Over the last decade there has been a continuing struggle to define the purpose, nature, and usefulness of contemporary art. As we seek to define emerging categories like participatory art, socially engaged art, social practice and so on and grapple with terms and language that clarify what they are and what they do, the forums and structures that push them forward are shifting like tectonic plates. This is not an entirely new idea, brought about by game changers like The Internet, Social Media, and Increased Access to Information. Culturally, our world is shrinking, and it affects artistic practice in response to social, economic and political issues.
Over a relatively short period of time, the climate of art exhibitions has adapted to a more international sensibility and audience. The roles of exhibition makers and audiences alike are changing and redefining themselves to encompass a new hybrid of cultural production. All of a sudden, there is a gap between traditional, market-driven work and standard performance art and a hunger to fill it with something meaningful. Community-minded and socially inclined artists have begun to occupy this space afforded by the art world in order to create and present something different, and in many cases it’s goal oriented, or, to use a familiar term, activist. At the present moment, art can be whatever it wants to be, and given that we live in a hyper-social, politically charged, technology-dependent time, fundamental movements will of course reflect our behavior.
From Sue Bell Yank
Unlike shake ups of the past, this time the relationships of those who organize and present the work are more fluid and undefined. Socially engaged art by nature often exists outside of an institutional framework, leaving the production elements to those who contribute to it conceptually, financially, or with straight up labor. So, this brings us to the question, who curates socially engaged art? What does this new realm of curatorial practice look like?
As exhibitions have grown to include less object-based, more site-specific work, the curator’s job has certainly changed. The spike in numbers of independent curators over the last few decades is notable. Generated in part as a response to constraints within the traditional gallery and museum world, along with the development of specialist curatorial courses and graduate programs, this proliferation has undeniably brought fresh perspectives and change to artist-curator relationships. But what does it even mean to be a curator these days? Even Klaus Biesenbach thinks the title is overused.
Anyone can be a curator of anything, sure. Just look at Pinterest. And of course there are still curators that function in the traditional hierarchy. If those are the curatorial poles, what I’m curious about is the great expanse in between, specifically when we look at socially engaged art. The lines are getting blurry when we talk about the job of the artist, curator, advisor, producer, arts administrator and facilitator. Are these roles converging? I think the answer is yes. Conceptual art, which includes all forms of social practice, is mired in our administrative society. Research and fundraising become part of the work itself. The maker(s) in most cases has a team that gets the project off of the ground, with all members working within a horizontal structure and generally getting paid poorly to bring it to fruition. The new currency is being there, being a part of something and making it go, making a change. It’s about what is right now and yes, perhaps a little about what is ‘cool’, rather than what will be kept for history’s sake. I’m not suggesting that socially engaged art is a trend to be taken lightly and dismissed, quite the opposite. The question has been asked: what do we want from art? And it seems like symbolic representation is no longer enough. More and more we see curators carefully selecting issues and causes, not just choosing artists but working in tandem with them to make an impact. It could be just the moment we find ourselves in, but financial gain appears to be less of a motivating factor in this unchartered territory.
A Declaration by Broken City Lab
What, then, are the professional values of a curator of socially engaged art? It’s risky to encourage art and ideas to detach themselves from the art market. It takes bravery to work on projects that may have a message but no promise of capital gain. Is it possible to do great things in the world through art on a person-to-person scale, without focusing on market trends? There is no viable framework that combines for-profit and non-profit business strategies to serve artists and community audiences alike. The challenge for curators of socially engaged art, then, is to find or build one, thereby creating channels and prolonging the life of the work they represent to an international audience.
Many exhibition platforms for socially engaged art are not tied to real space. Instead they are hatched and documented online. Having a strong digital presence allows exhibition and programming concepts to grow and shift to meet the needs of a variety of hosting venues; a flexible format lends the host curator the freedom to modify and adapt the work to existing communities. With versatility and the removal of institutional mediation, a more open exhibition format allows for a broader viewing of the work and multiple readings, which has two functions: it provides the participating artists with rich opportunities while encouraging growth of knowledge through discourse in the many communities where it is shown. These services are equally important and require a facilitator to bridge the gap between concept and meaningful connection.
Liz Magic Laser, Studio On The Street: Forever and Today, Inc.
Curators have long been the mediators between artists, the space they operate in, the art on display, and the target audience. By creating more collaborative project structures and channels for independent, socially engaged work, curators are influencing contemporary practice by addressing timely artistic, social, cultural, or political issues. They have to. Not only is there a pedagogical shift toward making experiences with art more educational, the curatorial work itself becomes an intervention, questioning and critiquing the normal way that galleries and collections are structured and finding ways to expand their boundaries. Because socially engaged projects are fairly easy to facilitate and confront issues in real time, they have the potential to replace the traditional commercial art display in importance, making the new role of curator a particularly important one.
We know that art practice is becoming less studio-based activity and art objects as product, more knowledge sharing and experience as product. As our feet settle on this new landscape where art operates under the guise of community service and objects lose their luster, artists and curators should carefully navigate together to help define and voice what we, as a culture, deem valuable. The next steps socially engaged artists and curators take should be toward figuring out how to create genuinely meaningful work while remaining financially solvent.