The Corruption of Curating
In recent years, curating is being undermined by institutions. The profession, requiring expertise of contemporary art and scholarly attention, is under threat of being manipulated and instrumentalized in order to serve market interests. In the recent example of Helen Molesworth’s removal from the MOCA Los Angeles, the delicate balance between curatorial insight and financial pressures on the institution have unmasked the extent of risk-taking in staying true to a curatorial stance.
It is now more than ever that curators need to start evaluating their role within the structures of art and create a sustainable program of resistance.
Molesworth was known for her program of introducing alternative and previously sidelined art histories, and recognized for her retrospectives of Kerry James Marshall and Anna Maria Maiolino last year. In the attempt to insert these stories into the canonical mega narrative, she was dismissed on the basis of “undermining the institution.”1 The clash initially started taking shape with MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, who moved a retrospective of Carl André, which he organized at the DIA Art Center, to MOCA. He took direction of the program away from Molesworth’s understaffed curatorial team and placed it under the control of his own reins. André is precisely the art-world character who receives undue privileges and exposure at the expense of Latin-American women.2 His exhibitions continuously receive protests calling for recognition of the alleged murder of Ana Mendieta. This spasmodic oscillation in the LA MOCA’s program marks today as the struggle for representation and revision on a field of conservative financial interests.
The LA Times also reported that Philippe Vergne took on duties not fitting his role of director.6 The separation between the directorial and curatorial roles are meant to produce neutrality in the content of exhibitions. Directors should garner support for the curator’s program. Vergne however, stepped over his territory by inserting market-darlings into Molesworth's program focused on creating alternative art histories.
Curating used to be a straight-forward profession. A carer for collections, the task was to mediate objects from academic perspectives and art history. Today the role has become indefinable, and the conflation between director and curator, problematic. The “ethics of curating” is an unquestionable foundation of programming in institutions. The topic has been examined numerous times7 and individuals have spoken out about what this ethics entails.8
Yet the art world, which considers itself the liberal benefactor of the people, is unable to solve the problems that it faces in the 21st century.
The rapid privatization of institutions mirrors the world around us, and can be compared to the cuts in services, universities, and infrastructure. As artists and biennials focus on social problems concerning our current realities, they continue to operate in a crumbling economic system which goes largely criticized, but remains unaddressed from within.
As blue-chip galleries and private collections expand to become competition to public institutions, pressure increases for museums to match them on production quality, ambition, and spectacle. The curator gradually became responsible for “expanding audiences” and the easiest solution has been to throw money at the problem by getting the support of private galleries and collections. The position of the curator has adapted to these new conditions and with it comes the catch-22 of being the public face that either accepts the dependency on “philanthropy” or resists conservative or reactionary exhibitions to the detriment of the public budget. The roles of director and curator overlap in a grey-area which produces an opacity of decision-making—eventually failing to mask the market influences on what should be the independent institutional position.
On the 21st of June 2017, Stefan Heidenreich published the controversial essay Against Curating in the German Newspaper Daily Zeit. In this polemical text, he calls curating “undemocratic, authoritarian, opaque and corruptible.”9 This populist position serves to reveal underlying problems within institutional curating, but fails to locate the source. In the same populist spirit of anti-academicism, Heidenreich ignores the curators who are creating progressive agendas. By doing this much-needed work within institutions, they ultimately pay the price through dismissals.
Curators might be susceptible to corruption, but they are also at the front line of full-out neoliberal capitalism and the chaotic flipping vortex of the non-linear art market.
Beatrix Ruf resigned from her position as artistic director at the Stedelijk Museum in October 2017, immediately after the allegations of conflicts of interest with her private advising firm Currentmatters emerged in the Dutch press.10 The curatorial team at Stedelijk was headed by Bart van der Heide, so why was Ruf always addressed as the curator of the institution?
Known for close relations with patrons and her familiarity with the art market, the popular exhibitions Ruf arranged at Stedelijk with artists like Jordan Wolfson, Seth Price, and Isa Genzken reveals a rotating list of galleries appearing behind the selection of artists: David Zwirner, Gavin Brown, Sprüth Magers, etc…11 However, supporting artists and placing them in well-respected institutional shows is an obligation of a commercial gallery. The accusation invariably falls on the curator who is expected to remain “outside” the market. As noted by Stefan Kobel in a timely piece in Frieze, "One chief curator of a national museum, who asked to remain unnamed, told me he doesn’t understand the fuss: ‘everyone knew that Beatrix Ruf was close to the market and that she worked with certain galleries. If this now comes as a surprise to the board of the Stedelijk, then they didn’t do their homework.’ In his opinion, she was chosen precisely because of her good connections, which would allow the museum to organize significant exhibitions."12
The reality we inhabit is one in which the market gets away with influence no matter if they are caught, everyone knows it and might even support it.
In February 2018, a letter signed by recognized art world personalities appeared in support of Ruf.13 As pointed out by George Knight and Florian Cramer in local Dutch sources, this letter was not in support of a wrongly dismissed curator promoting alternative narratives, but for a curator accused of conflicts of interest and under investigation by the Dutch tax authorities.14 By many in the art world this was seen as a call by the list of signatories to metaphorically “bail out the bankers” of the corrupt art system. This call not only undermined the Dutch authorities—questioning their revenues bureau related to offices held by public servants—but also suggests that this behavior has been normalized at the top of the art world. The glaring political contradictions of the signatories is endemic amongst institutional elite. Ruf has recently accepted a position as judge for the solo prize at Art Brussels where her market knowledge will not be such a conflict.15
This case alone illustrates the popular hesitation to trust the largely opaque art world. The absence of a separation of powers and pressure to make a program agreeable to collectors rightfully doubts the myth of the purity of the art world. We need to acknowledge a new influential financial reality and create strategies to combat it. The liberal art world generally opposes financial loopholes (from the Panama papers to corporate tax avoidance) but encourages art as a tool of capital accumulation and market speculation.
Curatorial corruption is not something that can be traced easily. There is the need to reverse the culture of favors for one of criticality and sound an alarm at suspicious programs. Although critical voices exist, the art-world seldom rejects favors which makes whistleblowing rare and support easily gathered in dubious petitions. In order to save curating as a discipline, all sectors, public and private, must examine the responsibilities of the curator in the 21st century.
Collectors themselves hold an essential role in this discussion. Curatorial influence is not a tool that should be instrumentalized in order to legitimize darlings of the art market.
What is at stake is the reputation and lifespan of curating as a discipline. Artists and young galleries pitching their works to a curator is certainly not alarming, but when financial power is used as bait or motivation, the curator is placed in a high risk environment with two bad options—take the incentive or disappoint a donor. Board members, collectors, and patrons must be clear and transparent to the public about what they expect and gain from curators. In the contemporary troubling scenario, Helen Molesworth is an example to appreciate. Few curators have the courage to stand up to the institution and lose millions of dollars for the museum. This action has no price tag—by losing this funding, Molesworth protected the legitimacy and reputation of the curatorial role, academic rigor, and the creation of a more equal and distributed art history.
Illustrations by Berke Yazicioglu
Text by Àngels Miralda Tena
Àngels is a writer and curator based in Berlin and Barcelona. Her curatorial research interests are in the materiality of art objects and how matter relates to global social and economic environments relative to artistic production. Recent exhibitions have taken place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago de Chile; video project-room LS43, and Horse and Pony Fine Arts, Berlin. She is a co-curator of Survival Kit 10 at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.
Julia Halperin, "Clashing Visions, Simmering Tensions: How a Confluence of Forces Led to MOCA’s Firing of Helen Molesworth,” Artnet, 16 March 2018
Carolina A. Miranda, "Why protesters at MOCA's Carl Andre show won't let the art world forget about Ana Mendieta," LA Times, 6 April 2017
Felix Salmon, “What Auction Data Tells Us About the Controversial Firing of the MOCA curator Helen Molesworth”, Artnet
Christopher Knight, “MOCA still mum about curator’s firing, despite crucial questions and too few answers” LA Times, 20 March 2018
Sarah Cascone, “LA MOCA Wanted Mark Grotjahn to Headline Its Gala, but He Turned Them Down Due to a Lack of Diversity Among Honorees,” Artnet
Christopher Knight, “MOCA fires its chief curator,” 13 March, 2018
“Curatorial Ethics” 9-11 April 2015, Kunsthalle Wien
Dave Hickey, "The State of Art Criticism: Routledge," 2008. Maura Reilley, "Curatorial Activism." "The Total Economization of the Art World," 9 April, 2015, Kunsthalle Wien Conference
Heidenreich, Stefan, “Against Curating” 21 June 2017 Daily Zeit, translated to English and published 23 June, 2017
Hanno Rauterberg, Die Zeit
Stefan Kobel, "Outrage over Conflict of Interests Misses the Mark," Frieze, 7 Dec 2017
20 February 2018 “Marina Abramović, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson Call for Stedelijk to Reinstate Beatrix Ruf” Frieze
George Knight publishes his criticism after an advertisement in Het Parool
Art Industry News, Artnet, 27 March 2018