The rise of 'curators' in commercial spaces blurs the lines of the art world, with galleries offering non-selling and historical shows that mimic a museum

“Here’s this unbelievable stage... why make it just about money?”


The word “curate” may be the most confused term used in galleries today. It shares the same Latin root as the word for a priest charged with looking after a church’s flock: a concept that certainly suits our secular temples—art museums—where curators are entrusted with permanent collections or temporary exhibitions they propose. In galleries, the word is often used to describe a show that departs from a dealer’s primary programme and can include exhibitions or projects produced by an external curator or expert, as well as by an in-house team. It also raises the gallery’s profile.

Attaching a well known curator’s name to a show draws attention to the gallery, burnishing its reputation. Several years ago, Matthew Marks (A10) established a practice of inviting an outside curator, often an artist or other gallerist (Robert Gober, Mitchell Algus, Charles Ray) to curate a show, with considerable success. Barbara Gladstone (A1) invites guest curators to do shows every summer (Neville Wakefield, Matthew Higgs, Klaus Kertess, Russell Ferguson). They are shows you would not see in a museum but offer high quality work, sometimes undervalued in the market. They can also benefit the gallery by drawing in new artists and collectors as well as critics. They also help the gallery test the market for new artists it may be interested in, thereby affecting its future programme.

Art Basel has introduced Art Feature over two floors in Hall 2 this year, a new 20-gallery sector of the fair intended to bring the curatorial skills of dealers to the fore. Related to, but not the same as, Art Premiere or Art Basel Miami Beach’s Art Kabinett, galleries were invited to present a solo show, an historical presentation of “exceptional” material, or a selection of work by two or three artists that could provoke a new consideration of each.

But gallerists have different objectives to professional curators in institutions, so what in this context does “curating” mean. Museum curating is intended to illuminate an artist’s work, not sell it—the prime purpose of a commercial gallery. Yet galleries also display works that are not for sale, sometimes to add weight to those that are.

At bottom, curating is an editing job, and it can affect both the market value and the public’s perception of an artist’s work or the period in which it was made. A curated show in a gallery—or a booth at an art fair—can also influence how collectors view the dealer, and how artists in the gallery feel about their representation there. Moreover, an exhibition created either by commercial dealers or a professional in their employ can alter the identity of the gallery itself.

One of the most significant and surprising exhibitions in New York last year was “Picasso: Mosqueteros” at Gagosian Gallery (B7), curated by the artist’s biographer John Richardson and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. Throughout its ten-week run, Gagosian’s foray into modernism drew large crowds of viewers who may not have expected to take away fresh ideas about artists thought to be beyond a new reckoning or possible to acquire outside of an auction house.

Now Gagosian is featuring the late work of Claude Monet, put together for the gallery by Monet scholar Paul Hayes Tucker, while its Britannia Street space in London is hosting another show by Richardson and Ruiz-Picasso, “Picasso: The Mediterranean Years, (1945-62).” If most works were borrowed from museums and private collections, their presence in a gallery dedicated to the art of the moment cast the operation in a completely different light. The next time someone wants to sell a Monet, for example, that person may well turn to Gagosian to handle it. (In fact, the gallery is currently forming a department to deal in modern work.)

At least a third of the works in a Dan Flavin show that curator Tiffany Bell produced for David Zwirner (E10) last autumn were not for sale either. “I wanted to do a museum-quality show and the notion of availability was of no import,” said the dealer. “We were announcing our representation of the estate and we wanted a great show to do that.” (Zwirner is currently presenting a rarely seen Flavin work from 1969 at Art Unlimited (U42).)

Asked about the strategy behind his gallery’s presentation of work it can’t sell, Zwirner said: “It’s to present work at the highest level.” It’s not all about altruism. Two years ago, when the dealer financed the recreation of Flavin’s 1964 Green Gallery show at the former Zwirner and Wirth, “it opened the door to a dialogue and ultimately to our working with the estate.”

Zwirner also presented a show of minimalist and conceptual works from the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection, some of which he brought to Art Basel this year. “For us it’s a departure to do an historic booth,” he said. What’s behind it is the promotion of a two-volume catalogue raisonné that the gallery created for the collection. “Again, that’s something a museum would do,” Zwirner said, “and it’s one of my proudest moments.”

New York-based art advisor Todd Levin said he had long wanted to do a show revealing the affinities between the late Joseph Cornell and Karen Kilimnik, an artist Sprüth Magers (B12) represents. “Normally, the gallery wouldn’t have anything to do with Cornell,” he said (the gallery only represents living artists). “But they thought the idea was amazing.” Now the show is on at Sprüth Magers in London until 27 August. The Cornell estate is represented by L&M Arts. (B18).

Traditionally, galleries present shows organised by artists or outside curators in the summer months. But since the recession began, we have seen an increasing number unfold during the regular season. “I’m always thinking that there is an economic and then a historical cycle,” said New York dealer Andrea Rosen, who routinely takes a curatorial approach to her booth (N4) at Art Basel and in her gallery as well.

But the slow-down is only partly responsible for the new emphasis on context. Another consideration is the physical space of galleries now. In New York’s Chelsea, for example, galleries like Gagosian, Matthew Marks and Zwirner offer large, multiple facilities that hardly existed ten years ago but can accommodate ambitious shows that mimic those at museums. “We’re having a lot of fun with these shows,” Zwirner said, “and usually find a way to make it work financially. You might meet a new collector or artist. You never know. But it feels like an important thing to do.”

Some gallerists, like Matthew Higgs, regularly function as curators. He points to the example of Gavin Brown (N6), whose more memorable art-fair presentations have included Urs Fischer’s rotating cigarette pack at Art Basel Miami Beach. “That’s not about the gallery’s programme,” he said, “but more about its attitude or spirit.” It’s market branding, in other words. To sell the art, dealers sell themselves as well.

Starting with the project space in her Chelsea gallery, Rosen has made a practice of constructing shows that would seem out of character for a shop that customarily supports the work of up-and-coming artists. (One that Rosen introduced in the past is the late Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work is currently on show at the Beyeler Foundation and who posthumously represented the US at the 2007 Venice Biennale.) Sometimes she puts on shows by artists she doesn’t represent, as a kind of trial balloon that may lead to a relationship with them—or with collectors interested in them.

Last year she mounted a show pairing works by Eva Hesse, Willem de Kooning and Lucio Fontana. “There’s something new in relooking,” she said. “The opportunity to rethink what I know inspires me and I feel a sense of responsibility to present opportunities for others to be inspired. To quote Felix,” she said, “I’m always interested in ‘an implosion of meaning’—how you maximise someone’s experience of the work.”

Her booth at Art Basel this year combines older material with work by young artists like Elliott Hundley and Katy Moran, a ploy that has previously brought contemporary clients into the secondary market and vice-versa. “Putting a Katy Moran next to a Franz Kline may be risky,” she said. “But I hope it works.” If she doesn’t make sales, that’s okay. “Here’s this unbelievable stage,” she said. “If people come and understand a David Altmejd better, why make it just about money?”

Elyse Goldberg, director of James Cohan’s New York gallery, she curates spirited thematic shows works borrowed and consigned for sale once or twice a year. For the Cohan booth in Art Feature (G7), she has brought 13 early drawings by Robert Smithson based on religious imagery, something that might surprise even Smithson connoisseurs. Five are not for sale. “This is a great opportunity to create a dialogue within them,” she said. “And a great way to show material people don’t get a chance to see. Sometimes it’s nice to shake things up in a booth. It’s like putting on a new pair of shoes.”

Jocelyn Wolff’s six-year-old gallery had never been in the fair before its inclusion in Art Feature (G3). “For a gallery of my generation,” he says, “this is a way to prove the quality of my programme is as rich as those already in the fair.” But his choice—photographs and paper sculptures from 1958 to 1963 by the German proto-conceptualist Franz Erhard Walther—is not fully representative of his programme, which is mostly devoted to emerging artists. “It’s nice to work with an artist who is important to them,” Wolff explained. The Walthers, based on air, are rare pieces priced between E10,000 and E120,000. They come from the artist’s studio and have never before been exhibited.

“Basel is maybe the only fair where you can take up such a specific project,” Wolff said, “because it’s not just about the market. You have museum curators and critics as well as collectors. This is important for the international visibility of an artist who was never really in the market outside Germany. He’s still an artist who has yet to be integrated with artists of his generation. And I want to him to see success in his lifetime.”

Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum curator who is also in charge of the upcoming Gwangju Biennial in Korea, recalls that the late Harald Szeemann—one of the most famous curators of his generation—used to say he was just a waiter who would set the table, make a list of invited guests, and serve the food. The success of the event, however, depended on the guests—that is, on the artists.

“Of course, Szeemann was much more than a waiter,” Gioni said. “He was one of the greatest chefs, but his anecdote does say something important about curating: you need to be attentive and very, very visible, but the moment the show arrives, you have to recede in the background. The curator is a means to the show. He or she should never interfere with the art.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'When is a curator not just a curator?'