Liz Wylie: The Art of the Curator
The role of an art curator is somewhat akin to that of an orchestra conductor, in that they depend on others' efforts in order to practise their craft.
Having arrived in the Okanagan Valley for the first time this past June, to live and to work as the new curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery, this is definitely a time of discovery for me. Although I was born and grew up in Winnipeg and had lived in small-town Ontario, as well as in Montreal, Saskatoon, and Edmonton previously my last 21 years were spent in Toronto.
During my relatively peripatetic younger years, it was wonderful to meet artists and come to know work that was not known outside the immediate locale. So it is a delight for me, once again, to be discovering somewhere new, and have a whole city and region to explore; where there are many serious, professional artists whose work is previously unknown or only vaguely familiar to me. As well, I welcome the opportunity to downshift to a slower pace of life, and I love the vast and stunningly beautiful landscape and the desert climate of the Okanagan.
In considering an exploratory look at my new role here, it might be a start to consider the mind of the curator: what does a curator think about? In my experience, curators think about art it almost goes without saying. We think about artists and their work constantly, almost obsessively, and then come up with ideas for exhibitions that connect works by different artists along critical lines. When I become engaged with the work of an artist that excites me, I immediately begin to consider the ideas in the work, as well as its visual components. I begin to imagine what I would write about the artist, and how I might install the pieces, and even which other artists might be intriguing to place in a group show with that artist. Connections are mentally made and broken it is like sketching in my brain.
Unless the source is something political or literary, for example, most exhibition ideas come to curators from experiencing art. Most of our work occurs discreetly behind the scenes, and is not overtly visible to the average gallery visitor. Our role is somewhat akin to that of an orchestra conductor, in that we depend on others' efforts in order to practise our craft. Of course you cannot see us waving our batons all of that has already happened before the exhibition opened to the public. But this means that most people do not get to see or become aware of the passion and excitement of curating, because a good curator wants the visitors' attention on the art, not their own decisions and role.
A curator is a writer by nature. In a way, part of his/her role is translating the visual language of the artist into words for the viewer in order to provide viewers entryways into the work. This aspect of curating is crucial, whether texts appear in the gallery's newsletter, website, wall texts, and any accompanying publications, or in the local press, or national magazines. The curator's writing can help and even seduce visitors to the gallery, or those logging on to our site, by providing a means of connection toward a deeper understanding of art. It is insufficient for a curator to install art in the exhibition spaces and expect it to speak for itself.
On the other hand, a gallery text is not meant to explain the art, as it is all too easy to explain it to death so that the visitor doesn't bother to look at the art and ponder their own questions and responses to it. Most gallery goers are a sophisticated enough audience that they do not require things to be dumbed down for them. But they may appreciate some contextual information; for example, notes on where a given artist lives and what an artist's influences or concerns might be, and how he or she goes about making their work.
The curator must be the advocate for the artist within the institution of the gallery or art museum. When working with a contemporary artist, the artist/curator relationship is constantly under negotiation. The curator must be a forceful spokesperson for the artist's position and wishes in terms of what the artist wants to do with his/her work in the gallery exhibition.
One other vital aspect of the curator's role is that of research. A curator is usually a reader, but their research is often done in a great variety of places, as well as in a library. If the curator is providing contextual information for the art in the exhibition, the research aspect of the project can be rigorous and might involve interviews, travel, photography, and general skulking about. All of this can be a rich and rewarding activity, at times all-encompassing, and provides the necessary background material to create thoughtful contexts for the works of art.
My first big exhibition project in Kelowna will mark the Kelowna Art Gallery's 30th anniversary this year. It is actually the collection itself that is 30 years old, having been started in 1977, with its own dedicated exhibition space in the Kelowna Museum, but without a building of its own until 1996. The collection now numbers some 500 works of art. The exhibition is titled Nexus: Histories and Communities, because I want to explore and demonstrate the relationships various people in the city and in the Valley have with the art collection. This aspect will be an integrated component of the exhibition, by means of wall texts, stations for visitors to record comments, a web-based component that will solicit people's ideas, and short texts by local people in the exhibition catalogue.
As curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery, my role is to focus on both the collection and the exhibitions. Some of this work involves details such as the arranging of donations and loans, assuring the works are properly handled, devising the installation plans for the exhibitions. The work of an institutional curator is varied and never dull. For the long term, I would like to devise a varied but cohesive program of exhibitions for all the gallery spaces in the building, and to make sure that this program relates at least some of the time to the permanent collection. My eye needs to constantly be on the collection: how to best build it and in what direction(s), and how to ensure community access to it. Ideally, all residents of Kelowna would have special relationships with their favourite pieces in the art collection, and opportunities over the years to see those works at least once in a while and in different contexts.
Much good work has been done before me in this regard by the gallery's previous curators (Clint Roenisch, Ihor Holubizky, and Linda Sawchyn). All of these curators added works to the collection via donations or purchases, giving me a wide array from which to make selections for this fall's exhibition.
One direction I would like to pursue with the collection is to collect in depth the work of the local serious artists who are either mid-career or have senior stature. It makes good sense to have strong representation by these individuals so that the Kelowna Art Gallery becomes the institution of record for researchers interested in these artists; or for other galleries wishing to make loan requests for exhibition, whether for solo or group shows. There has been talk over the years of an expansion for the gallery, and the possibility of exhibition space that would be dedicated to changing installations of works from the permanent collection. This would help enable the gallery to foster a further commitment to the work of local professional artists.
What can my relationship be with community artists, who are known and exhibit locally and regionally, but have not established national critical reputations? I am amazed at the great number and wonderful talents of the many artists I am discovering working in the Okanagan Valley. I would like to think I could have a supportive role with these artists, getting to know them and their work, providing suggestions and constructive criticism when asked, and helping them make connections with other people and institutions. While it is not necessarily the mandate of the Kelowna Art Gallery to exhibit the work of community artists in the main exhibition spaces, there is still room for providing curatorial support to these individuals.
It is my belief that a public gallery should present a variety of work in its exhibitions, within a given time frame, so that people in the community have the opportunity to experience works of art from different time periods, styles, and parts of the world. Of course budget restrictions immediately come into play, with insurance and shipping costs being very high, at times even prohibitive. However, even within these limitations lie exciting possibilities. For example, galleries can team up with other institutions in different parts of Canada and pool some of their costs, then circulate the shows among their locations. I see this as an ideal scenario for Kelowna to move into. In this way we can include the work of local or regional artists in shows that also feature work by artists from other parts of Canada; creating a national context for these artists (whose work does merit a wider reputation) so they are no longer tagged, in fact, solely as local artists.
Kelowna is growing and has the potential for a larger audience for
the gallery, especially given the culturally focused aspect of both city
planning and tourism marketing programs. Other small cities provide me
with models to emulate. Both the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in
Lethbridge, Alberta, and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan,
have achieved national reputations for their range of exhibitions, their
excellent publications, and their community support. I am convinced that
the Kelowna Art Gallery can do likewise.