of challenges, as the nature of the medium can demand a much different environment than the more traditional white cube space. “At SVA,” shares Nahom, “the course Curating Affective Performance: Sociability and Staging discussed how to approach this type of work as a curator and what elements you must consider when putting together an exhibition that includes live performance, ephemera, or documentation.”
The landscape of exhibitions are changing, making it more and more necessary for the curatorial field to expand and for new dialogues to be formed. These conversations are not only formed during academic programs, but can be fostered through other educational methods such as symposiums and workshops. Along with exhibitions, ICI organizes educational programs for curators. Nahom explains that these programs bring together curators from all over the world to workshop and discuss their ideas and projects with others working in the field. They also host the Curator’s Perspective Series, which is an itinerant discussion series with U.S. and international curators to share their work with a New York audience. These diverse avenues of exchanging knowledge are essential in shaping a rapidly changing field while also being inclusive.
When asked about her thoughts on curatorial programs, Nahom explains how important it was for her to be able to choose this path as an option over studying art history, as she does not have an undergraduate degree in the subject. She says the School of Visual Arts curatorial program, “was ultimately helpful in achieving my goal because I knew I needed to get an education in the specific field I hoped to be employed in. The degree was my way in. I think curatorial programs are a way in for a lot of people that don’t fit the boxes that have already been created.”
Like all graduate programs, a student must evaluate what they want to gain from the experience and what gap of knowledge they are seeking to fill. Even programs with the same title may differ greatly in structure and approach. Nahom explains, “The program isn’t going to garner results you want unless you make the effort. You get out what you put in.”
Although these diverse art degrees may intersect, perhaps curatorial programs offer a different view; one that necessarily re-examines the position of the curator in contemporary society.