Thursday, September 2, 2010

To Curate

This semester, I am teaching Curatorial Studies, an experienced-based seminar course that enables students in our program to work directly with objects in our college's collections: the permanent art collection, the Dr. Donald L. and Dorothy Jacobs Collection of modern art and artifacts, and/or the College's Archives. In addition, I have the good fortune to curate and jury an exhibition, "Reflections on a Louisville Landmark", for the Louisville Visual Arts Association (LVAA). In this blog post, I hope to offer some thoughts on the term "curator" and "curate" and, also, give a few very brief notes about the curatorial opportunity with LVAA.

Curate comes from the Latin cura (“care”), which becomes translated and un-romanticized into the words curator, curate, and cure. If you look online to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition for “cure” is simply “Care, charge; spiritual charge." In ancient Rome, however, the related term, curatores, referred to those caretaking bureaucrats, folks who oversaw public works--even such droll things as roads and aqueducts. Fast forward to the 21st century: in essence, today's curator cares FOR works and cares ABOUT them in much the same way that Roman curatores took care of objects under their jurisdiction.

Turning now from the word to its practical use: a single curator or a curatorial team works to bring the story of an object (or objects) to light. The curator relies on the object first and foremost. Then, she considers that which is directly known about it through primary documents. The curator turns to other resources, most likely of a secondary and tertiary nature, and then begins to construct a narrative. Asking key questions, a curator considers the following: what narrative do I want to disclose to the public? How will I tell it? Who is my primary audience? Who is my secondary audience? A different curator or team would certainly tell a different story -- though this does not mean that either story is better or worse. As with so many projects, curators often deal with limitations of space, budget, technology, and resources when bringing together an exhibition. Each of these limitations also points the way toward possibilities.

In terms of my recent work with LVAA, this exhibition is truly a combination of two shows in one. "Reflections on a Louisville Landmark" comprises an exhibition about the Louisville Water Company and a juried show of contemporary works that feature a representation of the Water Tower, the historic first-headquarters of Louisville Water Company. "Reflections" seeks to bring history and the present together into a tightly wrapped matrix, making the Water Tower more than a sum of its parts. It's the site of the first pumping station for Louisville Water Company, a site of scientific discovery, a site of a devastating tornado, and various other facilities. However, today, it serves as a venue for contemporary art, education, and outreach through the work of the LVAA.

I am excited to report that with this exhibition, there is fresh research about a Water Works Park that was on site of the Water Tower in the late 19th century (due to the ever-so-keen eye of historian Jay R. Ferguson) and material discoveries made on-site by HGC construction workers (the steadfast folks undertaking renovation of the Water Tower facade and roof). The on-site discoveries include a saw blade and leather shoes, in situ, presumably tucked away since the 19th century. These objects were unearthed just this week and are making their debut to the public in this exhibition.

Curatorial work can involve fascinating discoveries such as these -- research and its material form that cannot be experienced or mediated in such the same way through other means, such as "Google" or "YouTube". These are the result of diligence and work. The objects unearthed were "curated" into the exhibition and will, I hope, continue to be properly cared for.

I invite everyone to visit the LVAA next Thursday night, September 9, 2010 for an opening reception of "Reflections on a Louisville Landmark"at 5:30 pm. For more information email:

I'll certainly make another post to address, specifically, this fall's Curatorial Studies Archives project, an exhibition entitled "By the Book: 150 Years of Rules, Regulations, and GC Student Life." I hope the picture at the top of this post suffices for now: it's a photo from Curatorial Studies, Fall 2008 installation in the Cochenour Gallery.

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