PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 105-109
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Curates & Curators
Words of Wisdom: A Curator's Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, edited by Carin Kuoni, New York: Independent Curators International/Distributed Arts Publications, 2001.
This past year, a first ever book on the curatorial process was published by Independent Curators International. Words of Wisdom: A Curator's Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, contains the advice of sixty-one curators, edited into one slim volume by Carin Kuoni. A Vade Mecum, according to Kuoni, was originally a medieval trade manual—the Latin phrase translating literally as "go with me." Made up equally of pragmatic advice and spiritual inspiration, the Vade Mecum functioned as a medieval how-to version of a book of hours. When searching for a title for this anthology Kuoni settled on this Latin phrase in the hopes that it expressed the nature of the advice contained within—one part inspirational, one part practical. Noting that in the past twenty-five years the role of the curator had been transformed from someone whose role was to curate/care for the collections of the museum to a person with an active engagement and role in shaping the discourse around and about contemporary art, Kuoni assembled this anthology in part to address the question of just what a curator is and does. The intention, as she notes in the introduction, "was to provide not a chronology or set of guidelines but inspiration to students and other professionals in the field." The form that this latter day how-to manual initially took was electronic. The contributors were invited to contribute their thoughts (informed by several open questions that Kuoni had posed) via e-mail. Ultimately, Kuoni and the ICI opted to publish the sixty-one responses in the form of a small, portable book with the idea that it could be carried around (literally) in the pockets of young, aspiring curators.
Simone Martini's St. Luke (1330), presently located in the Getty Museum of Art, graces the cover of Words of Wisdom. One of the four evangelists, St. Luke was also the patron saint of painters. In this image, he is shown transcribing his gospels with his attribute, a small winged ox, clutching the pot of ink into which he will no doubt dip his pen. Although St. Luke was not a curator [End Page 105] per se, he was the first person to transcribe his vision of the Virgin Mary and thus the first artist to create a "how-to" manual for depicting the Virgin. In all probability, St. Luke was included on the cover to suggest the relationship that exists between the curator and the work of art—that of a respectful transcriber, rather than creator. Indeed, probably the overriding theme of Words of Wisdom is the need to have respect for the artist and for the art. As Richard Flood, chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, succinctly put it, "I am not the artist, I am the curator." Most of the curators who have contributed to this volume have played a significant role in re-defining the parameters of contemporary art on both the national and international level. Far from being dilettante amateurs with a Master's in art history, these curators are savvy cultural producers. Using the three-pronged approaches of education, academics, and marketing, they have crafted exhibitions that have translated the esoteric theoretical musing of the academy into something tangible. Nevertheless, what comes through in Words of Wisdom is the humbleness and wonder with which most of these curators approach the art that they wish to include in their exhibitions. As Vasif Kortun of the New Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art put it, "Making exhibitions is neither a duty nor a job. An exhibition is a temporary, relatively sovereign space for—hopefully—experiment and reflection, which puts art together with a public. It can bring forth new conditions toward more just, more tolerant, more ethical ways of being part of the world."
In putting together such a book, Kuoni has...