Robin is a curator, an artist, and a friend based between Northwest Arkansas and New Orleans. She recently graduated with an MA from the “Center for Curatorial Studies” at Bard College (NY), where she focused on socially engaged contemporary cultural production. Here, I asked her to share her thoughts and experience in relation to both theory and practice of the curatorial.
Miriam La Rosa
Responding to a prompt on the influence of curatorial studies on my practice is a bit tricky in this moment. I started out in art as a painter, with my first show at 17. I quickly moved into developing organizational strategies and creating multiple-artist exhibition platforms with a non-profit that I co-founded at 19. It wasn’t until I was 24 and went to work for a biennial that I adopted the title of curator and discretely placed the artist role into a private, personal practice. After working independently as a curator for a few years, and running into trouble fundraising for an exhibition responding to the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, I decided to get a Masters and gain institutionally recognized credentials in order to garner more serious respect from colleagues in the field. Since finishing my MA in Curatorial Studies from Bard College in May, I have been reconsidering almost every element of my practice.
The curatorial is too new a field for anyone to fully pin down exactly what it should be doing, which is what attracted me to it initially. However, after spending two years in the middle of its academic system, I am less sure that curating is exactly what I have been up to all these years. Of course, I believe that most artists have a curatorial core within their practice. Before the curator came along, artists were responsible for showing themselves and others, at least this is true in my case. Curatorial education provides extremely vital theoretical and philosophical tools for any practice. In fact, I think that the standard syllabus for curatorial education could be extraordinarily beneficial for multiple kinds of education; a kind of Comparative Literature for visual aesthetics. The need for learning to read social structures, visual culture and systems of domination is urgent. I do believe that curatorial studies provide an entry into this sort of thinking. The inherent sociological aspects in the educational and theoretical sense are endlessly useful, and were what I found most enjoyable and practical in my studies.
The lived sociologies of the curatorial, however, I am much less thrilled by. In the end, the inherent discrepancies between who is able to speak and who is considered ancillary may be what drive me away from the curatorial altogether. The ratios of female to male students in curatorial training programs (my graduating class was 14 women, to speak anecdotally) when compared to the ratios of ‘well-known’ or ‘influential’ curators or institutional directors within the larger sphere of contemporary art are rather abhorrent. I also found that the strong feminist slant to the educational focus seemed to be masking the rather large inequalities that were being played out in our day to day realities. I walked away knowing much more clearly that the sexism I had feared earlier on in my career is absolutely real and possibly impenetrable.
To be clear, I am in full support of curatorial education. I think it is desperately needed for a new generation of cultural producers entering into the structure of contemporary art. I do worry, however, that the need to push back – from both our generation and from teachers, advisors, and mentors – may not yet be sufficient to tip the scales of the financial and social structures that very heavily favor the work of charismatic men over the intellectual heavy lifting and day to day responsibilities of women.
So for the moment, I am back at home, researching in my own archive. Trying to decide how to go about being an artist again. The way I see it, when I am functioning as an artist, the polemic topics I may choose to bring up or the political bent my practice has can at least be seen as an eccentric selling point. An unapologetic and abrupt position on the current state of affairs can be negotiated as a welcome ‘artistic critique’ rather than a bureaucratic problem to be dealt with, as it would function in the position of curator. However, given the all too easy absorption of artistic critique into banality, this is undoubtedly shaky ground. There has to be a way to effect change within our larger system against corruption, I am almost certain of it. That said, given the nature of these structures at large – their often opaque and occluded means to an end – I do have reservations on whether or not we can ask the curatorial to do it.
Robin Wallis Atkinson