The Man Who Made Curating an Art

These curators collaborated more with artists than traditional museum curators ever had. They weren’t merely taking care of collections, but commissioning original work and organizing group shows around sophisticated themes. As the contemporary art world exploded in size during the 1990s, international biennales proliferated–there are now more than 150–and became platforms for ambitious emerging curators who wanted to showcase their curatorial voice and vision. Curatorial-studies programs, where students learned the trade and thought critically about the practice, popped up all over the country. 

“In many ways, curators took on the role of what we might have once thought of as a role of the critic,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Someone like Clement Greenberg was able to codify moments in art and promote individual artists into groups, and say, ‘This is what is significant in our time.’ I think there’s a moment in the ’80s when that transfers over to curators.”

 

BY THE TIME Mr. Obrist read Mr. Altshuler’s book and the Thinking anthology, he had already begun making his own contribution to the field by interviewing the generation of ’60s curators–men his grandfather’s age, like Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén and Harald Szeemann–who had inspired him.

“Exhibitions are kind of ephemeral moments, sometimes magic moments, and when they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Mr. Obrist. “I wanted to find a way of recording this. And since there weren’t any books, I thought a good way would be to do an oral history, to start to speak with all these pioneers who had been somehow forgotten. … It was the last moment when one could get a really firsthand account of the history of curating in the 20th century.”

Starting in 1996, some of the interviews started appearing in ArtForum, and this fall, 11 of them were collected in a book called A Brief History of Curating. It is Mr. Obrist’s third collection of interviews–the other two are with artists–and an informal survey this week made it seem like basically every curator of contemporary art in New York is either currently reading it or already has. Though it is hardly the first time someone has published a collection of extensive conversations with curators–see Carolee Thea’s 2001 book Foci and her recently published follow-up, On Curating–Mr. Obrist’s book is nevertheless being called a landmark work, in part because so many of the people in it have passed away in recent years.

Norton Batkin, the founding director of the curatorial-studies program at Bard, called it an “invaluable contribution,” and praised Mr. Obrist for getting his subjects on tape while they were still alive. “Other people didn’t think of interviewing curators,” Mr. Batkin said. “It’s a history that in some sense wasn’t there before.”

And yet, Mr. Obrist is decidedly not a historian. Rather than synthesizing primary-source material and making arguments about what it means, he merely generates that material and moves on, hoping others will pick up the ball. Throughout his career, he has made little of his own views on art, asserting his taste through exhibitions, to be sure, but only occasionally writing argumentative essays of the sort one might expect from a man famous for his rigorous engagement with ideas. In effect, Mr. Obrist functions as something like a neutral mediator–a listener who asks questions of others and provokes them to explain themselves while keeping his own beliefs to himself.

That he has managed to become as famous and influential as he is in spite of that role is what makes him a singular figure in the art world, and a poster boy for how much that world has changed since the days when curating was considered just a job.

“Anybody who pumps a lot of energy into a situation, anybody who expresses interest in other people and brings good things out of them … is bound to be a player of a special variety,” said Robert Storr, the curator, critic and current dean of the Yale School of Art. “The ability to generate excitement, to focus attention and to stir things up in a positive way is a particular skill, you know, and it is not to be taken lightly. We need animators. We have too many of them who have no seriousness and no curiosity, who are just making events and spectacles. He’s an animator who actually creates interesting situations.”

lneyfakh@observer.com