Curating is a transitive verb: somebody curates something.
(Curating is also an increasingly non-specific verb: everybody curates everything. But that’s another story.)
This “something” has traditionally been the focus of curating: curators curate works of art / music, mostly by selecting them and putting them into a specific space / time / context. Curators curate concerts / programs / festivals / biennials / exhibitions, mostly by putting together selected works.
However, one of the main goals of curating has always been for the curated works to be perceived by an audience. Artists have gotten away, more or less elegantly, with a complete disregard for the audience. Curators are expected to take the audience into the equation.
While there are some famous examples of concerts / programs / exhibitions with virtually no audience, they only got famous by being talked about to large audiences. There are many not-so-famous examples of concerts / programs / exhibitions with virtually no audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is one of the reasons for this text.
Curators curate works / compositions mostly under the tacit assumption that artists and curators have superior knowledge about art / works, compared to the audience.
Unlike dramaturgs or stage directors in theatre or opera, who traditionally have some license to abridge, translate, or otherwise alter works, curators typically will claim not to alter any works / compositions.
Altering the audience, on the other hand, is not only accepted but widely regarded as a selling point of good curating. In mild cases, curators might promise the audience a transformative experience of art and music. In severe cases, the audience has been told by curators what to do and what not to do, as famously instituted by Hans von Bülow, first Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1887 to 1892: food, drinks, smoking, talking, moving, even just moving a fan to fight the heat in the concert hall were all strictly forbidden in what turned out to be the standard classical concert experience.
So, it’s fair to say that curators typically operate with the highest respect for artists and works, while their respect for the audience is at a significantly lower level.
The old skating hall from 1876 in Berlin-Kreuzberg (at Bernburger Strasse, bombed during WWII, destroyed in 1952) before it was transformed into the first “Philharmonie” in 1888. The transformation from freely moving skaters to disciplined concertgoers seated in rows can be traced back to the insistent curatorial efforts of Hans von Bülow (1830–1894).
After a deeply transformative ban on public get-togethers during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., in Austria for a total of 249 days in 2020 and 2021), the focus in the field of curating seems to have shifted in many ways. The audience has shifted its focus away from public get-togethers around art, music, theatre, films, etc. Cultural workers and artists, like hotel and restaurant workers, have shifted their professional focus to other fields like education, health care, or business. Cultural institutions are looking for alternatives for their focus on (attendance) numbers. After a few attempts to rescue the arts, governments, funding bodies, and sponsors are shifting their focus towards coping with inflation, war, and climate change.
While, as of 2022, the pandemic, war, inflation, and climate change are far from being over, it’s too early to predict whether, when, and how public get-togethers around art, music, theatre, films, etc. will be “back to normal.”
But if there’s something that’s worth saying about curating, it’s this:
it’s about time to shift the focus onto the audience.
Compared to the existential importance of bringing people together around art, music, theatre, films, etc., the classic practice of putting selected works together looks more and more like collecting stamps.
That’s not to play art off against people or artists against non-artists. It’s also not meant to trigger the old reflex against “populist” programming. But curators should be modest about what they find important and interesting as soon as—and as long as—there are other people in the room.
By the way: “people” includes not only artists, composers, musicians, and audiences, but also, e.g., board members, press, sponsors, team members, and colleagues, from ticket sales and accounting via tech to catering, security, and cleaning.
If that means that soon the audience will be doing more to alter curators than the other way around, that’s only fair.
Notes to Self
Try to take everybody and everything into the equation. (Don’t expect to be more precise than a weather prediction in times of climate change.)
Take everybody and everything seriously. (In a playful way if that seems appropriate.)
Treat everybody and everything with respect. (Even more so when, statistically, considerateness seems to be on the decline after people had to spend 249 days on their sofa / in a state of emergency.)
Be aware that anything that looks like superior knowledge about artworks / compositions might seriously get in the way if you want an audience to share the experience.
If you think you know what grants curators and artists any authority or influence, think again.
Consider, in a humble and relaxed way, the superior knowledge of any potential “audience member” concerning not only art / music, but also, e.g., architecture, design, fashion, typography, food, and drinks. Or social situations, diverse cultural contexts, languages, privilege, otherness. Oh yes, not to forget about education, health care, and business.
Think about the cultural field you are a part of as a changing ecosystem in search of balance.
Wherever you can, help readjust the balance from a mainly economic process (which, even fifty years after Adorno, “continues to perpetuate domination over human beings”) towards ecological processes, against the dynamics of cultural management in late capitalism.
Think about curating not as determining key parameters of a cultural field at will, but more as acting responsibly, as a humble part of a complex environment.
If you think curating is about power, forget about it.
Try to develop communally responsible modes of curation. They have more in common with enzymatic activities, fermentation, or organic agriculture than with the sometimes quite toxic ingredients which made opera, Hollywood, and other parts of culture look cultivated in the past.
Try to listen carefully to what this cultural field will need to get back on its feet.
(Listening is not a transitive verb.)
Bernhard Guenther (born 1970 in Thun/CH) is primarily active as a curator, producer, and director of contemporary music festivals (Wien Modern since 2016; ZeitRaeume Basel – Biennial for new music and architecture 2012–2021; rainy days 2004–2016, as Chief Dramaturg of the Philharmonie Luxembourg). Apart from that, he works as an author, editor, curator, dramaturg, panel and jury member, typesetter, occasional amateur cellist, and small-scale natural wine producer. He is married, has a daughter, and lives in Vienna.