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Meditations on
Curatorial Labor

Claudia Delaplace,
Ella Ray,
Tyra A. Seals,
Delphine Sims,
TK Smith

In coming together to share our thoughts on the current state of the curatorial field, the subject of labor was the most urgent to address. The following individual contributions form a dialogue that resists, laments, claims, reveres, and speculates on curatorial labor.

On Adopting a Chaotic Curatorial Practice
Claudia Delaplace

My curatorial labor begins with and continues to thrive on chaos. I applied to graduate schools for Curatorial Studies at a time when my home was without power, on a Caribbean island that had just suffered a devastating, murderous hurricane. Two years later, in addition to trying to survive a global pandemic while living in New York City, I was forced to make drastic changes and double the work involved in a career-defining thesis exhibition. As a result of this chaos, I have landed in a state of curatorial malaise and fatigue. I am a curator focused on working with artists and subject matter considered (by the dominant Euro-American art historical canon) to be culturally specific or historically marginalized. I have therefore decided to embrace the chaos and lethargy that surrounds me. I choose to embrace my exhaustion and lack of motivation, and use it to fuel an evolving contemporary curatorial practice that coalesces with a tumultuous Caribbean context. I call upon art institutions to follow this prompt: Dismantle your colonial origins, not by exploiting the labor of BIPOC curators, but by destroying the very foundations they are built on.

 

Black Curatorial Fantasies
Ella Ray

Although the future of museums becomes less clear (and more fraught) as we dream of our new world, curatorial practice will continue to exist beyond its current definitions. While I reject making a monolith of “Black curatorial practice” or “Black curators” as a whole, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the project of homogenizing, abstracting, and obscuring our labor is foundational to the field as it is. To reject this—to imagine an alternative to the conditions that simultaneously lump us together and make stars out of the “chosen ones”—is equal parts dangerous, fruitful, necessary, and thrilling. In many ways, this is to dream of labor, across the arts, and all fields, being held with nuance and, most importantly, separated from the machine of white supremacy.

With an eye toward fantasy, our care for objects, gestures, and sounds must not only recognize the work of the singular curator, but of the entire ecosystem through which curators make their work. By valuing a distinct practice connected to communal knowledge making, we are more capable of holding closely the lineages of Black people who planted the seeds for our own dissent and survival both in and outside of the arts. Weaving together these histories and locating ourselves within their future tense does not alleviate the pressures of capitalism, but enables us to ask what’s next for our practices.

Through compassion and criticality, I envision an otherwise in which the fate of Black curators is not predicated on our ability to say “yes” instinctively, but possibly on our ability to say “no”—to engage in refusal and save a “yes” for when it is resounding. The imagination that fuels the projects and programs that bring us closer to tangible pleasure and liberation will be paramount in making this future/fantasy a reality. This process of tearing down and beginning again cannot happen without Black arts workers. And I can’t decide if I am delighted or exhausted by the thought of this.

 

At What Cost?
Tyra A. Seals

Critique is a natural aspect of caring about art and the many coexisting art worlds within our industry. I believe that everything worth existing can be dismantled and rebuilt. As I constantly rework and reevaluate my emergence as an art historian, I think of how many institutions have begun developing and strengthening pipeline programs for entry-level museum professionals, but avoided significant changes for mid- and upper-level staff or in the policies surrounding employment practices, acquisition, etc. As the product of said programs, it is worth exploring how institutions welcome young professionals into unsafe, microaggressive work environments that are not largely considerate of them as humans, aside from the work they produce.

The depth of my concern for Black women artists and Black people in general propels me to take on, enthusiastically, the labor that is innate to curatorial practice. One can create a realistic, comprehensive picture of Black excellence without ignoring former challenges—slavery and other forms of struggle included. I am confident that it is possible to include less-than-stellar moments without completely centering them or positioning them as a detriment to all progress, and I hope to always consider this point in my work.

In Taylor Renee Aldridge’s words about the impact of the life and career of the late David C. Driskell, “we should consider what it means to work against the grain of continued erasure when there have been little to no examples of how to go about such an ambitious task. What is required of a person to insist that they belong in ‘mainstream’ spaces guided by ignorance? How does one develop the courage to hoist and insert the authenticity of a culture that has been continuously misunderstood, misrepresented, or made invisible?” These inquiries mirror my sentiments at present and guide how I facilitate the care I feel for artists and, subsequently, their success and well-being.

 

Labor That Sustains
Delphine Sims

In the last decade, we’ve witnessed a new wave of retrospective exhibitions for Black artists offered by major museums. Many of these exhibitions return to the height of Black art production between the 1960s and 1980s, and showcase the philosophies, activism, and aesthetic evolutions of a broad range of Black artist communities. It is important to celebrate these curatorial efforts by white art institutions because such attention leads to promising financial gains, gallery support, and canonical status for many of these artists who are now late in age. However, in the spirit of critique as care, I point to their cursory notation of the curatorial and communal support systems that preceded them. I argue that we should be more intentional in acknowledging Black curatorial networks, particularly those that nurtured Black artists at earlier stages in their careers. It is such generous labor that enables the artistic longevity and perseverance that eventually leads to success in a broader, white art world.

Catalogs published alongside these large-scale installations often include timelines that note the artist’s major life events and achievements. This linear progression suggests that these late-retrospectives are the penultimate moments in the artists’ careers. I want to reorient our relationship to that chronology to instead suggest that an equal, if not greater, apex occurred when Black curators and institutions hosted exhibitions for these artists at earlier points in their careers. Let us wade in the archives that reveal the beautiful ways in which Black curators nourished Black artists through thoughtful display, research, writing, salons, and critique—in tandem with providing necessities such as food, housing, and aid. We must sit with Black curators and artist kinships, perhaps most urgently to learn how we can truly sustain living Black artists during the precariousness of 2020. Might we look to Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’s recollections of Linda Goode Bryant and Samella Lewis, the intimate studio visits between artists and the late David Driskell, the simultaneity of critique and potluck for the Black Photographers of California, the closeness Alvia Wardlaw and John Biggers shared, how William Pajaud’s commissions fed artists and their families, and, finally, the artist careers that blossomed while in residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

 

Year After Year
TK Smith

The role of the art curator is often explained using the romantic language of agriculture. Curators, like idyllic farmers, spend their lives surveying fields, tending crops, and observing the cycles of delicate ecosystems to ensure a fruitful harvest, year after year. While the farmer is known for manual labor −both hands in the soil− the curator is known for intellectual labor. Curators are conduits of various forms of knowledge that are expropriated by institutions for the public’s benefit. What is often neglected in describing both vocations is the required emotional labor and capacity for care −for others and for oneself. “Emotional labor” is used here as it was defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild and as it has been appropriated to define unpaid and often demeaned labor done for others. The assumption is that curatorial work is concerned with the care and cultivation of objects, but what I have learned in my role as an emerging curator is that this work is most concerned with the care and cultivation of people.

Curators have the privilege to hold the material formed of the expressions, ideas, memories, traumas, and aspirations of humanity. It is our privilege to protect and share the yield of human experience and remind our communities of their innate, boundless capacity to feel and create. This requires constant observation of the social, political, and cultural contexts in which art is made and consumed. We find value in various narratives and voices across media and visual languages to then historicize and weave them into the greater stories of human existence. Curation is about the longue durée; you are constantly assessing, negotiating, and anticipating the needs of people across time and space. The pleasure of this vocation is not in feeding ourselves, but in the pleasure of feeding others. In our greatest triumphs we are rendered invisible, our labor obscured behind the health of our ecosystems. The goal is not to produce a singular harvest, but to create the structure to ensure a fruitful harvest, year after year.