“It could be deadly boring.”
Clara Drummond was right. She was co-curator of the Morgan Library and Museum’s, A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy exhibit. While legions of the Austen faithful will flock to any event bearing her name, this could have been a hard sell for the more casual museum visitor. But this is where a curator’s artistry comes into play. Drummond conceptualized Austen’s letters as a series of “little puzzles.” Rather than keep them in display cases, she framed them and hung them on the gallery’s walls. This made it easy for visitors to get close to the letters and offered an intimacy that would have been otherwise impossible. She also interspersed them with satirical drawings from the period to provide a unique context. Finally, she produced a film in which contemporary artists commented on Austen’s work. What could very well have been “deadly boring,” turned out to be highly engaging and drew people to the exhibit who would typically have given it a pass. Curated this way, the exhibit did more than enlighten the Morgan’s usual clientele; it succeeded, in Drummond’s words, of reaching, “beyond the museum’s walls.”
It’s not unusual for curators to go far beyond the museum’s walls. Globetrotting curator, Iwona Blazwick recently sought to “challenge art history” in her exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery. Titled, Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015, the exhibit shows how geometric abstract art has influenced everything from Soviet-era architecture to the furniture you’ll find at Ikea. She says the best part of her job isn’t the travel, glamour, or high-profile clients, it’s, “Spending time with the artist, understanding where they come from, what influences them, everything from the quality of light, to what they’ve got stuck up on the walls in the studio, to the materials they’re using and the social and political context in which they’re working.”
That’s what curators do. They interpret. They tell a unique story. They take an aspect of an artist’s body of work and arrange it in such a way that that it becomes more than the sum of its parts. They approach from a perspective that helps them see things that even the artist might not have noticed. A well curated exhibit creates common ground between the artist and the viewer. It instructs, illuminates and motivates you to see things a bit differently.
Given the order and enlightenment that a curator can bring to a complex subject, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could curate your life? Let’s face it—our lives are pretty messy. They tend to be more Jackson Pollock than Grant Wood. But a curator could dig below the surface. They could help define our meaning and let others see who we really are. Of course it you’re rich enough, you can hire PR folks to represent you. These folks, however, tend to be fiction writers who’ll spin you in ways that even you won’t recognize. The good news is that your life can be curated. And it can be done without charge by someone who knows you better than anyone else—you. All it takes is time, honesty and willingness to present yourself as you are rather than what you think others want to see. So if you want meaning in your life—curate it. Take time to connect the dots. Figure out what’s important and then put it on display. It’s your life and your show. —Ebert