Curating, Collecting and Related Art-Making Practices
Who is behind the art we see in museums and public galleries? Beyond artists, the answer is, to a large extent, the curators working behind the scenes of these institutions. This guide provides resources and suggestions for teaching lessons related to curatorial work. It also points to ways of understanding related practices like art collecting, and related art-making practices, like archiving and sorting. Some of the arts professionals featured include Michelle Jacques, Ken Montague, Melissa Bennett, Nancy Campbell, Chris Lorway, Micah Lexier, Heidi Overhill and Graeme Patterson.
1. Which museums have you visited? What did you see? Are museums important? Why or why not?
2. What are the things that you collect? Try making a list of all these things.
3. Would you consider your collection to be a self-portrait? Why or why not?
4. How are collections displayed, privately and publicly?
VIDEO OVERVIEW: CURATING
This educational video from Canadianartschool.ca looks at a variety of curators: Art Gallery of Hamilton curator Melissa Bennett, independent curator Nancy Campbell, Art Gallery of Ontario curator Michelle Jacques, Luminato festival curator Chris Lorway, and independent collector and curator Ken Montague.
As Michelle Jacques notes in the video, “A curator at the AGO has a very diverse and multifaceted job. I am responsible for organizing exhibitions, special exhibitions of contemporary art and I also responsible for developing and researching the collection.”
Jacques goes on to say, “Having a background in art history is really useful especially working in an institution like the AGO, which has historical as well as contemporary collections.”
The other curators in the video also discuss their reasons for getting into curating, from finding they enjoyed talking about art more than making it (Bennett) to curating exhibitions and collecting art to tell personal as well as global stories (Montague).
Here are some links that may enrich your viewing of this video and your students' understanding of curating:
Old School, Cool School: Heather Nicol Finds the Future on Shaw Street by Leah Sandals (a 2010 feature article looking at an artist who curated a temporary exhibition for an old, disused public school)
Archaeologies of the Present: On Curating by Jens Hoffman (a 2008 essay by an internationally prominent curator discussing the rise of the independent curator)
Sympathy, Empathy, Museopathy by Nancy Tousley (a 2002 feature about a Kingston exhibition that married older artifacts with interventions by contemporary artists, demonstrating the way curating can change the way we view a history or phenomenon)
TEXT OVERVIEW: COLLECTING
Collecting is something that people from all walks of life like to do. A collection can be of comic books, or coins, or Pokemon cards, or wrestling figurines: whatever a person has more than one of, and likes to organize or build upon.
Some people consider collections to be a portrait of the person who created the collection. As Nancy Tousley writes in a 2009 feature about photo collectors the Malcolmsons, “The Malcolmson collection isn't a textbook reiteration of photography’s history. Rather, it's the history of the Malcolmsons themselves, and concentrates on periods of intense creativity.”
And different people have different ways amassing collections, as Deborah Campbell notes in a 2005 feature about artist and collector Ian Wallace: “Having spoken with numerous art collectors, I found myself curious about the circuitous, often random route many artists follow in creating their own collections of art objects, a route usually hampered by a lack of funds but blessed by friendships with other artists and a keen understanding of what constitutes good work—long before it may be recognized.”
In short, there are many ways of looking at collections and many ways of collecting. In the context of art, it's also important to note that it's not just individual people who collect art; museums and galleries collect as well. For an example, visit the National Gallery of Canada's collections information page.
ARTIST FOCUS 1: MICAH LEXIER
Micah Lexier is a Toronto artist renowned nationally and internationally for his poignant conceptual works. He works in many mediums—sculpture, text, publications, prints, drawings and more—and often uses specific organizing or numbering systems for the objects he creates.
One aspect of Lexier's practice involves collecting objects that may have been overlooked by others—like pieces of cardboard boxes or pieces of paper—and then organizing and re-presenting them in an art context.
As Sarah Milroy observes in a review of one of Lexier's 2011 exhibitions of this type,
"It’s often said that art-making is about making choices—what medium to use to articulate an idea, what scale to deploy, what iconography to draw on, how to display—with each choice engaged in conversation with those that come before and after. Micah Lexier’s recent body of work... seems to take this art of choosing as its subject, remobilizing found things as works of art."
Milroy continues, "Of course, it’s an approach with venerable antecedents: the collages of Picasso, the constructions of Schwitters, the readymades of Duchamp, and—to name one of Lexier’s more contemporary favourites—the conceptual works of Braco Dimitrijević, whose photographic and sculptural series Casual Passer-By, started in the 1970s, memorialized random people encountered in the street. But Lexier’s eye—by turns spry and poetic, and often both—is distinctly his own."
Lexier has also worked as an independent curator for exhibitions involving other artists, a practice that no doubt enriches and informs his process of organizing found objects as part of his own art.
In a 2009 interview with Gabrielle Moser about a show he had curated, Lexier said,
"Lately, it [the curating] has become a much bigger part of my artistic practice. I don’t know if it will continue to develop like that in an ongoing way, though. I think there are a couple of aspects to why I began curating: moving back to Toronto and having a new relationship with the city and the artists in it was certainly one of them, but it was also a realization that when I first lived here I was a younger artist and now I’m not such a young artist. When I was a younger artist, people did me a lot of favours by writing reviews of my work and supporting what I as working on and I realized that doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s the responsibility of more established artists to do these things and to make them happen, and curating is one way of doing that. I also thought, well, I’m a pretty organized guy and a pretty opinionated guy, so I wanted to encourage people to see these artists’ work."
He continues, "In my own artistic practice, the vitrine exhibitions I’ve been making have really been about using found elements: bits of paper I find or notes and integrating them into the work. There’s a nice correlation between using found items and working as a curator. This show, though, has been very much about me putting on a 'curator hat'—not considering it a part of my other work, but seeing it as a distinctly curatorial job. I am increasingly finding my own work and curation merging, or getting closer, however."
Here are some more links that might help students learn about Micah Lexier's practice:
Micah Lexier: The Art of Choosing by Sarah Milroy (2011 review of one of Lexier's "collections" exhibitions)
Here Now or Nowhere: Northern Lights by Gabrielle Moser (interview about a 2009 exhibition Lexier curated in Grande Prairie)
Silent as Glue: Sticking with Sculptural Intrigue (a brief item on a 2010 exhibition Lexier curated in Victoria)
Micah Lexier: I am the Coin by Shannon Anderson (review of a 2010 exhibition where Lexier created thousands of custom-made coins and then organized them so they could tell a story)
Micah Lexier: Still Counting by Christian Bök (review of a 2005 exhibition, with the review focusing on Lexier's works related to numerals—another type of organizing system)ARTIST FOCUS 2: HEIDI OVERHILL
Heidi Overhill is a Toronto industrial designer who at one time had designed galleries for the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the Shania Twain Centre.
More recently, Overhill has take that experience and decided to try and inventory everything in her house using museum protocols. She developed an engineering-style numbering code for each item in her abode, with more than 100,000 items located in total. She calls the project the Museum of Me, and has exhibited it in art galleries.
“We live in a time when reality television offers up a scenario in which a household organizer with an M.A. in psychology arrives at your house with hunky carpenters to help hapless families sort and throw out their messy possessions. The art historian George Kubler has pointed out that while the past can only be experienced as loss, it comes to us in the form of an accumulation of artifacts: the “stuff” that is the extension of our selves.”
Legge continues, "A recent entry in the well-rummaged field of the relationship of museum objects to stuff is Heidi Overhill’s Museum of Me, or MoMe. Her project is to inventory everything in her house using museum protocols. An industrial designer by training, she is attentive to the ways we use and store objects, and to the problems they cause."
Overall, Overhill's project exposes the ways that museum archives and curatorial systems work by applying them to the domestic sphere. It also evokes the diverse emotions that can come up around a person's compulsions or tendencies to organize, archive and collect.
Here's a link to help students learn about Heidi Overhill:
Heidi Overhill: Museum of Me by Elizabeth Legge (a 2010 feature about Overhill's Museum of Me)
ARTIST FOCUS 2: GRAEME PATTERSON
Graeme Patterson is a Canadian artist, originally from Saskatchewan, who works in various mediums: he creates installations, animation, sculptural models, robotics, sound, music and some interactive elements.
One recurring aspect of Patterson's production are miniature sculptures. In a National Post interview in 2009, Patterson revealed that part of his interest in creating miniature sculptures has to do with the fact that he collected miniatures as a child:
"I guess I've always been into miniatures. As a kid I collected a lot of action figures. It was a big part of my world. The funny thing, though, is that all the action figures I collected when I was a kid eventually disappeared in garage sales. So now whenever I see one in Value Village, I buy it. I have a lot of WWF wrestlers, the big rubber bendy ones."
Patterson's project Woodrow reproduced many buildings and personalities from the small town of Woodrow, Saskatchewan, where his great-grandparents homesteaded. Though these miniature sculptures are incredibly distinctive in their own right, they may remind some viewers of the types of elements that toy-train hobbyists purchase and collect to create rural scenes.
In a later project, The Puppet Collective, Patterson decided to try and address the phenomenon of collecting more directly, specifically the phenomenon of art collecting. He created 52 small puppet figurines, each of them inspired by a character he had met in real life. He also made a rule about the figurines: anyone who bought one would have to supply Patterson with a photograph of themselves, which he would then make into a puppet to replace the one purchased.
Through these projects (including ones where he uses his figurines as actors in films, with the films being collected eventually, rather than the figurines) Patterson's art raises questions about the nature of objects and the ways they are organized, purchased, distributed and portrayed.
Here are some more links that will help students learn about the art of Graeme Patterson:Graeme Patterson and Karilee Fuglem: The Rest is History (a brief item on a work by Patterson that used his miniatures to recreate a high-school wrestling match)
Graeme Patterson: Collecting the Collectors (brief item on his Puppet Collective series)
Sobey Finalists 2009: Graeme Patterson (a slideshow of Patterson's work related to his 2009 nomination for the Sobey Art Award)
Unknown Soldiers: Graeme Patterson Q&A by Leah Sandals (2009 National Post interview)
ART ACTIVITY 1: THE MUSEUM AS MUSE
no restrictions (drawings, sculpture, photography, video, sound etc.)
Students visit a museum (online, in person, or as part of a class trip). (Note: a list of Canadian museums, including links, is available through the Virtual Museum of Canada.)
Students choose one object (artwork, historical item or artifact) as a source for inspiration.
Research: Students develop a series of sketches and notes relating to this object.
Students create an object in response to their research. Possible approaches include: drawing from observation (consider fragment versus whole, architectural details and vantage points), museum interventions, parody and homage.
ART ACTIVITY 2: COLLECTING
How is a filing system organized? How are the drawers in your kitchen organized? How is a library organized? How do you organize your music, your clothes, your video games? As a class, students create a list of organizational strategies.
a form to display
Each student chooses a personal collection to work with.
Students create a system of classification:
A. Divide objects into different categories.
B. Create a system for labeling—one that helps identify the object. The system should highlight both similarities and differences.
Students design a display for their collection. This could be as small as a shoebox, as portable as a suitcase or as permanent as a trophy case. As a miniature exhibition, the piece should be legible to the visitor. Students may want to write a museum label that accompanies their display.
“Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution's collections... In smaller organizations, a curator may have sole responsibility for the acquisition and care of objects. The curator will make decisions regarding what objects to collect, oversee their care and documentation, conduct research based on the collection, provide proper packaging of art for transport, and share that research with the public and scholarly community through exhibitions and publications.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curator)
An institution mandated to acquire, store, study and display objects considered culturally significant (historic, scientific, artistic). Other exhibition sites include: artist-run centres, non-profit galleries and commercial galleries.
To archive is to collect, or to file, but it is also defined as “a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved." The concept of an archive, however, embodies more than just collecting or preserving. It suggests purpose to the act of collecting. It suggests the ideal within the act of preservation. As public record and historic document, the archive assumes authority, which in turn becomes synonymous with truth. (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed.).
Tracing the history of an object through ownership (time and place). Provenance is often used as a guide to authenticate an object’s value and quality.