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‘A Curator Discerns “Latent” Phenomena in Contemporary Life that Are Not Yet Perceptible’

This year, HSE University and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art have launched a new master’s programme in Curatorial Practices in Contemporary Art for future curators and art managers. Two instructors of the programme – Valentin Dyakov, Curator of the Garage Museum, and Maria Kravtsova, Chief Editor of the ArtGuide Portal – spoke with HSE News Service about the Russian art sphere, how the role of curators has changed, and what skills a successful curator needs to have.

— The Russian term ‘куратор’ (curator) has a whole range of meanings. What does it mean in relation to art?

Valentin Dyakov: Curators are people who help organize exhibitions. Most of them are not artists, museum keepers, or directors of organizations. It is true that the word ‘curator’ has a plethora of meanings depending on the context, so we even considered using the word ‘exhibition-maker’ instead.

Some curators are hired employees, while others work independently and collaborate with organizations based on mutual interest in a given project.

Maria Kravtsova: In the USSR, curators were government agents tasked with monitoring the artistic activity of the intelligentsia. In Post-Soviet Russia, the term ‘curator’ applies to people who work in the art sphere, although you can also meet curators in other spheres, too, such as ‘menu curators’ in cafés.

— When did the profession of the curator first take root in Russia and abroad?

VD: This foreign word kurator first appeared in Russia in the 1960s, though the profession itself must be over a hundred years old –people held exhibitions back then, too.

At the end of the 19th century, an artistic group called ‘World of Art’ (Mir Iskusstva in Russian) was established for this purpose. One of its founders was Sergey Diaghilev. His exhibition of Russian portraits from the 18th and19th centuries was an event that today we would call an independent curator project. Diaghilev conducted significant research, visiting homes of the gentry (those so-called ‘nests of the gentlefolk’) in search of portraits that he could exhibit as parts of a single cultural phenomenon. The resulting exhibition enabled him to revive a period of Russian history and painting that was looked down upon at that time. Before the exhibition, the social activist paintings of Itinerants (Peredvizhniki in Russian) had been regarded as much more advanced than those ‘aristocratic vestiges’.

At the same time, a group of artists called ‘Secession’ was founded in Vienna. Those artists held curated exhibitions, too. Not only did they display their paintings, but they also presented their works conceptually, regarding themselves as an artistic group or a movement.

More curators appeared in the avant-garde period. They were predominantly artists, such as Mikhail Larionov, Petr Konchalovsky, or Ilia Mashkov, for instance, who organized exhibitions of the Jack of Diamonds group (Bubnovy Valet).

The job of a curator officially appeared after World War II when the European economy entered the postindustrial era. The more artists we have, the more important the job of the curator becomes—someone is needed to separate the good art from the bad. And the curator does this not by critiquing but by developing different exhibition strategies and undertaking exhibition projects.

Valentin Dyakov
© HSE University / Mikhail Dmitriev

— So does this mean the curator’s main job is to separate good art from bad art?

VD: No, that is the art critic’s job. The curator is a person who understands that artists are here to complete certain tasks. The curator has to decipher these tasks and employ them as a foundation upon which to build their exhibitions.

A classic example would be the exhibition ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969. The exhibition showcased the artwork of several dozens of artists who worked in the style of the newly-formed conceptualism and minimalism movements, creating more advanced types of art production. Once in the museum, a work of art acquires so many meanings and contexts that the artist needs a clearly marked intellectual space in the exhibition hall.

— What are the key skills needed to be a curator in Russia today?

VD: First of all, a curator should have a strong knowledge of art history. They do not necessarily have to have a university degree in art history, but they should have a good handle on the subject.

Secondly, curators have to be good at interacting with artists and people in the field. They have to understand artists’ attitude to life and the essence of the artists’ profession. Artists are self-employed, they work in unstable conditions, and they  produce unique works that are of a value that cannot be measured by conventional economic mechanisms.

Last but not least, curators, like architects, need to be able to think spatially. To organize an exhibition, you need to have a keen sense of space and dimension.

MK: A curator discerns ‘latent’ phenomena in contemporary life that are not yet perceptible. They capture trends in art, politics, cultural life, and the zeitgeist of a particular moment. This is demonstrated by most of the excellent curatorial projects which have become model examples of the profession.

Curators either begin with an idea and select artists based on that concept, or they develop a concept based on their interactions with certain artists and exposure to their work. Take, for example, Viktor Miziano, Chief Curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venetian Biennale, whose exhibitions all spring forth from his interactions with artists. In addition, curators should know the basics of technical production and have a clear idea of how each stage of an exhibition is carried out—from the transport of the artworks to the installation of lighting and the security arrangements.

VD: Curators usually work in cooperation with exhibition managers who are responsible for documentation and administrative matters, such as contracting, accounting, exhibition equipment production, etc. However, some curators, depending on their resources and institutional stature, prefer to do all these things on their own.

— In terms of education, only art curation programmes at the master’s level really provide potential curators with the specific education and professional training they need. What kind of bachelor’s programmes would you recommend to students who are interested in pursuing this career path?

VD: It doesn’t matter.Although the majority of students in our Master’s Programme ‘Curatorial Practices in Contemporary Art’ majored in the humanities during their undergraduate studies, we also have students who majored in mathematics or engineering.  We do not require students to have majored in art history or cultural studies, and this is on purpose. All the curators of the Garage Museum earned their degrees in a range of humanities subjects—history, literature, cultural studies, Asian studies, and art history.

MK: These people do not have a degree in curating; rather, they acquired the necessary skills from working in the field. Our sphere of activity has expanded over the past decade, and we are now facing a shortage of professionals. The art world is a dynamic field that is developing very quickly in Russia, which means we need more qualified professional curators rather than self-taught people. Therefore, the demand for relevant qualifications in this field is directly shaped by the art industry.

To some extent, this trend has been established by the Garage Museum, a financially reliable company. This is also quite important, as nothing happens in this sphere without money. The demand for high quality museums and exhibitions is supported by the Russian government as well—it’s no coincidence that the majority of state-funded museums have appointed new directors, and regional galleries are now headed by young people. We need new people who can introduce cutting-edge technology and perspectives to the art sphere. For instance, in Yekaterinburg there has been a serious discussion of culture as a driver of local economy.

Maria Kravtsova
© HSE University / Mikhail Dmitriev

— How many professionally trained curators might a country need?

MK: If we as a country want to develop our cultural life, then we need a lot of them. Each regional centre requires at least two curators as long as there is a museum of local area studies and a museum of fine art there. We also have many cities with their own cultural heritage and cultural strategies, and those cities need curators as well. There are well-known examples of when city life is shaped by a city’s cultural agenda, such as Myshkin or Kolomna, for example, which now enjoy a stable flow of tourists. To develop and raise funds for new projects, we need curators who are familiar with the concepts of experience economy.

It’s not just about tourists. After they retire and move to another place, say, Vladikavkaz, people still want to experience the pleasures of cultural life. Otherwise, the place would lose its appeal.

— Is curating a lucrative profession?

MK: Although Moscow-based private institutions usually offer stable jobs with good salaries, it is more difficult for freelance curators to earn money. However, a curator whose ideas are in demand and who is capable of finding worthy artists, attractive venues, and hefty grants will always receive enough financial support. In contrast, a full-time curator enjoys more freedom, but with fewer opportunities.

— What Russian and foreign curators do you hold up as examples for your students? Who do your students look up to?

VD:  I would be very interested in working with students who are inspired by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She lives in Italy, where she works as Chief Curator and Director of Castello di Rivoli — Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, one of the first museums of modern art in Europe. A person with consistent philosophical views, she is well attuned to the modern art trends. She is interested in up-to-date approaches to image creation, which she tries to learn about, translate into a simple language, and present in the right proportions. For instance, she was able to organize a huge exhibition that explored colour as macro-reality.

MK: I have already mentioned Viktor Miziano, who did a lot to establish and foster curatorship in Russia. His life has been tough, but I think many young curators would like to follow his suit. He knows how to portray a cultural situation accurately, revealing the essence of newsworthy social and political events due to his thoughtful collaboration with artists. This collaboration helps him run exhibition projects that are accessible and clear to people from all walks of life.

My favorite young curator is Alexandra Selivanova. She organized the exhibition ‘Textiles of Moscow’, a must-see event of the season and the first story about the modern textile industry in Russia. Before she joined the Shabolovka Avant-Garde Centre, very few people knew about it, but today it is a popular gallery. In her work, Selivanova reexamines the history of art and revisits long-forgotten names and objects. She is a historian in a way, but instead of working with texts and documents, she works with art exhibitions. Collective curatorship is one of the latest trends in the profession. Different people contribute to a project by sharing their visual experience and their experience in interacting with society. Most of the recent interesting projects are examples of such joint efforts.

— How will the first graduates of the Master’s Programme ‘Curatorial Practices in Contemporary Art’ be able to contribute to the profession? Where do you see them working? What do you see them doing?

VD: I believe they will easily find good jobs in leading cultural institutions of Moscow, a city with huge potential. Some of our graduates might go abroad to continue their studies, and we will consider it our success if they eventually manage to establish themselves in the international community, especially in view of HSE University’s international integration ambitions. Unfortunately, Russian art education is not highly regarded in the world.

We don’t know whether our graduates will decide to work in Russian regions. This will depend on the local governments’ willingness to create favorable conditions for future art experts. We have students from various parts of Russia and neighbouring countries. Some of them have obtained student grants to do our master’s programme. We would be delighted if they decide to return to their hometowns afterwards to change the cultural context there. People, especially those of younger generations, are tired of old-fashioned festivals. They would love to experience something more modern. We hope our graduates will be able to breathe new cultural life into their regions and make them more exciting than they are today.

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