By the time this is published the new curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum may have been announced. I was told last week that an offer has been accepted. I don’t know who the new curator will be, but the director of the Blanton, Simone Wicha, has assured me that, “Curators are vital at the Blanton.” This is a relief to hear since the Blanton has been without a curator of modern and contemporary art since Annette DiMeo Carlozzi left the post some three years ago to act as deputy director of art and programs of the museum. She is still listed as a “Curator-at-Large” on the Blanton website, but just look at the list! It’s a veritable ghost town in the curatorial department. Risa Puleo left her post as assistant curator of modern and contemporary art this summer, following in the footsteps of senior curator of European art, Jonathan Bober, and Ursula Davila-Villa, interim curator of Latin American art.
Museums often have a lot of turn-over in the curatorial department and certainly the Blanton is no exception. However, I have recently begun to wonder how art museums currently view the role of the curator. It was, after all, not that long ago that Arthouse dismissed its curator, Elizabeth Dunbar supposedly due to budgetary problems. At the time the institution stated that it would not hire another curator but, instead, relied on its “junior curators” and then director Sue Graze to sustain its programming (with the joining of Arthouse and AMOA, curators are now firmly in place). The Visual Arts Center on the UT campus is also without a curator, employing graduate students, faculty, and independent curators (myself included) to curate exhibitions (surely a more financially adventitious plan than a full-time hire). And just this month the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California laid off its chief curator citing, again, budgetary problems. Is this sequence of events simply due to the recession? Possibly. But even so, it signals a trend that leads to an even larger question: Just how important are curators to institutions?
As a curator just out of a PhD program and looking for a job, this question feels particularly pertinent. Is it possible that the role of the curator is becoming obsolete? When a museum must tighten its belt, are curators the first to go? If so, it is to the detriment of not only the institution but also, I feel, of the very practice of art.
We must remember that museums are not businesses. Art is not a commodity with a “use value” or an “exchange value.” This is what makes art so crucial to culture. In fact, it was Adorno who argued that it was against a business ethic that art emerged, developing “in the loopholes of poverty and isolation, as counter-balance against the business culture which tends to cover the whole world.”
Curators are the people who guide institutions, they are the ones who protect and grow a collection. We hire curators because they have a particular vision and they are able to create a context for that vision. Great curators like Alanna Heiss and Lynn Cooke and Lucy Lippard and Hamza Walker contribute to our understanding of art of our time and through history. Curators are culture makers, and as such, I can’t help but feel that they are necessary. I’m so glad the Blanton agrees.
Editor’s note: We received the following statement/clarification from the Blanton.
“Annette DiMeo Carlozzi has overseen numerous Blanton exhibitions since her transition to Deputy Director of Art and Programs in 2010, and continues to develop projects in her new role as Curator at Large — including the upcoming Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections, scheduled for spring 2013. Last June, Francesca Consagra, a distinguished leader in her field, joined the Blanton as senior curator of prints, drawings and European paintings, and Colette Crossman was promoted to curator of exhibitions. A search for a curator of Latin American art is currently underway.
In addition to supporting the many projects organized by its talented curatorial staff, the Blanton has a long history of working with distinguished local and national guest-curators, and takes pride in helping to prepare the next generation through a graduate internship program that pairs UT students with curators.”