The Changing Role of the Curator in Contemporary Art

Changing Role of the Curator in Contemporary Art by Neleisha Weerasinghe.

Have you ever wondered what a curated art exhibition is and what a curator really does? Does an artist need such a person to exhibit his or her work? Is the Role irrelevant? Does it add any value or is it simply a glorified post for someone who talks about art? Let’s look in a bit more detail as to what the role entails.

In the ancient world such as Rome, curators were in charge of various public departments such as waterways and bathhouses. Historians state that at a certain time they were religious priests focused on taking care of individuals under their care as well. But come the 20th century, the role has drastically changed to include a vast range of activities from exhibition hosts in charge museum artifacts, putting together niche shows for specialist crowds or even collecting priced art. Having a vast amount of specialized knowledge was a key characteristic.

In the contemporary art scene, a “curatored approach” or “curated by” are terms that you might see often associated with galleries or major art programs. Traditionally speaking a curator is someone who manages or oversees artworks. The term really comes from the Latin word “Curarae”, which refers to” attend to” or to look after. But is that all a curator does? According to Sotheby’s institute of Art, a curator plays a dual role. They not only take care of art works but also give more meaning to the exhibits, allowing them to reach a wider audience and become more relevant. By making art more relevant today curators are able to gather wider attention and interest or debate from a wider audience.

In today’s world the curator has to protect the works of art under his or her care. He or she needs to be able to make art relevant to the modern world while maintaining its heritage. This needs to be maintained when they seek new work and while arranging them for an exhibition as well. This can be very tricky and not everyone in the field can be successful.

However, today there are quite a lot of arguments for and against this role. Many are of the view that the role is dying out. Some say that curators are ‘self-delusional’ and ‘irrelevant’ in today’s art world. They state that the role is filled now by artists themselves and requiring a completely different person to organize an art event is not necessary. Some experts claim that it is a dying field in a modern technologically savvy market. But others are of the view that it is evolving just like anything else. So the curator’s role is definitely changing to accommodate the growing needs off the art market, artists and the wider audience.

With the growing technology and its use in the art world, a curator cannot limit his or her knowledge to the walls of a gallery or an exhibition space. Nor can they assume they have superior knowledge over others to collect and organize art events. They have to essentially be customer focused and friendly and approachable. The art audience is wide and varied today and this means the curator has to be able to seek communication with them and create openings for collaboration and exchange of ideas as well. And this has to be done both in the virtual and the physical art space.

The traditional curator has to gain postgraduate degrees or even have PhD’s in a specific area of study and make significant contributions to the art field. And this took a long time so the career by no means is an easy one. Getting to an acceptable level took many years of hard work and refining of knowledge. However with the growing technological advances, this level of information is available with a wider audience so having a curator explain the nitty-gritty of an exhibition is becoming rather unimportant. In today’s market the art collector or the wider audience does not have the time to sit through long academic discussions or debates. They rather expect open and user-friendly access to art so the curator has to put emphasis on the user experience over academic knowledge, which means they need to have a greater understanding of the demographics they are working with and how to access and connect with them. So all in all the role of the curator is changing from a purely academic one to a more multifaceted role which involves art collection, organizing them, social media management and business development all in one.