post-curator art

I was recently listening to the podcast, Bad at Sports, which covers the contemporary art world. This episode is a long interview with dealer, writer, and provacteur Matt Gleason. A lot of good stuff, but this caught my ear. Gleason claims that one of the major reasons that Jeffrey Deitch was disruptive as director of LAMOCA was that he pursued “post-curator art.” What does that mean? My translation:

Over the last 50 years, the art world has institutionalized. Museums are run by professionals, artists get MFA, and the art market is centralizing around art fairs. What is so disruptive about Dietch was that rejected the institutionalization of the curator – the people who pick art, stage exhibitions, and manage collections.

In other words, in a world of professionalization, Dietch said: “Screw it, my kid can do this.” And he did it. Dietch fired one of the main curators, had celebrities do shows, and curated many shows himself. Very “post.”

 I once asked an art professional what he learned from interacting with Dietch, and he said something like, “I learned that you can hand over an art gallery to teenagers and it’ll work.” Metaphor perhaps, but it captures the spirit. People with degrees don’t have a monopoly over good taste. Gleason notes that this is self-serving. A museum with poor finances, like LAMOCA, might not have the cash for carefully curated shows and it would be easy to have some SoCal celebrity show work. But still, the comment is telling. The art world has institutionalized, but it rests on jello foundations.

Sacred Texts for Pious Grad Students: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2013 at 12:46 am

11 Responses

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  1. The claim is that non-profit organizations are successful when directors have good taste? They don’t require knowledgeable administrators with expertise in HR, budget/finance, fundraising, marketing/PR, audience research, facilities management, etc.? I notice some jello foundations, but I’m not looking at formal organizations in the art world.


    Jenn Lena

    November 20, 2013 at 1:28 am

  2. Don’t over read this, Jenn. It’s not about administration (e.g. finances, facilities). Nobody made that claim. It’s about taste making. Gleason (and Dietch by implication) makes the argument that you don’t need an MBA, or an equivalent, to choose art that is important or to coordinate exhibitions.

    I think we can have a serious argument about whether curating needs to be institutionalized. But if you buy into a lot of organizational theory, then the formalization of the curator role in many cases might be myth and ceremony. Given that people have built world class collections and institutions with a wide range of backgrounds, from classically trained scholars to non-college educated working class folks like the Vogels, it is a hypothesis that should be seriously considered.

    And yes, the whole point of Meyer and Rowan style institutional theory is to point out that organizations (mine included!) are jello.



    November 20, 2013 at 3:08 am

  3. Deitch was a director and ran a gallery. These are not (only) curatorial roles, they are precisely administrative roles in cultural organizations.

    I don’t understand a world in which “curating” wouldn’t be “institutionalized.” What’s the alternative?

    Finally, I recommend “From Impresario to Arts Administrator: Formal Accountability in Nonprofit Cultural Organizations,” Ch 7 in DiMaggio (ed), “Nonprofit Enterprise in the Arts,” Oxford UP, 1986.


    Jenn Lena

    November 20, 2013 at 3:21 am

  4. There are many ways curators are institutionalized:

    – they have a formal job title in the organization
    – they require training (e.g., getting a degree by taking courses from the likes of you!)
    – they have a career ladder
    – they have a formal association
    – they are formally evaluated by superiors

    If you want an alternative (which I am not advocating, but providing as an empirical example), look at the salon system of early 20th century Europe. Art was produced, evaluated and sold, but there were very, very few people who had the official job of “curator” and there certainly weren’t associations or degree programs. That system was essentially a patronage model built on enmeshing patrons in artist networks.

    Who knows what the future will look like? For example, what if museums made collections digital and people could go virtual to see art? It might be like youtube, where you could tailor an exhibition to your taste. The museum staff would be more like a librarian instead of a curator. The museum curator wouldn’t do shows in the sense that they now do. Instead, they order virtual copies of art, like a librarian. Already, in my short life, I’ve seen one transformation of the art world (e.g., the fair system). The future will certainly have more.

    I think what Gleason’s discussion indicated to me is that the curator role is one of the mushiest in the business, which means it is susceptible erosion.



    November 20, 2013 at 3:51 am

  5. Jenn: Think about this. In our brief time, the art world has seen the reinvention of the artist itself from someone who make a specific thing (e.g., painter, sculptor) to a very vaguely defined group of people who:

    – do traditional “object making”
    – performance
    – combine object making and curating/writing
    – hybridize modes of art (e.g., you can combine film and drawing)

    So it’s a weird situation where you see simultaneous strengthening of some institutional aspect of art (e.g., getting the MFA) while the complete destruction of others (e.g., the boundary between disciplines)



    November 20, 2013 at 3:58 am

  6. I loved the “art in the streets” exhibit at MOCA, los angeles. Adorno would be proud, bansky and other outsider artists can really disrupt the ways that art reinforces social hierarchies.


    Eric s

    November 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm

  7. What interests me about this story is the fact that if Dietch succeeds, and “curating” becomes a job that anyone can do, how will the established curators react in the long run?

    In general, most occupations defend their monopoly of esoteric knowledge (whatever it may be) and never willingly give up the reins. If I had to predict the future, I would guess that established curators would create some new fancy credential for themselves (CurD?) and then create some accrediting mechanism whereby all galleries or museums would need to managed by someone with that badge. A few regulatory changes could put folks like Dietch out or business (or make them go back to graduate school). For example, they could do this by making tax-deductable donations or philanthropy efforts contingent upon the presence of a certified curator. Similar regulatory tweaks could endanger fairs, too.

    Or maybe this could be a case of an occupation slowly losing its monopoly and prestige.

    What I do know is that Howard Becker would have a good take on this. Most of my thinking on this subject comes directly from this article:

    Becker, Howard S. 1970. “The Nature of a Profession.” Pp. 87–103 in Sociological Work: Method and Substance. Chicago, IL: Aldine.



    November 20, 2013 at 2:14 pm

  8. I’m not so sure. High vs. low (i.e. popular) culture is a continuing distinction in the art world, and one that will probably continue. One might popularize exhibits with celebrities as curators for a while, but I’m willing to bet it’s just the current trend. Sure, a fad that might help to increase museum viewership, particularly in the celebrity culture context of LA, but curators also deal with crucial issues of provenance, authenticity, art historical progressions, and so forth.

    Not to mention that the culture of celebrity is something that Deitch has addressed in his own gallery exhibitions, even prior to joining the museum — he’s his own brand, that was just an expression of it. Now that he’s left MOCA, we’ll see what new flavor is up next.

    Of course if you think personal taste is the only thing that matters, you are free to start your own museum, preferably backed by the fortune from some newfangled industrial endeavor. Like the automocar. At least that’s how museum collections got started historically. We might even call it a social construction of taste.

    Also, Fabio, if I may – why do you care about all of this “cultural stuff”? My impression from your recent posts was that you were neither interested in culture nor in qualitative methods. I saw your framing paper, but after all of that “unrepresentative samples” hoopla a few months ago, I’m not so sure…


    Erica Coslor

    November 21, 2013 at 3:57 am

  9. important boundary condition here: the art scene in LA is very different from say, san francisco and new york, in that LA has a more concentrated art market- concentrated in larger galleries and museums, more so than most other hubs. Amid all the fancy metaphor and story-weaving, what i think is really happening is that the LA art scene is so monopolized by large established galleries that owners can hire teenagers and they’ll still survive (or even do well).



    November 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm

  10. @Erica – I am a mixed methods person. For example, my book is primarily historical and interviews, with one quant chapter. I’ve actually written two major articles of purely qual stuff – the antiwar article you mention and a historical paper on college protest. And also, as a fan of performing and visual arts, I follow it quite closely and it generates lots of good questions. Hope that helps.

    @sd: Actually, Deitch Projects was located in New York. I think some folks have misinterpreted the “teenagers” comment. In the context of the conversation, the idea was NOT that teenagers could raise funds or do conservation work in museums. Rather, it was that there are some important tasks in arts organizations that do not require special training or graduate degrees. And yes, I think that motivated and talented teenages could probably stage some pretty interesting shows.



    November 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm

  11. Fabio, good to know. (Sorry, I can’t bring myself to use these newfangled twitter conventions.) I’ll have to make time to check out your book.

    At any rate, Deitch was in NY, then moved to direct MOCA in LA, and now he’s off to do the next thing. As sd points out, the cities have different scenes, which was something Deitch could use in that context. It is an interesting case because museum directors haven’t generally been picked from top galleries of late, and one might interpret his departure accordingly.

    I also agree with sd that the celebrity curator was merely the cherry on top of less visible cake of institutions and expertise. I doubt you could effectively replace the whole thing with novices without major financial backing. (It’s before lunch in Melbourne, pardon my food metaphors.) But one could create a new competing institutional structure or movement for the organizational form, as with historical museum founding patterns.

    We should also separate out the organizational structure from the creative movements, because on the other hand, for the tastemaking aspects, newcomers are often at the front of a new artistic genre or style, which has strong social movement aspects. Starting a new small gallery to showcase this is cheap, but will it last? It isn’t my research area, but apparently a critical mass of semi-organized people is quite effective, e.g. the British Shock Art / yBA movement, I believe spearheaded (semi-curated) by Damien Hirst. But of course backed by Charles Saatchi as well. So yes, the person selecting works for a new style and movement could be an outsider, but they need backing and critical mass. Fred Myers’ ethnography of aboriginal art shows another interesting example. As the art world shows time and time again, if a genre or style isn’t picked up and institutionalized at some point, (or a new organization to contain them isn’t established), it won’t necessarily be a lasting artistic movement. Of course my bias is that I study the treatment of art as an investment, rather than new and cool ephemera.

    There’s a lot more that could be said about this, but searching on the term “taste makers” on GoogleScholar would probably be productive.

    Here are a few possible references of interest on the changing artistic movements and why some continue:

    Foster, Arnold, and Judith Blau (Eds.). 1989. Art and Society: Readings in the Sociology of the Arts. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    Galenson, David. 2009. Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Hutter, Michael, and David Throsby (Eds.). 2007. Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics, and the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Myers, Fred. 2002. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Durham: Duke University Press.



    November 22, 2013 at 1:57 am

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