The over-inflated currency of star curator endorsement

The Dadaists had Tzara, the Surrealists Breton, the futurists Marinetti, and now the international global art world has Hans Ulrich Obrist. 

-Massimiliano Gioni

Art has always been a smart investment but lately, we have seen it become even more prominent with sales increasing exponentially. In 2017, “sales in the global art market reached $63.7 billion”1 and the market for contemporary art “(almost non-existent in the 1970s)”2 has continuously been achieving record-breaking prices; Most recently, David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)”, which sold at Christie’s for $90 million – the highest amount ever paid for a work by a living artist. 

Even though the commercial value of contemporary art is observable at auctions and in the media, there is a lack of understanding about how price tags are attached to artworks because the art market is so opaque. Compared to other markets in which supply and demand have the most substantial impact on value, the art market’s pricing mechanism is more complex because “art is situated as an “alternative” commodity”3. This means that the production of the value of art and artists is regulated by additional external forces. One way to shed light on the rather intricate structure of the art market is to use the analogy of an ecosystem: “[It] allows us to take a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of how value is created in the art market and leads to a better understanding of the interaction 
between the different players and ‘tastemakers’ in art and their relation to the environment in which they live”.4

Within the art ecosystem, a network of players – artists, academics, critics, collectors, curators, dealers, and directors – interact to carry out a validation process in which cultural value is generated through endorsement or, as the Arts Council of England calls it, “subscription”; the process whereby art is filtered and legitimized.5 In the contemporary art market, the relationship between art (aesthetic value) and money (financial value) is highly dependent on expert opinion because “in an otherwise unregulated market, where anyone can proclaim themselves an artist and anything be held up as ‘art’, the selection of ‘the wheat from the chaff’”6 is strictly necessary.
 Amongst the players whose interactions shape the art market, not all have a direct interest in the market themselves (or at least are not supposed to), but those who deal with the non-commercial contexts of art, the so-called content-related intermediaries, still have an important impact on the market because they determine an artist’s commercial credibility.7 Historically, the distribution of power among these various players has always shifted, but because “profound socio-economic and cultural developments internationally have fuelled the art world’s transformation in modern times”8, there have been fundamental changes to the hierarchies of interpretative authority and traditional routes to validation have undergone a reinvention.

Since the 1990s, curatorial practice has moved into the spotlight and the last two decades have witnessed the rise of the star curator, who “is – like the executive director or CEO of a company – responsible for big-picture visioning”9. Situated at the apex of the curatorial world, star curators have come to be recognized as art-world luminaries and, although “the natural progression for many of these curators has been toward the role of the museum or institutional director”10, they possess a disproportionate amount of power in relation to other institutionally-based curators. Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO), whom the status of star curator is first and foremost attributed to, is a suitable example to demonstrate this phenomenon. As artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery he is bound to an institution, but nevertheless able to work from an independent, relatively autonomous professional perspective; his capacity for action is what distinguishes him from other curatorial positions. It is no secret that star curators like HUO are highly influential, featuring frequently in lists such as ArtReview magazine’s annual list of the art world’s 100 most powerful people. However, the precise ways in which they impact on the reception of artworks is elusive, especially for the greater public. To understand the role of the star curator in the art market, one must take an integrated approach to the development of curatorial practice because it offers valuable insight into the qualitative change to the role of the curator. By looking at the trajectory of curatorial practice, this essay will examine the ascendancy of the star curator and investigate his or her role within the art market. 

From custodian to connoisseur

The profession of the curator “emerged with the establishment of the public museum in 19th century Europe”11 and it was defined by the three main meanings of curation – “care, concern, and responsibility”12. Among the traditional tasks of the curator “(safeguarding the heritage, enriching collections, research, and display)”13, the public presentation was of secondary importance because the caretaker function had top priority. Seeing that it was asked of curators "to overcome their prejudices, their personal attitudes, their individual tastes”14, it can be said that curatorial practice was, to a large extent, free of subjective value judgment because curators were required to adhere to the hierarchies of works and artists as established in the history of art. However, with the emergence of conceptual art, the mediatory function of the curator became more important because “the art world increasingly yearned for a figure to make sense of things, to act as advocate for an ever more obtuse, factionalist art scene”15. As such, the curator found a kind of emancipation from the museum, transitioning from his or her custodial position to that of a connoisseur. 

The curator’s liberation came as a result of the proliferation of artists-run exhibitions such as Dylaby: A Dynamic Labyrinth (1962) and other DIY models for artistic presentation.16 Inspired by practitioners of the early avant-garde whose “subversion of exhibition designs sought to provide a critique of the passive experience of art and its exhibition space”17, conceptual artists sparked a rethinking of exhibition design through a synthesis of artistic production and display.18 The entanglement of artistic and curatorial praxis “[resulted] in what can appear to be a form of ‘deprofessionalization’ of the exhibition’s curator function”19, meaning, as artists began to encroach on tasks that had previously been allocated to other figures in the art world, curators became actors who had to find a role for themselves. 

Installation view of Daniel Spoerri, Dylaby, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1962. Photo: Ed van der Elsken.

Credit: Stedelijk Studies / © Ed van der Elsken

Through a process of demystification, a select number of “curators [began] to make visible the mediating component within the formation, production, and dissemination of an exhibition”20 to reinforce their (curatorial) presence in the exhibition space. Harald Szeemann, “the father of modern curating”21, was among the most active in exploring new territories of exhibition-making. His legendary exhibition When Attitudes Become Form (1969) is often associated with the establishment of a curatorial prerogative and documenta 5 (1972) marked a key moment in the evolution of curatorial practice, elevating the curator to a position of Ausstellungsmacher – a maker of exhibitions, or an exhibition auteur. Not only did Szeemann modify the prevalent exhibition-making concept by introducing a theme-based approach, but he also enlarged the curator’s communicative function by acting in various aspects of the exhibition, including the organization and publication of an encyclopedic catalog. The transgression of the curator’s scope of responsibility was severely criticized by artists such as Daniel Buren who argued that “more and more, the subject of an exhibition tends not to be the display of artworks, but the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art”22, implying that on account of a subjective system of mediation, the curator emerged as a kind of artist himself. By imposing his signature on documenta 5, Szeemann claimed authorship of the exhibition and, in abolishing Arnold Bode’s democratic-collective framework, he introduced the phenomenon of “the independent curator”; a figure that was no longer tied to an institution or at the mercy of those above him but instead granted the freedom that was hitherto reserved for artists. 

Harald Szeemann (seated) on the last night of documenta 5: Questioning Reality–Image Worlds Today at Museum Fridericianum, 1972. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard
© 2018. The Getty Research Institute. All rights reserved.

The rise of the star curator

Following “the rise of the curator as creator”23, the curator’s occupational image became more attractive. While the 1960s marked a time of ‘deprofessionalization’, the 1980s launched a process of professionalization because “there was a new-found field of study, centered upon the medium of the exhibition and those involved in its mediation”24. A new cohort of independently minded curators took to the stage during the mid-1990s and, propelled by the culture industry’s celebrity principle, a number of them have risen to the status of a star. The type of symbolic capital tied to star curators like HUO, Okwui Enwezor, and Massimiliano Gioni allows them to “exercise their tastes and preferences to influence the perceived cultural value of an artist”25 as well as to contribute to the market’s logic of action. They have expanded the curator’s competency profile far beyond exhibition-making terms and continuously imbue curatorial practice with a new sense of purpose: By alternating between “roles from other social fields such as that of the moderator, critic, actor/actress, interviewee, activist, teacher, director, producer, designer, documentarian, or ethnographer”26, they not only create new contexts through which art is understood but also actively participate in a process of meaning-making. Through writing, curators like HUO have developed a theoretical discourse around their practice and by taking themselves “as exhibition-makers as a point of departure for discussions about what curating is and what a curator does”27, they exercise a self-reflexive position that informs their practice with intuitive logic. Although this sort of implies that their endorsement of artists is rather speculative, a star curator's reputation has proven to be effective in heightening artists' visibility, so they nevertheless hold sway over artists’ careers.28

With the proliferation of biennials and other like-minded events, star curators (who frequently appear in the biennial circuit) have been provided with a raft of opportunities: They are able to fertilize the arts with new perspectives, capable of catapulting artists into the limelight by taking advantage of the buzz around major art events like the Venice Biennial. Indeed, many artists try to emulate “The Venice Effect”, whereby showing at a high-profile exhibition like the Biennale is “perceived as a signal of artistic quality, lending legitimacy to an artist’s oeuvre and therefore contributing to shaping collectors’ tastes”29. The star curator’s role in biennials increasingly includes producing commissioned temporary artworks and facilitating residencies, hence why they have been referred to as gatekeepers, who “guard over the opportunities of the production, presentation, and distribution of art”30. Due to the rapid expansion of peripheral biennials, it is likewise possible for them to “navigate the boundaries that exist between different knowledge communities”31 and to mediate between different parameters of the art system by introducing artists (and cities) to new markets. In doing so, they contribute to a transnational understanding of contemporary art. Those hyper-mobile star curators “who have the stamina (and the budget) to see enormous amounts of art”32 ply between art events on a regular basis and as the social dimension of curatorial agency has become more important, a “networking imperative” is inherent in the star curator’s persona. This is symbolic of what Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have described as the “new spirit of capitalism” which indicates a shift towards “the project-based polis”, a concept that suggests that a person’s value is measured by her ability to initiate projects or to join projects others have initiated rather than through singularity and individual performance.33 Put differently, by branding themselves as hyper-productive and (constantly) chasing a liaison with lauded individuals star curators attain recognition and social success.

Hans Ulrich Obrist in Berlin, 2011
© Albrecht Fuchs

As PR and Communication have become more important, “star curators must curate [their] very identity”34 in order to boost their personal charisma. According to the artist Michelle Grabner “the Hans Ulrich Obrist, Francesco Bonami super-curator-moving-through-the-world phenomenon” has detracted from the curatorial act itself because star curators have become too occupied with “identifying their own careers”35. Another point of criticism posits that “they have become so important that the artist becomes just a prop to their vision”36, or a means to end. In reaction to the ever-amplified role of the star curator, artist-curated initiatives have received more institutional visibility and possible counter-measures have been debated within projects like “The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By An Artist”37. 
Although “diligent care is taken that the sphere of the market does not too closely approximate the curatorial realm”38, the growing interconnectedness of work and non-work as well as the fusion of professional and private relationships have blurred the boundaries between the commercial and the non-commercial world. To attain access to exclusive events, “many of the super-curators have become bound up with the system”39 and with regard to biennials, a strong connection to the art market cannot be denied. While the biennial model claims to distinguish itself from the art fair by virtue of its “no-selling” nature, the former director and chief curator of MOCAA, Mark Coetzee, has affirmed that “99% of the museum’s acquisitions are made in biennials”40. This goes to show that curatorial discourse has become confused, if not conflated, with institutional validation.

Perhaps it is after all not too surprising that both the art market and network of art world players have become more complex because art “has expanded into a global industry bound up with luxury, fashion, and celebrity”.41 In close connection with “attention economics, popularization tendencies [and] distribution of art via electronic mass media”42, star curators have become symptomatic of the changes in the art market and in the current economy of visibility, they continue to benefit from their overexposure in the popular culture. By situating themselves at the interface of the art market’s globalized network-shaped structure, star curators have become one of the most dominant forces in the art world and their endorsement is now among the most favored currencies in the contemporary art market.

  1. Art Basel, "Global Art Market Reaches USD 63.7 Billion In 2017, With Dealers Taking The Lion’s Share | Art Basel", Art Basel, 2018 [Accessed 24 November 2018]. 

  2. Ian Alexander Robertson and Derrick Chong, The Art Business (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 56. 

  3. Maria Lind and Olav Velthuis, Contemporary Art And Its Commercial Markets (Berlin: Stenberg Press, 2012), p. 210. 

  4. Anna M Dempster, Risk And Uncertainty In The Art World (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 69. 

  5. Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Taste Buds How To Cultivate The Art Market (London: Arts Council England, 2004), p. 6. 

  6. Ibid, p. 6. 

  7. Maria Lind and Olav Velthuis, Contemporary Art And Its Commercial Markets (Berlin: Stenberg Press, 2012), p. 29. 

  8. Star curators are also referred to as super-curators, grand curators, curator-auteurs and celebrity curators.
    Anna M Dempster, Risk And Uncertainty In The Art World (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 3. 

  9. David Balzer, Curationism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), p. 99. 

  10. Jens Hoffmann, Ten Fundamental Questions Of Curating (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2013), p. 28. 

  11. Ibid, p. 23. 

  12. David Balzer, Curationism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), p. 32. 

  13. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, Thinking About Exhibitions (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 168. 

  14. Terry Smith, Talking Contemporary Curating (Independent Curators Inc., 2015), p. 70. 

  15. David Balzer, Curationism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), p. 40. 

  16. Dylaby: A Dynamic Labyrinth (1962) was a very experimental exhibition, designed as a succession of environments that involved interactive viewership. Amongst the artists involved were Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, Robert Rauschenberg, and Niki de Saint Phalle.  

  17. Paul O'Neill, "The Culture Of Curating And The Curating Of Culture(s): The Development Of Contemporary Curatorial Discourse In Europe And North America Since 1987" (PdD, Middlesex University, 2007). 

  18. Even though there are forerunners like Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitzky, and Marcel Duchamp, conceptual artists are credited with the convergence of curatorial and artistic praxis. 

  19. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, Thinking About Exhibitions (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 170.  

  20. Judith Rugg and Michele Sedgwick, Issues In Curating Contemporary Art And Performance (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2012), p. 13. 

  21. David Balzer, Curationism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), p. 41. 

  22. Robert Smithson, "Selected Writings By Robert Smithson - Cultural Confinement",, 2001 [Accessed 17 November 2018]. 

  23. A phrase coined by the author Bruce Altshuler.
    Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Lionel Bovier, A Brief History Of Curating (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2011), p. 6. 

  24. The establishment of curatorial studies programs begins on a big scale in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Ècole du Magasin (1987), Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies (1990), Royal College of Art (1992) - just to name a few.
    Paul O'Neill, "The Culture Of Curating And The Curating Of Culture(s): The Development Of Contemporary Curatorial Discourse In Europe And North America Since 1987" (PdD, Middlesex University, 2007). 

  25. Anna M Dempster, Risk And Uncertainty In The Art World (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 69. 

  26. Beatrice von Bismarck, "CURATING CURATORS", Texte Zur Kunst, 2012, p. 58. 

  27. Heidi Bale Amundsen and others, Curating And Politics: Beyond The Curator - Initial Reflections (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2015), p. 19.  

  28. After HUO put together a show of Phyllida Barlow’s work at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010, the British artist - aged 66 at the time - started to gain international recognition. In 2014, Barlow won the annual Tate Britain Commission, and in 2017 she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. 

  29. Olav Velthuis, "The Venice Effect", The Art Newspaper (International Edition), 20.225 (2011), 21-24 [Accessed 28 November 2018]. 

  30. Examples of biennials that make use of an Artists Residency Program are the Liverpool Biennial and the Istanbul Biennial.
    Beatrice von Bismarck, "Curatorial Criticality – On The Role Of Freelance Curators In The Field Of Contemporary Art", On Curating, 2011, p. 21. 

  31. Frank Moulaert, Hilde Heynen and Michael Kaethler, "The Curatorial: Navigating Knowledge Boundaries", TRADERS [Accessed 1 December 2018]. 

  32. D.T. Max, "The Art Of Conversation", The New Yorker, 2014 [Accessed 29 November 2018]. 

  33. Examples of curatorial collectivism: Istanbul Biennial 2009 (WHW), Manifesta 7 2008 (Raqs Media Collective), and Documenta 11 in 2002 (Okwui Enwezor and his six-person curatorial team).
    Oliver Marchart, "THE CURATORIAL SUBJECT / The Figure Of The Curator Between Individuality And Collectivity", Texte Zur Kunst, 2012, p. 44. 

  34. David Balzer, Curationism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), p. 67. 

  35. Michelle Grabner, THE PRAGMATIST (Shane Campbell Gallery, 2018). 

  36. Georgina Adams, Big Bucks: The Explosion Of The Art Market In The 21st Century (Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd, 2014), p. 92. 

  37. Examples of artist-curated initiatives: The Berlin Biennial (curated by the artist Maurizio Cattelan in 2006 and by the actor Artur Zmijewski in 2012).  

  38. Anon., curated by_vienna, Kunst Oder Leben: Ästhetik Und Biopolitik, Art Or Life (Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2012), p. 8. 

  39. Georgina Adams, Big Bucks: The Explosion Of The Art Market In The 21st Century (Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd, 2014), p. 92. 

  40. Georgina Adam, "Merchants Of Venice: Is The Biennale Too Commercial? | Financial Times", Ft.Com, 2017 [Accessed 29 November 2018]. 

  41. Rachel Wetzler, "How Modern Art Serves The Rich", The New Republic, 2018 [Accessed 1 December 2018]. 

  42. As for others, Instagram is promising for star-curators like HUO (242,000 followers and endless post-it notes) because it boosts visibility, influence, and self-promotion.