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By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-3 20:04:05

A woman pauses in front of a painting at an exhibition of contemporary art held in Chongqing this month. Photo: CFP
A woman pauses in front of a painting at an exhibition of contemporary art held in Chongqing this month. Photo: CFP

As art exhibitions flourish, independent curators bring them to life

Art exhibitions in China have been flourishing in recent years. The market is so flush now that the curator profession has seen a surge in demand.

But despite the fact that the influence of a good curator is recognized by more people, and some Chinese curators' names like Li Xianting, Huang Du and Gu Zhenqing are heard in international circles, the concept of what a curator is remains vague to most Chinese.

Head manager

Many people may think a curator is the person who writes the introduction for an exhibition or arranges the position of each work displayed. But as curator Huang Du said, the job covers much more. What audiences see is only the last step of a curator's work. Before that it can take a year or even two to do all the preparation.

"First, you need to write a proposal and then fulfill all the things listed in it," Huang told the Global Times.

To accomplish these tasks requires detailed knowledge of a great many things: how to get the funds, which institutions to cooperate with, which artists should be invited, arranging safe transportation of artworks, and how to contact the media. All these responsibilities can be especially difficult if the curator has no supporting institution or is not a big name in the art world, according to Huang.

And when the time finally comes to display all the artworks for the exhibition, it's not merely hanging paintings on the wall and setting up statues or video screens. "The position [of each work], the lights, the space, and the technical assistance all need to be taken in consideration," Huang said, adding that the whole setting is a work of art created by the curator.

The purpose of an exhibition can be to raise discussions about art or society, and a curator should not only be able to present such ideas through the exhibition, but also make these ideas understood by the public. 

Huang concludes that a curator should be an all-rounder - with knowledge in art history, politics and basic economics as well as a keen sense of culture. But all in all, "[a curator] should be like a coolie with very strong body for physical labor."

A brief history

In Webster's dictionary, the word "curator" has only two meanings: a person in charge of a museum, library, etc., or, a guardian, as of a minor. The more contemporary meaning of someone who takes charge of art exhibitions came in the 17th century when some private museums in Western countries opened to the public and would from time to time organize themed exhibitions.

Early curators evolved from employees of museums and galleries. In the late 19th century or early 20th century, when independent exhibitions began to be held, the independent curator likewise came into vogue. Eventually, Independent Curators International was founded in 1975 in New York.

The emergence of professional associations came to China much later than in the West.

"Different from [most] Western countries, the art exhibitions on the Chinese mainland lacked a 'plan,' but were often being 'organized' [by institutions]… and therefore they did not have a staff member called 'curator,'" according to an article published in academic journal Art Research. It also says that almost all of the influential museums and galleries were State-owned, and while under the planned economy the staffs' ability and enthusiasm to actively hold exhibitions was worn down. "For most of that time, [these museums and galleries] merely survived by lending their spaces for outside exhibitions."

Being independent

Though many curators claim to be independent, the definition of "independent" varies.

In a strict sense, an independent curator should be affiliated with no institution and take curator as their first identity. But without influential art foundations in China, being completely independent and staying busy is almost impossible as many domestic curators have said.

Curator Gu Zhenqing classifies the profession into three types: those employed by galleries and institutions; those who have a background as an art critic, editor or professor, and work as curators part-time; and fully independent curators.

"Since 2005, there has been a change among Chinese curators. Many frontline independent curators in China turn to or have one hand in some institution," said Gu, adding that people who hold onto the strict sense may not be able to accept such curators as independent. But in Gu's opinion, as long as the curator can keep his exhibitions from becoming commercial ventures and offer academic significance to the public, he can be regarded as an independent curator.

Another group of insiders, including curator Huang Du, bases their standard for independence on the curator's ideas. In such cases, what matters most is whether a curator has full freedom to decide what goes into an exhibition.

"It doesn't matter if the title 'independent curator' is self-given or comes from others," Tan Qin, curator and professor at Academy of Art & Design, Tsinghua University, commented. "What matters is what independence he shows within his exhibitions."

Working in China

Independent curators played an important role in China's art field during the late 1990s and mid 2000s.

"Before that, the development of contemporary art in China was like a heap of loose sand and [most of such exhibitions] were what you would call underground," Gu said. 

At that time, independent curators not only worked as a planner for an exhibition, but also as a critic, and took on the responsibility of the galleries, exhibition centers and contacting art media, according to Gu.

Yet, as the market for curators grows and capital flows in, some independent curators are not able to keep an independent attitude, leading to a downturn in the quality of exhibitions. Also, without professional standards, barriers to entering the field are low, allowing a mix of the qualified and unqualified.

"[Unlike the West], China's art schools lack a complete discipline on being a curator," said Huang Du. "[At the moment] most of the art management majors teach only about the market, but a curator should be a combination of academic theory and market experience."

Working in school, Tan told Global Times that young people should be cautious when thinking about entering the field. He warns it is much more difficult than people imagine and it takes a very long time to do it well. He added that the toughest part is maintaining independence.

Posted in: ARTS

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