Fleur Watson opens The New Curator with the wry observation that curation has well and truly left the gallery. These days folk curate “menus, wardrobes, playlists, social media feeds” and notably also the news they receive and the information they release. Everyone’s a curator, it seems, in the pursuit of self-actualisation.
But Watson has a specific subset of professional curators in mind – those addressing design and architecture. These two “useful arts” present various challenges to exhibition makers – it’s tricky to exhibit full-scale buildings, for example, so architecture is often represented through proxies and representations, just as design exhibitions have often favoured finished artefacts rather than the all-important process of design.
The book goes beyond these well-worn problematics, and also moves away from the traditional museological sense of a curator as the custodian of objects – one who acquires, arranges and interprets a collection: an aficionado whose authority is further sanctioned by an institution. Reconsidering such a (literally) conservative legacy, Watson addresses key questions about the agency of the curator and the role’s potential for activism and the pursuit of environmental and social responsibility.
Addressing how curating design is different from curating art, and what it means to curate objects specifically intended for use, the book opens much larger questions about the status of truth claims in contemporary culture, the positionality and responsibility of “experts” and the personal duty towards an ethic of care in these precarious times. It also notes the risk of curatorial self-aggrandisement – the “starchitect” system also has its star curators.
The book is arranged as a sequence of discursive, case study-based chapters, each reconceptualising the curator’s role – as spacemaker, translator, interloper, speculator, agent, dramaturge – to build a case for the “new curator”. These chapters are interspersed with transcribed conversations between leading architecture and design curators from around the world. Many of them are lively and insightful, including the closing one between Watson herself and Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who neatly summarises the project of the book by saying that “it’s important to take a new curatorial position. It’s not relevant anymore to tell people that ‘this is the way it is’. Instead the position might be: ‘I have an idea and I think it’s interesting now and I’d like to share it and talk about what it might mean.’ ”
Watson is an important figure in Melbourne’s architectural culture – she was curator at RMIT’s Design Hub Gallery, before taking up her current role as chief curator and executive director of Open House Melbourne. Her book is engaging and important: very much of the moment, and very much in tune with the age.
Routledge, 302pp, $62.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "The New Curator: Exhibiting Architecture and Design, Fleur Watson".
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