Help Desk

Help Desk: On Collaboration and Curating

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by

Your friendly counselor, hard at work.

Question: Both my girlfriend and I are artists. Neither of us are particularly successful with our art careers (yet!). In the past, we’ve worked separately in our studios, but we are thinking that we may be stronger working together. I’m a little nervous to start this process. Do you think it is a good idea to mix art and love?

Two creative minds are often better than one, and the examples of Jeanne Claude and Christo and Ed and Nancy Keinholz tell us that art and love can surely be mixed. But before you run out to buy matching smocks and berets, consider the reality of working on tasks that you already do together. When you cook, does one of you tend to take the lead, dictating the selection of dishes and the proper ways to prep, add, and stir? Or are you happily slicing and dicing like synchronized surgeons? When you’re running errands in the car, do you argue about routes and where to park? Or does one drive and the other assume co-pilot duties with nary a cross word between you? Your everyday activities will tell you a lot about how a collaborative relationship might proceed.

Oh yeah? Well I have 20/20 vision, so I get to choose all the paint colors!

And that’s not to say that a bickering duo should never work together; friction is productive both in and out of the studio. But in the interest of household harmony, you might want to start small with one piece or a limited-run project. Lay out the terms in advance: how much time and money you’re going to spend, who decides on which aspect, how you’re going to negotiate a disagreement. Talking about the issues will prepare you for what’s ahead and alert you to any sticking points in advance. If you can agree to the basics at the verbal level, then you’ll know that working together is worth a try. And if your short-term project doesn’t pan out as well as you’d like, you’ll have an easy out that’s not as damaging to true love in the same way as saying, “You’re a pain in the ass and I don’t think we should work together anymore.”

You mention that you’re “not particularly successful” and while I don’t think that has any direct bearing on your question, it does give you the advantage of being able to experiment and iron out all the kinks in your collaborative process before you’re in the public eye.

From left to right, Whitney Biennial curatorial teams Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne

Currently, the lines between curator, artist, and gallerist are relatively flexible. A person could consider themselves all of the above, switching hats regularly to occupy different art world roles. My question stems from frequently noticing that the person responsible for curating a group show has also included his or her work into the group show. How appropriate is this? When is it being proactive about creating opportunities for oneself and when is it opportunistic?

Let me start by saying that I’m all for the wearing of different hats. However, in art as in sartorial matters, it is strange to wear two hats at the same time. They clash, and they also make your head look big.

As far as I have been able to determine, there are two good reasons to put your own work into a show for which you are also administratively responsible, but for neither are you actually truly a curator. The first is if you want to organize a show around a particular theme for which none of the participants will exhibit preexisting work; that is to say, all work will be created specifically for the show. In this way, everyone is experimenting around a concept, and the hierarchy is fairly level: you are merely one of the exhibitors, albeit one with more tasks. You are not actually a curator. The other situation is an exhibition juried by an artist. In viewing the work of the juror, the audience gets a glimpse into the tastes (and perhaps methodologies) of the person selecting the pieces for the show. Often the artist-juror works in the same medium or in a similar conceptual framework, so looking at his/her art in the context of the exhibition can be enlightening. Again, this person is not a curator. So go ahead and be proactive, just don’t use the wrong terminology.

Still the right way to wear a hat.

The role of a curator is not to just select work for an exhibition, but to shape the relationships between the work, the space, and the audience. Curating involves research, studio visits, knowledge of art history and theory, and an understanding of current artistic practices, as well as a host of (probably boring) administrative tasks. Since I’m not a practitioner myself, I asked a few curators what they thought about the idea of “curating” your own work into a show. Jens Hoffmann, curator of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art said, “It is great that someone who is an artist is organizing an exhibition without waiting for a gallery or curator to come along…If the work however is not of a certainly quality and the idea of organizing the show is just created so the organizer/artist can have his work be seen with the work of other (better) artists, it just becomes a farce.” Most other curators I asked simply said, “Don’t.”

To the aspiring artist/curators out there, I ask: if you are truly curating a show, what reason do you have to include your own work? Is it because you want to to pad your resume? Or do you want to get your work out into the world? If it’s the latter (let’s not even discuss the former), it would be more productive in the long run to find a space for your own artwork. Put your energy toward making contacts, writing proposals, or renting one of the ubiquitous vacant storefronts in your area for a solo show. Clarify and concentrate your goals…if for no other reason than because working with other artists can be a complete nightmare (see question #1).