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Can/Should Anyone Curate an Art Exhibition?

Welcome to Jackalope Ranch's Questionable Content, where local creatives and experts sound off on topics posed by New Times staff blogger Claire Lawton and the community. Have a question you'd like to ask? E-mail Claire.Lawton@newtimes.com.

Curators are responsible for most of the artwork we're exposed to on a daily basis, and while their titles carry different weights and responsibilities, their role is universal.

In town, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art just hired a new curator while ASU Art Museum is still looking to fill the spot left by John Spiak last year, and Artlink just posted an "open call" for it's AE England Gallery in downtown Phoenix.

Most galleries around Phoenix have curators, though the term is a bit looser, as many are co-ops and exhibitions are solo shows decided upon by the artists. And local coffee shop have jumped on the bandwagon, welcoming curators at Cartel Coffee Lab's Tempe and Phoenix locations, and Echo Coffee in Scottsdale.

"Curator" was once used only to describe a knowledgeable arts person employed to conceptualize, organize, and install an exhibition. In the past decade, the word's become a noun used to describe a person with good taste, or anyone who decides what stays and what goes, and as a verb to capture the simple action of organizing and selecting -- oftentimes completely unrelated to artwork.

So what does the word mean now? We asked a few people around town -- from museum directors and curators to independent curators and arts writers -- how the job has changed and whether or not anyone/everyone has the chops to pull it off ...

Ted Decker Independent Curator, PhICA, Echo Coffee Sure if you want to organize an art show and invite your friends, go for it. Instead of bitching about there being no art shows, do a little searching. There are so available venues in Phoenix strip centers and unleased office spaces. Take your power and organize it.

But also understand that curating means "caring" from Latin. There are a lot of people in town who could be curators as long as they understand what really goes into an exhibition. An exhibition is idea-driven thesis and a curator's job is to find art to prove it. You have to look at what is being presented to the audience and make sure that it's proving your thesis. We definitely need more of that in Phoenix.

Sara Cochran Curator, Phoenix Art Museum I'm not so hard and fast about the term. Even a generation ago there was an idea that you got a masters in art history and then you worked at a museum, that curating was a specialization. Most museum studies programs aren't even 20 years old.

I've heard of people "curating" their sock drawers -- curating is definitely a word that has entered zeitgeist kind of fashion, but I suppose the wider use of the word -- even when it's not in the correct context -- gives the profession a certain visibility, and hopefully some understanding of what that it actually is. I don't worry about it being watered down, I actually think that serious work speaks for itself and comes through and due diligence comes in.

To take words from Oscar Wilde, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

Tim Rodgers Director, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art "Curating" just as a word has changed in our culture. On the positive side, people no longer look at the word curator and wonder "what is that?". Not that long ago, curating wasn't recognized as an activity, an everyday experience that really, at its core, is about selecting. The world is incredibly big, there are a ton of ideas, there are billions of objects produced. We're overwhelmed by choices, and we look to people to help us make those selections in a intelligent manner.

The downside of the word being released into some kind of "common use" is that the decrease in professionalism. Sure we're all engineers because we all use equipment and make things go. Everyone became a poet because they could rhyme two words. The internet is doing this as much as everything, but in true curating there are guidelines, rules, and a sense of professionalism that have all been loosened up. But we'll survive. It's why institutions exist. It's why there are things like job descriptions and levels of education and experience required to get jobs at these institutions ... Curating artwork is extremely important, it defines who we are as a museum, and our curators do everything from write large grant applications for future exhibitions (that can be two years away), to coming up with ideas, to driving funding, looking for support, helping to install shows, coordinating the shipping of the work .. it's so much more than putting a nail in the wall.

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Kathleen Vanesian Freelance Art Critic, Phoenix New Times Just as most people are incapable of making great art, most people are not great curators of art. A curator is required to have a keen sense of vision and insight when it comes to mounting an exhibition, whether of new work or older work.

To me, a curator is pounding the pavement all the time to find artists working in ways sufficiently different to separate them from the pack and pushing to present them to the public. A good curator also is able to present art from any era in completely new contexts - ways in which we haven't seen the work presented before. He or she is also able to qualitatively select the best work of a particular artist to exhibit, not giving in to pressure from any artist or institution with regard to what work should or should not be included. Giving an exhibition for your artist friends or recycling work from a museum's permanent collection without giving that work a whole new cast does not rate as curation, to me.

Previous Questionable Content: - Should Artists Paint Murals for Free?

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