“I fall in love with all my artists.”
– Ema Tavola, first AUT Curatorial Symposium
Paraphrased from memory
When I took up my first job as curator — my first job in the arts full stop — I had to move cities. Though it’s just an hours flight away, I was immediately out of touch. Ponsonby is a world away from Porirua. My main way of settling into a new home was through getting to know the people working opposite Objectspace, where I working part time, at Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, and through them, artists, writers and students who were part of a larger contemporary Pacific arts community. The people I’ve met through Tautai have become some of my closest friends and most regular collaborators. This was all prompted when the manager, Christina, had asked me to curate a series of performances to accompany an exhibition being planned for the Gus Fisher Gallery. One of Christina’s motivation to help me find paid curatorial work. Her bigger motivation was to help me find friends.
Those implied relationships between friendship and curating, community and collaboration, have been on my mind a lot recently. Most of my 2016 has gone into working with artist Janet Lilo on her solo exhibition at Te Uru. We’ve been working together for perhaps a year and a half on the project. There’s definitely a blur between our friend-friend relationship and artist-curator relationship. In between install tasks, I would at times drop her to her midwife appointment or catch up to talk about other life developments. Similarly, I’ve become part of her work, appearing a number of times in her polaroid images and being mentioned in passing in her story in a light box work that was presented in the exhibition. The project was been something I’ve been excited about, and the easiest soundbite to give people when they ask what I’m up to at work. A couple of months before the exhibition opening, for instance, I told a visiting curator about how closely I’ve been working with Janet. “Be careful”, she told me. “You can’t be friends with artists. You’ll end up using them.”
The words cut. I don’t have a lot of friends, and Janet has become a good one. The warning though found resonance with something I’ve always been conscious of: the role of curator is one of power. I have the ability to determine, to a large extent, who is and isn’t chosen to show work in the gallery. Our contracts safeguard the final editorial control I have in the presentation of an exhibition. My power is also financial. Not only do I determine which artist do (and don’t) get a paid gig, which artists do (and don’t) get visibility, which artist do (and don’t) get validation, I enjoy also the privilege of being paid for my work, free from the burden of hustling. The implication, the curator was telling me, is that our role is one of exploitation.
As a curator working outside of a collection, I’ve always felt there were two parallel dynamics between artist and curator, which together creates a co-dependency. On the one hand, a curator has a good deal of power over what can be exhibited, how, when, for how long. Concurrently, a curator is dependent on the artist for content. Too often though, that reciprocity gets out of whack. Of course, I’m not the first to have wondered what the implications of the growth of curatorial power are for artists. Since the 1990s, there’s been the growing cult around the curator as the author of exhibitions premises which are then illustrated by artists work, sparking in turn concerns that an artist’s own understanding or research is becoming subservient to curatorial grandstanding.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about friendship as a possible model for the curator-artist relationship. This approach, for the most part, has been demonised as cliquey, a-critical or exclusive to those outside the social circle. These are some legitimate concerns. Cronyism is rife in much exhibition (and publication) making, and it gives credence to the idea of artists being selecting for shows simply based on who they know. It’s problematic too when an artist is given carte-blanche to do anything; what purpose does the curator or writer serve then except as a redundant sycophant?
But I think there’s something in the idea of friendship that’s worth recovering before we throw out the concept altogether. Perhaps the most important thing for me is that building a longer relationship with an artist acts as an important preventative measure against flattening their work. That intimacy does allow for a certain shorthand and development of trust that offers better insight into intent and how that intent might become manifest in an experience of work within a gallery space. I think spending so much time with Janet, for example, has given me a more complex understanding of her processes, her politics and her intentions. Making isn’t something that turns on and off for a lot of artist. It spills over into other conversations the way. Art filters into having coffee, dissecting tv shows. Within those discussions are tidbits that you unconsciously squirrel away or even deliberately note down. Lots of my catalogue essay came from ideas I’d texted myself mid-conversation with Janet. At a more basic level, it’s a lot harder to be a shit to someone when you’ve built a relationship with them.
What interests me most though about the metaphor of friendship though is the idea of reciprocity, which posits friendship not as a precondition or an outcome, but a process that deepens an understanding of a practice, for both the curator and the artist. Perhaps the best tests of the idea of friendship as a process have occurred when working with artists I haven’t previously known. In late 2015, I working with painter James Cousins on a solo survey exhibition of his work. Amazingly to me, this would be his first solo exhibition in a public gallery. Often called ‘a painter’s painter’, it was clear that Te Uru would be receiving and presenting work that was rigorous, the result of an long practice that had consistently engaged with what it meant to make a painting. As someone who hasn’t curated a lot of painting shows, James was a source (among more traditional text-based sources) I sponged from: I was quickly catching up contemporary concerns in painting. I’m not sure if I totally achieved it, but in that situation, I knew that what the institution and I could offer is a better understanding for him about how his work was positioned within a broader field and for a wider audience.
Almost a year on from Status Update, I’m not sure I’ve resolved much more how friendship, as a working tool, can offer in terms of thinking about the curator-artist relationship. I do feel like a curator’s investment in an artist beyond the obligatory is fundamental – for a more thorough understanding of an artist’s practice, and for a better fulfilment of a curator’s social responsibility. But perhaps the in order to reciprocate, to properly collude, a curator’s relationship with an artist needs to extend beyond the timeframe of an exhibition. There’s a certain Jerry Maguire manifesto in here, that idea of working more fully with fewer artists. Less is more. Because more time in needed.