Friday, January 4, 2008
Astria Suparak, a US-based curator, noted in a recent public letter that her role as a "citizen and as a curator is to enrich the communities in which I live and work, through engaging, exciting, and relevant creative work." I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, and I'd also add that taking these actions involves an intimate knowledge of the context that one occupies and a willingness to take calculated risks. It should also be further noted that very often, curators do not work independently, and therefore institutions that employ curators are bound to support these creative risks if they truly desire to engage in a dynamic discourse around contemporary art.
Suparak was the Director of the Warehouse Gallery at Syracuse University, until she was dismissed from her post on September 30, 2007. Her supervisor, Jeffrey Hoone, Executive Director of the Coalition of Museum and Art Centers (CMAC), said the reason for her dismissal was that the gallery was being "restructured".
According to the New York Times:
Carole Brzozowski, the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, said the content of gallery shows organized by Ms. Suparak had nothing to do with her dismissal. But people in the arts at Syracuse, including university art teachers, asserted that the ouster was related to risk-taking or innovative exhibitions she organized since becoming the director last year.
Ms. Suparak said of Mr. Hoone: “My aesthetic is very different from his. I’m interested in street art, riot grrl and D.I.Y. aesthetics.” A sign at the entrance to the gallery’s current show, “Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze,” reads, “This exhibition contains work generally intended for mature audiences.” Ms. Suparak said it was posted at Mr. Hoone’s behest.
The case of Ms. Suparak's dismissal posits very serious questions vis à vis some basic aspirations and assumptions about creative curatorial practice. As an example, in a recent interview with curator Sarah Cook, the interviewer asks (and I'm paraphrasing quite a bit) about what conditions would be considered nurturing for a curator. (The interviewer, Régine Debatty, asks specifically: "What are the conditions required to achieve "upstart media bliss"?") Ms. Cook responds: "Challenging the system – be it the art system, the museum, or the format of the exhibition – and not being afraid to take a risk (generally being an upstart). At the same time, remembering to take care of the artist and the work, take care of other people and your ethics. Creating situations for contemplation and reflection (bliss doesn't have to be monumental, it might only last a minute, but a minute worth remembering)."
I think that this quotation from Ms. Cook says it best - what better way to achieve bliss than to challenge the system, take risks, and yet simultaneously remain steadfast to your standards. In an institution where the curator has to answer to management, it is imperative that management support the sort of calculated, intelligent risks a professional curator would make. If Ms. Suparak's case is as it seems based on the available evidence, it appears that there was a failure in this relationship - this commitment to producing catalytic moments and entry points for dialogue in contemporary art, by making moves that are not always "safe". These failures are worrying, as they don't bode well for the continued enrichment of cultural experience - which means everyone, not just the curators involved, loses out.