Three days before Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected as U.S. President, I was doing more than watching the news from sidelines and judging politics from a distance. That night, even as one of the artists sang his songs and the puppet show began (yes, there was a puppet show!), the twenty-or-so people in the room were transfixed, at least for a moment, transported to perhaps a more humane sense of polity. I thought I saw that transport in their eyes.
I find people may not know what an art curator does. That's okay. The job is admittedly a bit esoteric. In my career, I have been what some might call an independent curator. In the art world, a curator is a person responsible for conceiving exhibitions. There are museum curators; there are also gallery directors who necessarily curate. Then there are many more roving mercenaries like me who pursue freelance projects. Recently, I curated an exhibition called Electoral Decisions at an empty warehouse in Los Angeles. My reflections here I hope will shed more light on a role that is typically very behind the scenes—though no less vital—in the arts field.
Electoral Decisions was staged on November 1, 2008. It was a one-evening show centred on my humble art collection. Originally, I planned to have the show run for a standard month. But for so many reasons, along with that I was borrowing the warehouse, one night was the best I could do. I was not paid to curate Electoral Decisions. The project was a labour of love. To see all the art I own in one place would be a gift, I thought. But no one simply wants a vanity project. My curatorial instincts led me to realize that the art I've picked up in recent years contained a great deal of political content, which could be amplified against the backdrop of the American presidential campaigns underway. In the press release, I drew some broad parameters:
Any citizen's idea of the next President leading the nation is likely to be as ambivalent as his or her art choices. As voters across the country contemplate the coming week's elections and the larger future, ELECTORAL DECISIONS, presented by 100 Stewards, exhibits odds and ends (mostly odds) from the collection of one independent curator.
My art collection may not have revealed my political decision-making, but the pieces taken collectively do maybe tip off my political values. I have no problem raising questions; the viewer can come to her own conclusions. No critical thinker wants to be told what to like or dislike, or to be spoon-fed what to think or not think. I took comfort that art always makes some sort of political statement. Presenting bright, cheerful landscapes (which I don't own) says one thing; showing a 1960 photograph of pacifist Dorothy Day surrounded by reporters (which I do own) says something else entirely.
Some of the art can be seen on the show's website, at http://100stewards.com/electoral_decisions.html. In addition to the website, I carefully compiled a check-list handout describing the twenty-four art pieces (with title, year made, medium, and dimensions of each piece) for gallery guests to navigate what they would be looking at. In Electoral Decisions were some of the interesting "characters in the room": drawings of armaments, a prayer in Arabic, Christ arm-in-arm with an artist, televangelist Jerry Falwell, an outsized dragonfly, a golden round-shaped sculpture, and great modern artists seen in baseball uniform.
Beyond abstract concepts, a curator should be thoughtful about many logistical hurdles. The next time you wonder why it costs something to walk inside a museum, just remember the reality of framing costs, shipping costs, and installation costs. Money helps. If there were a magic wand, I would have had pristine white walls ringing the warehouse floor. Alas, I had a limited amount of time and money. After much wrangling, I resolved to be content with where the art was to hang: a small reception room, an even smaller adjoining office, and brick walls by the warehouse floor. All this to say, the show would have been impossible without several able and willing friends helping me.
Three days before Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected as U.S. President, I was doing more than watching the news from sidelines and judging politics from a distance. That night, even as one of the artists sang his songs and the puppet show began (yes, there was a puppet show!), the twenty-or-so people in the room were transfixed, at least for a moment, transported to perhaps a more humane sense of polity. I thought I saw that transport in their eyes. After the show closed, I was first exhilarated and then exhausted—exhausted to the point of questioning my belief in the power of art. To state the proposition that "art can change the world" still sounds a little too militant to me. But when I curate my own shows, I am reminded that art is not far from the notion of public service. When I'm a consumer, what is evidently public is taken and turned private. When I'm a curator, it is an especially joyful work . . . what is uniquely private is given out and turned public.