Last week’s ICA lecture, “The Artist as Curator,” was introduced by ICA director Claudia Gould standing behind an unfamiliar podium. “For those of you who are regulars here,” she said, “this is a very new podium, made by Paul Swenbeck [ICA’s head preparator] and his team. It smells of paint.” The new podium is indeed very nice: sleek and white, with a convenient shelf for presenters’ laptops. As someone who cannot make anything, I love working at a place where no one would think of going online and ordering a podium. Obviously someone who works here would just make one.

Over the last few weeks I’ve written a series of essays for this blog about Virgil Marti’s show Set Pieces, curated from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), for which Virgil explored the depths of PMA storage and arranged an assortment of the pieces he found there in intriguing mash-ups and suggestive vignettes. In these posts I’ve been poking away at the question of how Virgil approached that task, and, more generally, what it means to curate an exhibition. How do curators organize the art they present? Is it their job to make a story out of it? An argument? To show the art off to its best advantage? To make you see it in a new way?
Miranda: Ingrid and Virgil

Virgil and Ingrid squaring off in Virgil”s show, Set Pieces. Photo: J. Katz

How serendipitous that all the time I was writing those little pieces, ICA’s Ingrid Schaffner—a thoughtful and insightful person and an actual curator—was getting ready to address herself to this very topic! It was, in fact, the underlying subject of tonight’s lecture.

Standing at the new podium, Ingrid told an audience of about 100 that the idea of an artist making an exhibition out of a museum’s collection goes back to 1969, when Andy Warhol lifted all kinds of things from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art’s storage and arranged them—or sometimes declined to arrange them—in the galleries. The resulting show, Raid the Icebox, featured rows and ranks of Windsor chairs, racks of shoes, clusters of hanging umbrellas, and lots of baskets, blankets, paintings, ceramics.

Even before artists were raiding museums’ iceboxes, of course, they were curating. In 1938 Andre Breton invited Marcel Duchamp to organize a surrealism show in Paris, which Duchamp did. There were no lights in this exhibition; visitors were given flashlights to illuminate the paintings as they made their way through piles of leaves and under the 1,200 empty coal sacks dangling from the ceiling.

I’d love to just list all the intriguing shows Ingrid mentioned. A 1989 Brancusi exhibition at MoMA organized by Scott Burton helped viewers see that Brancusi’s pedestals should themselves be seen as sculpture. Fred Wilson’s 1992 exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society displayed artifacts from that state’s history—like iron shackles and silver spoons—side by side. John Waters Curates Andy’s “Porn”, at the Andy Warhol Museum in 2005, was viewable in a wooden cubicle complete with glory holes. Of this last, Ingrid quoted then-Warhol museum curator John Smith who said, perhaps a little wistfully, “I don’t think I could have gotten away with that.”

Which brings us to the crux of her lecture: what is the difference between the way an artist curates and the way a curator curates?

“It’s my job as a curator to minimize the distance between the viewer and the object,” Ingrid opined, whereas, as an artist, “Virgil inserts himself.” He paints the wall purple; he builds white fluffy poufs to display stuff on; he offers us a marble bust resting on its side. The professional curator is not supposed to indulge in such high jinx.

But doesn’t the professional curator have a point of view, too? Doesn’t she have style? Of course she does. But she’s supposed to be less flamboyant in the way she conveys it to us, adhering to a kind of institutionalized modesty. If you stop to think about it, though, what’s the least bit modest about choosing art, spending a decent amount of money to organize it in a room, inviting the public, and saying: Look! This is worth looking at!

At the end of her talk, Ingrid related that thinking about how Virgil inserted himself into the making of Set Pieces threw into relief for her how made all exhibitions are, implying that the exhibition-maker—the curator—is really a species of artisan. I liked that: the exhibition-making artisan (Ingrid) talking about an exhibition made by an artist (Virgil) known for his décor-as-fine-art (chandeliers, wallpaper, poufs), while standing at the podium made by an artisan (Paul) who is, in fact, also an artist.
Miranda: New podium in progress

Paul working on the new podium. Photo: William Hidalgo

I’m starting to think of the curator as a kind of marionettist, pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Just because we don’t see her hand doesn’t mean her hand isn’t there: assured, controlling, and potent.