Art historians sounding off…

The first in a new series sees David Hansen, winner of Australian Book Review's Calibre Essay Prize, sounding off about the growth in 'curators' and the diminishing of their professional role

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It’s been a while since I was thrilled by an exhibition. Am I simply old and jaded? These days, do I need some kind of aesthetic Viagra to raise up a full-blooded reaction? Some nasal delivery technology to help me preserve and extend the moment of artistic encounter? 
Laboured sexual metaphors aside, I think it is to do with age. For some great wickedness committed in a previous life, it appears that I am (along with my contemporaries and seniors in the museum professions) condemned to the particular hell of living and working between two disjunctive paradigms, the modern and the postmodern. Or to be more precise, of having been trained in the one but being expected to operate in the other. In my culture – the high end of Euro-American visual culture – and in my fields of endeavour – the history of art, the explanation and discussion of art, the presentation of art in collections and exhibitions – my generation has, over the past 30 to 40 years, witnessed, permitted and participated in a fundamental realignment of intention, of structure and of meaning.
What I  refer to, of course, is the decline of criticism and the ascent of theory, and all that this paradigm shift entails. Since the 1970s we have seen argument disqualified and judgement suspended in a variety of culturally and morally neutral academic discourses. We have witnessed the transmogrification of art schools into university departments, with studio production replaced by research, and practical technique by abstract problem-solving. Modernism’s expansive, exploratory ideology of the avant-garde, of perpetual change and progress, has been replaced by sad, cynical shoulder-shrugging acceptance that it has now all been done before, and there really is nothing left but pantomimes of novelty conducted under the supervision of the museo-critical complex for the benefit of the market and its various profiteers. 
This situation presents a knotty set of problems for contemporary artists and critics, but it also challenges those who work in museums and galleries. In today’s flat, value-free, affectless art environment, what exactly is a curator supposed to do? Institutional frameworks don’t help much. Public service Key Performance Indicators are generally quantitative and utilitarian; soulless and free of values. How many shows did we do? How many people came through the doors? How many school groups? What were the overall demographics? How much did they spend? Did we make budget? How many weekend magazine column inches and prime-time minutes did we get? And so on. How then do we properly measure our work? Against what meaningful, qualitative scale do we calibrate the act - or rather the acts - of curating? Can we or should we even be asking such questions?
This uncertainty, within and without the profession, is nicely illustrated by a recent shift in linguistic usage. ‘Curator’ comes from the Latin cura, meaning care, or concern, and indeed ‘curator’ is perhaps most importantly the title of the bloke who looks after the cricket pitch at the MCG. But there is also the museum job, and here the etymology clearly implies a connection to collections. We are the people who look after museum objects; we are (to use the old British term) the ‘keepers.’ However, since the first global art boom of the 1980s, the Gordon Gekko/Mary Boone/Julian Schnabel era, the public profile of curatorship has become much less tweedy and much more glamorous, and the term is now more generally understood to apply to those usually independent curators who nominate variously fashionable contemporary artists for inclusion in deep-pocket private and corporate collections and in high-profile, often international biennales and touring exhibitions.
Furthermore, as formerly distinct fields of cultural practice have spilled over and slopped together into one hybrid ‘artwork’ soup,] 'curator' has been requisitioned by other cultural operatives who wish to add dignity or flair to the simple process of compiling a list. Thus when Robyn Archer programmed the speakers for the Alfred Deakin Innovation lectures in 2008, she was described as ‘curating’ the series. When the British pop music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties had an Aussie satellite show at Mt Buller in January this year, the posters told us that the line-up had been ‘curated by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’. And thus A magazine – one of those über-glossies where you can’t tell which pictures are the art, which are the fashion and which are the ads – is put together by a succession of guest ‘curators’ - not editors, not compilers, but ‘curators,’ and it even boasts the website address:
But surely we must be more than just gofers. Surely there is much more to curatorship than A-listing. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that works of art or museum objects are never presented on their own. Exhibitions always involve a greater or lesser degree of value-adding: the display panels and the lighting; the colour ways and the graphic design; the labels and the wall texts; the audio guides; the video and/or touch-screen monitors; and god knows what killer Apps for museums are in development as I write.
Indeed, in the absence of critical judgement, of sophisticated argument made explicit in the selection and through the presence of objects, these secondary components of displays and exhibitions can often develop into the primary loci or vehicles of meaning. And given that they are infinitely more malleable than dumb, circumscribed, intractable artefacts, it becomes that much easier to make shows and write essays and labels which conform to current shibboleths, to the constraints of political correctness, to the interests of cultural bureaucrats. Unfortunately, given the open and multivalent nature of visual imagery and the reluctance of progressive institutions to overdetermine viewer response in a bad-patriarchal way, this can tend to produce jejune arrays and anodyne texts. 
A random example will suffice: a show called We are unsuitable for framing I saw at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington in late 2008. The introductory panel for this collection of feminist assemblage, Judy Chicago-esque abstractions and photographs of transvestites, armpits and suchlike proclaimed that it was ‘an exploration of identity, gender, sexuality, and mythology … the works in the exhibition prompt us to think about ourselves in new ways and to question our own assumptions about identity.’ Well, no they didn’t. Or not necessarily, at least. They were just as likely to prompt us to think about hair, or underpants, or someone we know who looks just like that guy, or why there are so many coils in women’s art of the 1970s… except, of course, that the introductory panel had guided us towards the appropriate or required response.  
Indeed, the pedagogical-propagandist instinct can be even more assertive. Consider the briefly notorious 1999 Trade and Empire display at the National Maritime Museum in London, which featured a Jane Austenish mannequin taking tea, while next to her silk-slippered feet a pair of black hands reached up in supplication through a slave-ship deck hatch. The idea being conveyed through this little tableau was certainly valid, or at least arguable. It is a truism that in the late 18th century a significant proportion of Britain’s wealth was derived from a variety of imperial injustices, and here the sugar bowl on the table made a clear allusion to the slave plantations of the ‘Triangular Trade’, with the Fanny Price figure referencing not only Sir Thomas Bertram’s West Indian estates in Mansfield Park, but also Rev. George Austen’s own ‘sugar money’ inheritance. But however high-impact (by virtue of its initial attractiveness to Britain’s vast army of Merchant-Ivory Janeites), however high-minded (by virtue of its recognition and assertion of a distinct black British history), this feature was, in the end, a failure: an artificial conceit, a polemic. It was not history. It was not curating. Curating should always have an argument, but never a voice, and certainly not a shrill or bombastic one. If we use artefacts, works of art and display technology simply as illustrative material, as visual supports for an abstract, verbal-textual thesis, we are not really doing museum work. 
For me, one of the most disturbing trends in contemporary museum displays and exhibitions is this kind of blurring of boundaries between the actual and the virtual. The natural history specimen, the social history artefact, the work of art - these things positively thrum with stories: the cause, the occasion, and the manner of their coming into being; the nature of the ecology, economy or community of which they were or are a part; their manifestation and human usage over time – practical, emotional and/or political. But so often today I see perspex cases with preparators’ facsimiles standing in for scientific specimens, I see screens with actors in contemporary remakes of period costume telling fictionalised, Secret River stories of colonial encounters, and I see display panels with photographic reproductions mounted, framed and labelled as if they were original drawings or documents. 
What nonsense! It’s the haecceity, the thisness of the museum object that thrills me, and that creates the sympathy, no, more, the empathy which is the first step towards learning, understanding, respect. I get that thrill from the tobacco pipe of the Palawa whaler, William Lanney (the so-called last male Tasmanian Aborigine), found in his room in the Dog and Partridge Hotel, Hobart Town, after he died on 3rd March, 1869. Could you get a more intimate relic of a man than something he put in his mouth? I get it from the five wet-plate photographs bound into the presentation copy of Bishop Francis Russell Nixon’s book The Cruise of the Beacon, showing nine members of the remnant Palawa community in their exile at the Oyster Cove Aboriginal settlement. I’m sorry, but I just do not get it from a digital print of a 20th century copy of one of those photographs.
I like to think I can firmly identify the moment when I became a museum person. One Sunday morning in 1968 on the steps of the Collins Street Baptist Church, Melbourne, Donna Jaggs, a family friend, told me about William II’s ring. I was a ten year old schoolboy, immersed in the novels of Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease and Ian Serrallier, enwrapped  in the Middle Ages: the romance of kings and queens and knights in armour, the weird disharmonies and syncopations of medieval music, the intricacies of illuminated manuscripts. Donna was a university historian who kindly and warmly encouraged a little boy’s enthusiasm. This particular morning she told me that while studying in England she had once visited Winchester, and there in the Cathedral Treasury she had seen, handled and even placed on her own finger the bronze-gilt ring supposed to have been worn by William Rufus [see note at the end of this article]. At that moment, I first intuited that history was not just something in books. Through the survival of that object, that physical trace, an event could be preserved for 870-odd years. That morning, history grabbed a little boy by the finger and made the wicked king, shot with an arrow in the forest while out hunting, once again alive and terrible. It never really let him go.
Museum work, exhibition curating, should have as its starting point not broad, vague social generalities like gender and identity (soooo 90s), but should focus on exposing and interpreting, comparing and linking the specific characteristics of individual existences. As William Blake once said: ‘to Generalise is to be an Idiot. To particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit … Singular & Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime.’ Please note Blake’s sublime objective, and be assured that I am not advocating an antiquarian or scientific solipsism, that kind of blinkered, obsessive attention to the isolated object in its specimen jar or solander box, examined on its own obscure or restricted terms, for its own limited sake. Rather, what I am saying is that the biggest, brightest, most colourful ideas can be refracted through the smallest prism, if its form and finish are perfect.
So to return to the question of the list. Obviously, at one level, nothing is more central, nothing more important. If the contents are soft, the selection sloppy, it shows. With the kind of blockbusters that are rented from overseas museums undertaking building programs, it really doesn’t matter so much, because there is no curatorial thesis as such beyond a good poster image and the word ‘Impressionist’ in the title, and because there will always be half a dozen gobsmacking pictures to carry the other ‘passengers.’ But in exhibitions that pretend to any kind of curatorial originality and excellence, it’s the checklist that counts. 
This is the document that demonstrates enough serious, directed preparatory research to attract initial grant funding and sponsorship, that will advertise the unimpeachable professional credibility that guarantees loans from museums and private collectors, that flags a level of popular appeal such as makes the show attractive to tour venues and piques the interest and enthusiasm of scholars and of journalists in specialised and general media. There always will be compromises and corrections. Loans will have been previously committed elsewhere, lenders will decline, works will not be in a fit condition to travel, transport and courier costs will prove too expensive and the international component will have to be cut back, and so on. There must be a shadow list, a Plan B.
We therefore need to ensure that our exhibitions are based on sound inductive reasoning, on close and continuing familiarity with works in a collection, a region, a period or an oeuvre. Then we can begin to make the connoisseur’s choices, from the gross questions of attribution and dating, to the more fine discriminations of significance and relative quality. Only after this can we compile that sexy preliminary checklist. Only then will we have enough depth and breadth of knowledge to be able to edit, juggle and reconfigure the list to second, third, fourth and fifth versions as the show is gradually negotiated into reality. 
Now all of this – the building up of expertise, the arrival at a curatorial concept, the development of the wish list and its shaping into final form - takes time. A lot of time. The postmodern world is a synchronic world, where everything happens at once, is always immediately available. Art history, on the other hand, museum history, is diachronic, linear, progressive, cumulative… it can’t be rushed. The Glover show I curated for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2003 took something like five or six years to put together (in between doing another ten more modest shows, I hasten to add), and when we finally got it up on the walls I remember experiencing a piquant simultaneous delight and despair. There amidst the glorious array, amongst the numerous overseas loans (some selected years previously), I discovered not only one clear mis-dating but also a glaring wrong’un, a misattribution. Well, they were evident to me, at least, but only because I’d put in that five or six years of research. Sadly, no-one else appears to have noticed. Which is a shame, because they also missed a delicious irony: the bogus picture, the fraud, was one of those loaned by the Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, novelist and erstwhile Chairman of the Bristish Conservative Party,who was, at that time, on parole from his open prison after serving two years of a four-year sentence for perjury. 
And a propos taking (or doing) time, there is another issue here which requires attention. There can be an unfortunate misfit between the temporal frames of knowledge acquisition, of museum scheduling and of professional development. A new curator coming onto the staff of a major public gallery is likely to be told that the program is pretty tightly planned going forward (and yes, management will probably use that egregious phrase) and that she is unlikely to get a show of her own up for something like three years. And if this curator doesn’t have a particular project or projects in mind already but wants rather to develop an exhibition which both exploits and contributes to the gallery’s own holdings, then you can probably add a couple of years for building a sufficient familiarity with the collection to make a valid judgement call on appropriate subject and content. So there’s five years, which is about as long as a sharp young curator would want to stay in the one place - if she doesn’t want to be thought of as unambitious or unimaginative. Herein lies one of the great career path paradoxes of our trade, and one which both the institutions themselves and professional organisations such as Museums Australia would do well to consider.
Not only does educating your eye take a few years out of your life, it also takes quite a bit of help from your friends. Individual expertise and personal databases can only take you so far. In art (as in most areas of human endeavour) the essential question is most often: ‘Who do I get in touch with?’ This can be a difficult question to answer. When you get down to it, there are not really all that many people who know or care much about Australian art. At a canteen table during a coffee break at a conference in Melbourne last year, it was observed that one small grenade or IED could have completely wiped out the teaching of Australian art history across the nation at tertiary level. Moreover, the peer group, the reference group, the collegium, whatever you wish to call it, is professionally or rather occupationally fragmented: some are those few university academics who could have got blown up, some are their students and postgrads, some are curators in state, university, local government and regional galleries (and some are escapees from such institutions now working freelance), some are collectors, some are artists, some are gallerists and secondary market dealers, and some such as the present writer work for Sotheby’s Australia. We rarely venture out of our respective silos, and when we do we tend to gossip and bitch rather than review and critique, let alone confer and advise. And we gossip and bitch because, let’s face it, we are all kind of sociopathic, the sort of folk who are actually much happier spending their time with things rather than with people.
It is worth making the effort, however. Last year, an ad hoc curatorium made up of academic art historians, art museum curators, picture librarians, a conservator, a couple of freelance scholars and a man from Sotheby’s was able, working collectively, to confirm the oeuvre of the remarkable colonial watercolourist Edward Close: two Governor Macquarie-era sketchbooks erroneously attributed for over 30 years to his aunt-by-marriage, Sophia Campbell. None of us could have reached the connoisseurial conclusion alone.
Without our beloved and often incredibly annoying colleagues, we would miss out on the expertise and taste that gave us great, internationally important, and yes, thrilling shows like Michael Lloyd’s Turner, Andrew Sayers’ New Worlds from Old, Brian Andrews’ Pugin, Terence Maloon’s Pisarro, Ted Gott’s Modern Britain… We would miss out on the passionate commitment that has recently given us such important Australian retrospectives and surveys as the Historic Houses Trust’s Joseph Lycett, Penrith’s Peter Upward and Sid Ball, Bathurst’s Jean Bellette’s and Janet Dawson, Heide’s Rick Amor and Les Kossatz, Hobart’s Viv Binns and Lee Hobba and Anne Ferran, the Ian Potter Museum’s Dale Hickey and Vivienne Shark LeWitt and Trevor Nickolls, Monash University’s Brooke Andrew and Diena Georgetti and Richard Lewer, and so on.
Let me conclude with these optimistic testaments to collegiality, but also with a modest structural proposal for the attention of Museums Australia, or the Cultural Ministers Council, or the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, or the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council, or Visions of Australia, or the Australian Research Council, or someone
Might I suggest that at least one of these bodies consider the establishment of a clearing house for exhibition proposals and planning? Something that crosses the boundaries of academia, curatorship and even the market. Something a bit more open and democratic than the Gallery Directors Council of National and State Art Museums of Australia or the Council of Australian Museum Directors or the Council of State Libraries, but with a bit more political grunt and breadth of perspective than regional gallery or contemporary art space associations, perhaps a regular annual or biennial conference or symposium, or even just a well designed and managed website (but not merely a blogstream or sidebar on maNexus), through which the research interests and exhibition plans of art historians, curators and institutions can be tabled and discussed and outcomes negotiated. 
This is hardly a remarkable or even an original idea. Lawrence Bendle successfully trialled a hard-copy version under the aegis of the Victorian Ministry for the Arts back in the late 1980s. ExPlan, as it was called, didn’t survive Lawrence’s departure from the Ministry after just a couple of issues. But it is a useful idea. For good or ill, exhibitions remain the focus of much of our professional activity, from acquisitions to education, from conservation to merchandising. To see them a little more rationally managed or at least a little earlier or better communicated would make this grumpy old man very happy.
David Hansen
January 2010
(This essay is an edited version of a paper given to the Museums Australia (Victoria) symposium The Exhibition as Spectacle: research, exhibitions and community engagement, held at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, on 10 November 2009.)

NOTE on the 'William Rufus' ring
More recent reading suggests that the ring that Donna Jaggs placed on her finger was unlikely to have been William's after all. William Jones (Finger-ring lore: historical, legendary, anecdotal, London: Chatto and Windus, 1877, pp. 384-385) gives some attention to this artefact. He describes the king's supposed tomb having been opened no fewer than three times (in 1525, during the English Revolution and in 1868) and concludes that 'there is reason for doubting whether this ring really belonged to King Rufus, and that the tomb supposed to be that of the King is that of an ecclesiastical dignitary'.