What is curation now?

When curators looked inward and began questioning the nature of their jobs, changes followed

For two decades — almost from the first day she started as a curator, assembling shows for Baltimore's Contemporary Museum — Lisa Graziose Corrin has been questioning what it means to curate.

Long before the Queens, N.Y., native became director of the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in 2011 Corrin made her name as a pioneer of the institutional critique. Which means, she became known as a contemporary art curator who challenged assumptions of what goes into a museum and who puts it there.

This fall, she is also shepherding a host of curatorial changes at the Block, which closed its galleries until January after a water pipe burst two months ago. Corrin is hiring a new chief curator and a contemporary art curator; recently she hired Susy Bielak from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to serve as the curator of public practice, a new position that connects the Block with artists and communities outside the museum.

Considering how much Corrin has thought about curating (before coming to the Block she was a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, chief curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London and director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts — Williams itself being a breeding ground for curators), we asked her to answer a few basic questions. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: What is curation?

A: Depends who you ask. Because it has changed so much. I began curating in my 20s and have been curating now for 25 years, and I've watched it move away from being just about an individual who served as a connoisseur, a kind of guardian of a quality. Not to say a curator doesn't still make extremely thoughtful choices, decide which works are of the highest quality and which are most relevant. But today you are as likely to find trained artists as curators as you are to find trained art historians. Actually, once artists got into curating then people began thinking about how any time you make carefully honed choices you're curating.

Q: When did artists get involved?

A: You could go back to Duchamp. It was not curating per se, but to take a common urinal and put it on a pedestal and call it "Fountain" was curating ordinary objects. The most well-known foray was Andy Warhol, who did a project called "Raid the Icebox." He went into the storage of the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design and presented what he found in storage — but in the gallery, as he found the works. So paintings were against walls, held in place by sandbags. There are sliding racks in museum storage where we hang paintings, and Warhol moved those fence racks into the galleries with paintings still on them. But the choices he made were also about his own interests: He was a hoarder, drawing attention to the hoarding nature of museums. At the Seattle Art Museum, the curator of the African collection did a project where she laid out what she was thinking about buying, then allowed the public to participate in what she acquired.

Q: But if you allow someone else to make decisions, are you still curating?

A: That's complicated. In the early '90s, curators and museums began to ask what it means to be in a position of authority: If a museum belongs to a community, who gets to tell its story? You see this often with Native American museums that have sacred objects never intended for museums or even to be shared.

Q: Tell me about the first thing you curated.

A: I did "Mining the Museum" for the Contemporary in Baltimore just as I was entering the field, and the ideas in it have remained at the core of my practice. The artist was Fred Wilson, whose subject is museums and how the choices museums make determine who gets represented and who does not. This was in 1992, and it was a collaboration with the Maryland Historical Society, which didn't understand why African-Americans were not coming to its museum. He was given access to its entire collection.

There were three extremely important people who were part of Maryland history but represented nowhere by the historical society: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and astronomer Benjamin Banneker. They had a portrait of Napoleon, but no Harriet Tubman. So the first thing you saw when you walked into "Minding the Museum" was a trophy on a pedestal (the historical society) once received for truth in advertising — wonderful irony. Fred used the language of museums. For instance, when you got close to a painting that contained African-American figures, a light would shine on just black faces. It was a very important moment for curators because it began a deep and self-questioning reflection on what the word "curator" even means.

Q: But how is that curating if Wilson did the choosing?

A: Myself and the director of the (Contemporary) worked together to pave the way to let Fred operate and assume the practices of a curator. Curators do this: They play the role of editor, the role of therapist; we also become a facilitator for the artistic process at times, a sounding board. Like a movie producer, almost.

Q: Is there a difference between curating and simply choosing?

A: Choosing objects, thoughtfully assembling them, usually accompanying them with some sort of interpretation that make the ideas transparent to a visitor to the museum — that is also curating. But curators are not just decision-makers. It is also storytelling. You make choices of why this and not that, and sometimes you edit out things, regardless of quality, because it doesn't serve the story. It's also about sharing what you know with a wider public, taking complicated information and being civic-minded about it.

Q: Are there hallmarks of bad curation?

A: Incoherence. Over-reliance on wall texts. Great curating often deals in the contrasts between objects in a gallery, and a bad curator is one who doesn't allow the objects to explain the show or make the argument.

Q: Broadly, what are the primary pressures on the curator right now? To create blockbusters?

A: To have interesting ideas and discoveries as scholars and to balance that with a public's desire for something new and to be entertained. One of the toughest things of being a contemporary curator now is being an expert on the world. There are so many centers of art and museums and biennales now, in Australia, Senegal, Mumbai — unless you're on a plane 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you can't keep up.

Q: Do you remember when you first heard someone take the title "curator" out of an art context?

A: I don't, but many of us (curators) have become highly self-aware of the presumed authority that comes with that word. It has a gravitas and an assumed expertise, though I do I think that sort of usage is old and runs a bit parallel to the development of the department store: glass cases lit in a particular way, objects on pedestals, to create desire. When curators do that we are often saying, "This is a perfect example of its kind." Remember, a wine vessel from Iron Age China inside an art museum was not intended for a museum.

Q: So you don't have a problem applying "curate" to, say, a cheese plate or Tumblr site?

A: Not at all. We don't want to lose respect for the fact that art curators are experts and a person curating his Netflix queue is not necessarily saying something about movies. On the other hand, curating is personal, but we used to think of curators as scientists almost, capable of objective distance. And so, for instance, for a long time, women were not represented in art history. Now women dominate curating. Now we know there is a correlation between who we are and what we choose. We can not shy away from that.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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