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The Curatorial Commons: Places With a Past
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The Curatorial Commons:
Places With a Past

Courtesy pervades the organizing of exhibitions, at least at the outset where a kind of courtship is enacted. It is seen in the language and practice of making invitations: an institution invites a curator to organize an exhibition; the curator in turn invites artists to show their work or, in more recent decades, to make new work; and the audience is invited to come. This protocol was well suited to the genteel setting of Charleston, South Carolina—a colonial city where the pineapple, a symbol of hospitality, abounds. Thus in January 1990 I accepted an invitation from nigel redden, general manager of the Spoleto Festival USA, to curate a sculpture show on the great lawn of Middleton Place, a former plantation along the Ashley River north of Charleston. With a background in the visual arts, he had wanted to strengthen its representation at the festival.

Exhibitions often start this way—simply—and then things intervene that enrich or complicate, enable or disable the process along the way. You can pretty much count on obstacles. And in point of fact, in October 1989, when Redden and I met for the first time in Chicago, everything had changed. Hurricane Hugo had hit weeks before, rendering it impossible to use the proposed exhibition site. This could easily have meant [End Page 151] postponing or cancelling the exhibition. But Redden, like me, had seen Kasper König’s 1987 “Skulptur Projekt,” the second installment of the outdoor show that continues to take place every ten years with the mission of inviting artists to use the city of Münster as inspiration and location for new works. In that version of König’s program, a small group of projects provocatively referenced the city’s dark histories, thus distinguishing this show from its inaugural version.1 Redden proposed something similar—using Charleston as site. He imagined that art could forge new ways for visitors to perceive this city. Just as the performing arts were staged throughout the city during the festival, this complementary art program would be dispersed.

As it happens, the shift of location to downtown Charleston, to my mind, was greatly preferable. For one thing, there was a precedent in the festival’s own history: the 1962 exhibition “Sculptures in the City” in Spoleto, Italy, where the organization had been founded by opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who later also established it in Charleston. Curated by Giovanni Carandente, this show is perhaps best known for giving rise to David Smith’s Voltri series, placed in the city’s Roman amphitheater. I had also employed a related curatorial strategy at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the 1986 retrospective of Jannis Kounellis, an artist who was a forerunner of performative-installation works. In that case, four disused, turn-of-the-century industrial buildings were brought into dialogue with the works on view in the museum. To Kounellis, these nineteenth-century structures, with their layers of history, were the very embodiment of the American immigrant story and thus became the means to realize a visual “opera,” as he called it, about the passage of culture from the Old World to the New. At the same time, pressing these buildings into service was practical, for it would have been difficult to have shown more than a few of the artist’s installations in the museum’s then-cramped quarters.

Likewise, this move to downtown Charleston proved to be practical in a number of ways. It was also opportune. Later, in the years that followed Hugo’s retreat, the city became spiffier. Delayed renovations and upgrades (financed by insurance claims) were followed by housing speculation, with the part-time resident population growing in the lower peninsula and a housing boom spreading throughout the whole region, along with the construction of gated communities of ersatz Charleston homes on former plantation properties. [End Page 152]

But in 1990, immediately after the hurricane, Charlestonians were catching their breaths and regrouping to repair. So we were able to operate rather freely in this interstitial time.

Conceptually, it was a ripe time in the arts field to integrate an...