conference report: curatorial lab, brisbane

The inaugural Curatorial Lab held in Brisbane and Melbourne was a program primarily aimed to encourage curatorial study and inquiry. Bringing together arts industry practitioners and emerging curators for two weekends of seminars and discussion, the Lab, according to Brisbane project manager Renai Stoneley, Executive Officer, Artworkers Alliance , was an attempt to cater for the 'dire' need for curatorial training. it was encouraging to see a professionally managed, topical and stimulating program targeted towards seriously developing the skills of curators in a largely 'learn as you go' industry. The Lab culminated in masterclass sessions with curator Richard Grayson where participants were given the chance to pitch and receive feedback on potential curatorial projects.

The thirty Brisbane participants came from a wide range of arts backgrounds with varying degrees of curatorial experience. They included students of visual arts and art history, gallery curatorial staff, practising artists, freelance writers, directors and practitioners in public programming, education and project services. Speakers, similarly, were chosen from a broad spectrum of industry areas. In Brisbane, they included Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Rex Butler, writer and senior lecturer, University of Queensland; Michael Snelling, director, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Jay Younger, practising artist, curator and writer; Simon Wright, exhibitions officer, Brisbane City Gallery; Anna Marsden, development officer, Queensland Art Gallery and Kim Machan, director, Multimedia Art Asia Pacific.

Speakers were briefed on their seminar topics by the organising associations 200 Gertrude Street, Melbourne and Brisbane's Artworkers Alliance and Metro Arts. Reflecting the frameworks of these organising bodies, the topics were swayed towards curating for government-funded, non-commercial and contemporary art spaces. While in Brisbane these are a prevalent form of art space, and perhaps an area most open to expansion and employment for emerging curators, it was felt that a section devoted to the private/commercial arena would have been valuable. The topics ranged from the practical (project funding and marketing, how to obtain sponsorship and exhibition installation and logistics) to the theoretical (curating for numerous contexts, including regional galleries, public-art spaces, the Internet and international exhibitions such as the Asia Pacific Triennial).

Speakers were often astutely matched: the papers delivered by Rex Butler and Margo Neale, program director of the National Museum's ATSI Programs, raised the problem of exhibition 'authorship', that is, whether the artist or the curator should lead a project's direction. Neale spoke of the dialogue between artist and curator as being one of consultation, collaboration, communication and shared ownership, where the curator served partly to 'amplify' the artist's voice rather than dictating the show's rationale. Butler discussed the exhibition Geometric Painting 1941-1997 which was curated by David Pestorius and held at the University of Queensland Art Museum, to illustrate how the curator can construct an argument using works of art. Ultimately, it seemed as though both Neale and Butler spoke of the possibility of using different curatorial approaches yet still arriving at a near balance of authorship between artist/ artworks and curator.

Public art was a major area of focus within the program. Speakers posed questions of whether public art could be curated, and how to dismantle the 'plonk' in public art, that is, the installation of an artwork within a public space with no regard to its immediate environment. Participants were encouraged to acknowledge the dynamics of both space and audience when considering public art. Also raised was the polemics around such terminology as 'public art', viewed by some speakers as an inaccurate and outdated term, especially considering the growing audience-driven approach of many art institutions. Nevertheless, public art promotes thinking outside of the gallery space and is an expanding area for curatorial practice.

As Melissa Chiu notes in 'Curatorial Dialogues' the contemporary art museum has changed the role of the curator from one who traditionally collects to one who makes exhibitions. 1 The Lab emphasised curator as 'creator', providing an introduction to how ideas can become reality.


1. M. Chiu, 'Curatorial Dialogues', Dialogue, no. 7, 1997, p.73.