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31 Aug 2017 / by Lesley Lau

Viewpoint: The Evolution of Curators

Photo of a baking tray with soft green cookies that people are using plastic spoons to poke holes in to mimic Braille.

Handmade Braille cookies from XCHANGE: Social Gastronomy — Taste the Unseen

How has the curatorial role expanded today? Dr Lesley Lau, founder of the Art Promotion Office and Oi! art space in Hong Kong contributes her insights below.

Museum Keepers in the Past

The role of the curator has been redefined over time.

Civilised city-states established museums in the mid- to late-seventeenth century to protect, preserve, and promote human cultural heritage in their communities. Today, many long-standing museums still use the title ‘keeper’ for key professional staff. This title, which literally means ‘to keep’, was more common when the museum exhibition was a one-way business, in which the museum director would perform research and deliver information to passive audiences visiting exhibitions.

Close-up of a small green plant in a mug, and several small cardboard circles asking visitors to fill in what their imperfection is.

I’M PERFECT XCHANGE (2013–2015) at Oi! Art Space featured a range of creative collaborations focusing on the embrace of imperfection. A barter system was used throughout the project—for example, bringing a can of food could get you a plant (pictured) in exchange.

Today’s Curators

The title ‘curator’ gradually replaced ‘keeper’ in the twentieth century. Today, curators fall into two categories: museum curators, who are in charge of art museums, and independent curators, who are not attached to any institution. Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form redefined the meanings of the terms ‘curate’, ‘curation’, and ‘curatorship’, triggering a major shift in the art world. Gone are the days when traditional museums and galleries were the only sites for audiences to view and learn about art. Art knows no boundaries. Curators now need to face the challenges of curating exhibitions or other unconventional activities.

Curatorial endeavours have since evolved to embrace more collaborative approaches to curation, decreasing the significance of curators and their expertise. Also gone is the traditional triangular structure of curator–artist–audience; in its place are new concepts like ‘co-curation’ and ‘co-creation’.

A stocked kitchen and eating area with a long table and multiple stools. There are no people in the photo.

XCHANGE: Social Gastronomy (2015 onwards), an open kitchen based at Oi!, invites the community to experience green living through a series of activities and food upcycling

For instance, we worked with our creative partners to co-curate the Oil Street Art Space (Oi!) projects IMPERFECT, I'M PERFECT XCHANGE and XCHANGE: Social Gastronomy and turned our art space into a Chinese herbal tea shop and kitchen. Instead of hosting a physical exhibition, we welcomed the public to come and exchange their ideas and experiences.

Another example of ‘co-curation’ and ‘co-creation’ is the potted landscape of the ongoing Doing Nothing Garden, created for Oi! by Beijing artist Song Dong, which invites the public to ‘be freely creative’. None of the co-creators can predict the project’s final result. This interdisciplinary collaboration, which engages and empowers the community, allows artists and non-artists alike to come together and share their attitudes and values.

But if anyone can co-curate and co-create, are curators still relevant?

A group of people are assembled in front of some greenery, playing ukulele and guitar with music note stands in front of them.

Ukulele performance at the Doing Nothing Garden (2015–2016)

And tomorrow?

Defying limitations is the norm in art. As the art world evolves, so too must the role of the curator. To stay relevant, then, today’s curator—whether independent or associated with a museum—would benefit from experience working at different institutions around the world and understanding the many manifestations of ‘co-curation’ and ‘co-creation’. What will the curator’s role be in the future? Only time will tell.

All images courtesy of Dr Lesley Lau. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Lesley Lau obtained her PhD from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, specialising in Chinese export art and public and community art development in Hong Kong. Dr Lau has worked for different local museums and is the founding curator of the Art Promotion Office and the art space, Oi!.

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