Notes on Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum

Notes on Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art by Carin Kuoni


The vade mecum of medieval times was a trade or easy-reference manual for different aspects of life’s challenges, featuring as many images as text. Words of Wisdom is an updated vade mecum for contemporary curators, where advice is given to a new generation from established contemporary art curators who have been highly influential over the last twenty-five years. A vade mecum of a curatorial practice has to, according to curator Barbara Vanderlinden, “be more multifaceted than a practical guide or guidelines to the various aspects of selecting the art and the setting and organizing an exhibition. The most common procedures as well as the suggested alternatives cannot be satisfactory or adequate, since we mostly embark on such exhibitions and projects with a wide range of questions instead of advice, rules, or guidelines.” Words of Wisdom consists of sixty essays in which, according to the editor Carin Kuoni, “two main lessons might be drawn: first, that no rules exist in the field of curatorial work and, second, that curating an exhibition of contemporary art only addresses  issues of the particular moment in which the exhibition was created.”

It may seem that the only thing the curators in Words of Wisdom have in common is that they are working with contemporary art. Each curator has his or her own views—sometimes those views mesh with the views of other curators and other times they are simply different, or in direct opposition. However, the one aspect that most of the curators talked about was their collaboration with artists. Kuoni explains, “While some curators let artists select their contributions, other shape an environment that enables the artist to develop his or her work. Others send artists out to gather ‘experience’ and return to the museum with the fruit of their labor; still others emphasize the importance of friendships, where the success of an exhibition depends largely on the compatibility of the curator’s and the artist’s personalities. Some curators assign key artists a leading role in defining an exhibition; others will look at an artwork first before talking to those who made it.”

Many of the curators in Words of Wisdom expressed something about having respect for artists and their decisions, putting the art and artists above the curators, and making sure that the art was the main emphasis of the exhibition. For example, Dan Cameron stresses that the first rule of curatorship is, “The artist must be happy.” Yuko Hasegawa says, “Let the artist have his or her way.” Fumio Nanjo states that “curating should not interfere with the intention of the artist and the art, nor should it force them into an overly restricted context.” And a warning to remember that curating should not be taken as seriously as the art itself, Lawrence Rinder explains, “As curating becomes ever more academic and curators become increasingly visible and celebrated, we are in danger of forgetting that our work is dependent upon and—in my opinion—in service of the more important and nobler work of creative artists….it is time for curators to settle down and let the art and the artists take center stage.”

Another theme that runs throughout the book is the encouragement to take risks. The single most important piece of advice that Francesco Bonami offers aspiring curators is, “Do it!” He goes on to say that, “For the first show I curated entirely by myself—Campo 95—I put the shipping costs on my AmEx and I got funding one week before the show opened in Venice.” But that is a different kind of risk than what most curators are speaking of. It is most important to take risks with the artwork that is being exhibited. Otherwise, as Fumio Nanjo points out, “the exhibition will be limited, the manifestation of only that which he or she already knows. The essence of curating, which lies beyond all this, is a kind of madness. To operate effectively, the curator must share the madness of the artist; a realm that he or she is just barely able to enter after making judgments based on reality…Madness gives meaning to curating, just as it does to art.”

To find artists that are important to an exhibition, you must be a leader. As Paul Schimmel says, “You will never pick the right artists at the right time if you think you will find the answers in journals, museums, and commercial galleries…abandon the whole notion of distance from the creative community—don’t stand aside, and don’t put yourself above. Don’t try to be fair or impartial. Be passionate, committed. Play favorites, and most important, never use works of art as illustration.”

Curators should ask themselves what they are doing and why on a regular basis. Marcia Tucker says, “In my curatorial—and my everyday—life, I always hope not only to learn something, but also to surprise myself. This means taking risks, trying to do things differently, and working without knowing what the outcome will be—something artists do everyday…act first, think later—that way you’ll have something to think about. For me, the most rewarding places from which to learn have been my mistakes. At the same time, perhaps there are no mistakes—there’s just more than one right way to do things.”

The curators in Words of Wisdom stress the importance of dedication, enthusiasm, and hard work. This is a job that must be done with passion. If you are curating for money, recognition, or anything besides art, then you should quit now. However, if you are curating for the right reasons, don’t give up. As Charlotta Kotik says, “your enthusiasm will become contagious and will help you along the way.” It is also important to keep an open mind to new ideas in art and always be willing to learn. As Olu Oguibe states, “ignorance, narrow-mindedness, unmediated detachment, and lack of depth can only produce flawed exhibitions and a mediocre exhibition maker.”

Another warning many curators speak of is to be careful of trendiness, as those exhibitions cannot be original or very interesting. This goes along with the importance of being able to think independently. Most curators will agree that curating is a creative act in itself. As Mari Carmen Ramirez explains, “This is not to say that the curator should take the artist’s place…Rather, it implies acknowledging that curatorship involves a propositional discourse that invariable results in some form of scenic enunciation, whether by means of an exhibition or other concrete manifestation of the curatorial proposal.”
                But with all the common themes running throughout Words of Wisdom, there is also much that is said about the fact that there are no set-in-stone rules about curating. This is a good thing. As Jana Sevcikova and Jiri Sevcik state, “Always do only what interests you and what you believe in. Curating is like any other art form: it only serves to express your relationship to the world. No objective rules apply: there is not even a stable hierarchy of values to guide you. The meaning of images is never anchored by any kind of objective truth. You must not fall for the illusion of such truths, and instead propose questions challenging your own assumptions and especially the norms of the cultural establishment…This is the only way you can develop new relationships and provoke lively conflicts for which there exists no common denominator.”

On a more specific level, I am going to talk about five curators in Words of Wisdom who utilize different models in their approach to the mission and responsibilities of the contemporary curator: Maria Lind, Dana Friis-Hansen, Thelma Golden, Yuko Hasegawa, and Maaretta Jaukkuri.

In her essay, Selected Nodes in a Network of Thoughts on Curating, Maria Lind is very focused on her views of art, and talks more about metaphors for explaining and understanding art rather than specific methods of curating.  When Maria does explain her process of curating, it is in more abstract terms than other curators in Words of Wisdom, offering a distinct and interesting point of view. Maria views art as being in “competition with other phenomena and means of understanding, the most complex and challenging form for processing the experience of being human, in all its facets.” Maria finds that art is a way to “test ideas and thoughts, for questioning and challenging the condition of things; but also for galvanizing words, for moving to act.” Maria dives deep into explaining her notions of defining art and offers complex metaphors for art, as she goes on to say that, “art can be a platform for investigations, where the concrete and the abstract, the specific and the general can share the same space at the same time.” Maria dissects the paradoxes and irrationalities of art. In her curatorial practice, she questions, “How can one combine skepticism with enthusiasm? Multiplicity with precision? Affirmation with criticism? How does one focus on—and respect—a part and the whole at the same time?” Maria has a passion for discovering, exploring, and questioning. Much of her inspiration comes directly from the art and artists that she spends time with. She enjoys being an enabler to “create the best possible circumstances for the artists” and she “prefers to take the art itself as the point of departure for my speculations and reasoning instead of starting at the other end, with theory or politics or the academic model where you seek out the smallest common denominator.”

Precision is of upmost importance. Maria carefully analyzes and evaluates every aspect of her exhibitions. She allows the necessary time for artwork, artists, and situations to mature, and in this way resists “a raw, disposable consumer mentality.” Along with this, Maria doesn’t believe in forcing artwork to fit into a particular space.  For example, “if it doesn’t fit the white cube, or inside an institutional frame generally, it should not be forced into it.” Maria goes on to state that she tries to be “more context-sensitive than site-specific, for the latter often places too much emphasis on a physical location and a certain intellectual discourse.”

Maria feels that her approach to curating is similar to those of the many artists she is interested in. They both work with “models and projects, parallel situations and scenarios—not to show what has already been stated, either on the level of content or form, but to test something at least partly new.” Maria is interested in art that has a high density. In other words, “it can seem simple, even banal on first glance, but when one devotes time and attention to it, it grows exponentially: it is slow-burning and incandescent rather than explosive, and often grows on you.” Maria feels it is important to relate to the everyday experience of people and discovering different ways that art is able to communicate now and in the future.

Dana Friis-Hansen’s essay is Notes to a Young Curator. He starts off by stressing that “Multi-tasking is required for this job.” He thinks of curating an exhibition as “a series of interrelated and overlapping steps, which include—but are not limited to—research, thematic conceptualization, selection, contextualization, strategic arrangement, and interpretation.” Dana suggests to begin with the artwork, and then with the artist. He thinks it is important to study the artwork and try to figure out where it fits within the artist’s body of work, how it relates to the work of other artists, and its historical context. Dana views individual artworks as “building blocks that must fit together to create a shaped, focused experience of an exhibition for the visitor.” He goes on to say that the goal of an exhibition is to provide the viewer with “a sensual, stimulating, richly layered, multifaceted experience.”

Dana feels that resourcefulness and an ability to adapt to the situation at hand are also qualities that are required for the job of a curator. There will always be things that are not quite right, or problems that you cannot avoid or overcome, but these misfortunes provide the chance for creative problem-solving. Dana says that, in his experience, “installing the show is both the best and worst part of the process, as this is where the imagined exhibition and the real objects come together, and the gaps between the two must be dealt with, using creativity, thrift, and timeliness.”

Dana views the role of the curator as an “interpretive bridge” and he believes that a curator should write a text for every exhibition—from a short wall text to a scholarly catalogue or anything in between. Dana also feels that gallery talks by the curator are “vital ways to communicate our ideas and enthusiasm to those who are eager to learn more.” Also, Dana warns to handle the cultural content of artwork sensitively and to take into consideration the context in which the artwork was made by taking into account the “physical, temporal, institutional, and community framework in which one creates and shows an exhibition.” But the true challenge of curating, Dana says, “is to set the stage for transformative art experiences in the creative ways we bring art and ideas before the public.”

Thelma Golden’s essay, Mama Said…, is based on advice that had been given to her by her mother: “You better get while the getting is good.” It is not necessarily curatorial advice, but Thelma feels that “it applies to the challenge of trying to form and conceptualize one’s curatorial practice.” In other words, it is important to seize every opportunity as if it is the last one. Thelma wants curators to question, “If someone said, ‘You can only do one more exhibition/essay/project,’ what would it be? My advice is, do it now, whatever it is. Don’t put it off for later. Take risks, every day. Work in the moment. Do it now. Do it fully. Do it well.” Thelma goes on to list specific morsels of advice, including:

 Be an active co-conspirator with artists.
                Choose one amazing curator who is no longer alive and study his or her work carefully.
                Do not, under any circumstances, read reviews of any exhibition you are involved in, until at least two years after it was done.
                Embrace the inevitable administrative tasks connected with any curatorial job and approach them as creatively as you would the making of an exhibition.
                When strategically necessary, think like a museum director (but don’t act like one).
                When intellectually necessary, think like an artist (but realize you can never really be one, unless of course you already are).
                Strive to leave an indelible mark.


                Yuko Hasegawa’s essay, Art in (a New) Context, is a detailed listing of eight aspects of curating to consider. First, she urges curators to, “Make your own definition of art. Define art beyond your modern ego—view yourself as a social creature with a highly developed brain, so that you will be capable of speaking about art to people in different cultural contexts and social structures, in your own language.” Yuko thinks that “the essence of art…is found in its form.” Yuko goes on to use the metaphor of a river and its water to define art, “Water is the material used, and river flow is the form of the art. In the cerebrum, the material is the neuron and the form is consciousness. Form created by an artist reflects the artist’s consciousness. When the audience’s consciousness oscillates with this form, inspiration occurs. Oscillation can take place with strong impact in the deep consciousness, or gently in the shallow water…it is up to the curator’s intellectual and intuitive work to select form and create the site of oscillation. Do not limit yourself to restrictive categories such as fine art, artifacts, or applied art.”

                Yuko views the curator as a mediator between the artwork and the audience. It is the curator’s job “to inspire people to the potential within artwork, and to spark the interaction between the two.”  However, she feels there are limits, especially when taking artwork out of its original cultural context. Yuko explains, “When works are moved from the place of their origin to another site, comprehension of their significance can become limited. Naturally, new interpretation and misunderstanding of the work often occurs.”

                Most importantly, Yuko feels that when working on an exhibition, a curator should “let your curatorial desire collide with the artist’s desire. In the end, let the artist have his or her way. It is something like creating a spiritual magnetic field, rather than collaboration. Of course, the ways of communication should be different with each artist. The latter, when contemplating the exhibition space, should be left alone, and should not be approached until he or she is ready.”  The role of the curator is “not only to be a thinker, but also to be a communicator, to explain your thoughts visually through exhibitions and projects.” A delicate balance of “intuition, intelligence, and sensitivity is very important…curating an exhibition involves the art of creating harmony and atmosphere. The very existence of a curator activates the exhibition space and works to pull everything together.”

                Maaretta Jaukkuri has “a very ambivalent attitude toward the curator as auteur or independent voice.” She acknowledges that the curator does create a voice with the different concepts, texts, and other communication, but she doesn’t think that a curator should “become involved in the production of a work in any other role than that of a sounding board—when and if the artist so desires. Maaretta is disdainful of the concept of the curator’s work as art. Instead, she puts her full trust into the artists she works with and lets the artists make all the decisions concerning their work, including which works to show. This is a much different attitude than many other curators, but equally interesting in its own way.

A good example of how Maaretta lets the artists she chooses take control of an exhibition is, Delicate Balance: Six Routes to the Himalayas, in which she invited an international group of artists to take a trip together to the Himalayan Mountains. Maaretta’s requirement was that each artist would “make an artwork afterward that would convey his or her responses to the trip.” The trip was full of misfortunes, mix-ups, and mistakes. Because of circumstances, the artists didn’t spend as much time together as originally planned. However, each had a unique and profound experience that was expressed by various discussions and eventually, by the artwork itself. Maaretta declined to give the project a theme, and the artists, at the time of the trip, were somewhat disturbed. However, later on the artists all agreed that the “freedom had been the only possible way to approach the project.” The resulting exhibition, according to Maaretta, “provided a fascinating document of the different ways the six artists had experienced their journey, ranging from a sculpture about balancing to a cartoon strip published in a Kathmandu newspaper.”

To Maaretta, the Himalayan project reminded her that “the curator’s role is to create the premises and possibilities for artists to work in as freely as possible…we should not get involved in things that do not in some way change us. I think—and the artists agree with me—that we all changed a little as a consequence of the project. However, the most important thing was that the project caught the imagination of at least a part of our public and thus worked as an exhibition.”

As you can see by a detailed investigation of just five of the sixty curators featured in Words of Wisdom, each individual curator has different, and at times, opposite views about curating contemporary art—as varied as their respective exhibitions. The apparent contradictions in Words of Wisdom allows for an enlightening, challenging, and thought-provoking text.

One response to “Notes on Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum

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