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1 Feb 2018 / by Sook-Kyung Lee

Sook-Kyung Lee on the Changing Roles of Curators

A large brick building with a large chimney and glass facade on top seen from across a river. The words ‘Art Changes We Change’ can be seen on the glass facade to our left.

Tate Modern exterior from St. Pauls, showing the ‘Art Changes We Change’ sentence on the glass facade. Image courtesy of Tate Photography.

‘How has the curatorial role expanded today?’ Dr Sook-Kyung Lee, Senior Research Curator at Tate Research Centre: Asia, contributes her insights below.

‘Art Changes We Change’. On the glass façade of Tate Modern, this simple sentence heralds the changing role of today’s art museum. Since opening in 2000, Tate Modern has questioned many art-museum conventions, such as connoisseurship, elitism, and linear and Western-centric art-historical narratives. With its non-chronological collection displays and a radical architecture challenging the legacies of the industrial era, Tate Modern has emerged as a new kind of art museum: a champion of innovation in art and society. The opening of its extension in 2016 deepens the museum’s vision of becoming a more global, accessible, and socially relevant art institution, reflecting changes in contemporary art itself.

The curatorial role is no exception to this condition of change. Traditionally, curators have been specialists who conduct original research to acquire and study artworks for museum collections, and to select such works for exhibitions. But as the role of the art museum expands from an institution of guardianship and representation to a site of exchange and experiment, curators are now part of a larger and more complex network of art production and dissemination, raising questions about existing values and long-accepted ways of operation. Digital revolution, for instance, necessitates curators to engage a new type of audience who might experience the museum only virtually, and an increasingly multicultural society demands that curators acknowledge and drive new ways of understanding and presenting diverse art practices from across the world. Artists today expect curators to be creative collaborators and sympathetic critics who can mediate their practices for wide audiences. The emergence of non-museum-based art exhibitions, such as biennials and festivals, has also expanded the curatorial role, shifting the emphasis from building and interpreting collections to commissioning new works and constructing heightened curatorial narratives.

In today’s curatorial role, engendering critical discourse through public programmes, publications, and online platforms is as crucial as organising exhibitions. At once researcher, art historian, commissioner, exhibition organiser, cultural facilitator, and social agency, the curator is no longer a neutral observer nor a single authoritative voice, but an enabler of multiple views and a rigorous critic of canonical positions. As museum and exhibition culture becomes more democratic and accessible, the evolving relationships among artists, curators, and audiences will continue to transform museums and exhibition venues into spaces of shared, collective experiences.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Sook-Kyung Lee is Senior Research Curator at Tate Research Centre: Asia and Curator of Tate’s Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee in London. She served as Commissioner and Curator of the Korean Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2015.

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