The word curate is now an often employed term. People looking to add cultural cache to a sock drawer or cupcake selection have taken up the term with gusto. But the work of a museum or art gallery curator still isn’t widely understood. We work by a code of ethics and receive professional training in order to take on the responsibilities associated with the profession. Inherent in the position are the long-held traditions of caring and protecting. We care for the preservation and protection of our institution’s permanent collection, and the cultural experiences and educational opportunities we create through the exhibition of artwork. We care for the artists and collaborative partners that bring vibrancy and substance to our work. We care for the public that participates in our programs and makes culture an important part of their lives. Our exhibitions form dialogues and opportunities to explore perspectives on ways of life and viewpoints that shed light on unfamiliar concepts and communities. Touch points for human connection and empathy.
The origin of the word curate comes from the latin word cura, or care. Shortly after, and by way of Old French, the words curator and curate appeared in English in the context of guardian or overseer. Under the Roman Empire the position of curatores or caretaker was a public servant that took care of services integral to the lives of citizens. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of “to care” was the care of souls undertaken by a church curate.
The mandate of the Campbell River Art Gallery is to give voice to and provide space for the exhibition of contemporary artwork by underrepresented constituencies. This social justice oriented vision is integral to our responsibility to and care for the voices that haven’t been historically heard. This includes: LGBTQIA2S+, female, BIPOC, disabled and disenfranchised voices, and alternate perspectives advocating for human, animal and environmental rights that contribute to the pursuit of knowledge and equitable treatment of all. The universality of human expression and emotion ensures that anyone can relate to and appreciate the artwork. We all benefit from the added opportunity for growth and learning outside of one’s own world view and understanding, not to mention the empowering opportunity for individuals belonging to different groups to see their own experiences reflected from the walls of the gallery; to feel connected and understood.
So, how do we reflect this commitment and mandate statement in our work? Through the way we work as an institution, the artwork we exhibit, the artists and experts we bring to the community, the facilitators that run our programs, the educational materials and tours we disseminate, the partnerships we build, and the artwork that we acquire in our permanent collection.
The CRAG has a small but significant Permanent Collection. As a public institution it is our responsibility to make resources on our collection available for scholars and community members should they want to study it. As a way of adapting to our current situation and wanting to connect with our community from a distance, the CRAG team has created a series of short videos that will help our audience become better acquainted with the collection and learn information about the individual artworks. We will be sharing our Off the Wall series through Instagram and Facebook as we grow and challenge ourselves to respond to the changing situation in new and innovative ways.
Before the pandemic, in-person programming consistently began by acknowledging the unceded, traditional territories on which we work daily. We are grateful to the Ligwiłda’xw speaking peoples of the Wei Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum, and Kwiakah First Nations on whose land we live and learn as guests. We will continue to show this respect as Covid-19 necessitates that our programming shift to virtual as well as physical spaces. To do the work in the age of reconciliation we must go further than that; by building relationships, listening to artists, community members, and Elders as they share the knowledge they possess. By looking inward at the values and positioning of our institution, we can play a role in decolonizing museum and gallery spaces. Thinking deeply and critically about the institution, the processes of collecting, and the history of our team and board may be difficult, but it is necessary for transparency and growth. It is our responsibility to research, empower, and make space for the herstories, Indigistories, theystories, and untold stories that have always been present but unacknowledged during the writing and dissemination of history.
Each curator brings a special set of skills and training that enriches their position and contributes to the vision and mandate of the institution of which they are a part. The current trend of overusing the term curate for the purposes of marketing and product promotion undermines the complexities and politics associated with this essential professional role. Especially given the unsure time we all find ourselves in, museums and professionals in the field are having to pivot their practices to adapt to a new way of being. This necessity is hastening discussions that were at a slow burn. The inability for people to gather and be near to one another dramatically affects the way we experience art and the public programming that is central to exhibition interpretation. In the process of pivoting artwork to more virtual spaces issues of accessibility have become central. Now we must slow down and reconsider the way we have done things, and move forward with thoughtful intent, and innovative and inclusive mindsets. The CRAG Team looks forward to a new future with our public as we push ourselves to adapt and change for the better. We believe culture is especially crucial in times of crisis and we are working hard behind the scenes with you in mind.
Jenelle Pasiechnik is a curator of European descent. She was born and raised on Treaty 7 territory, home to the the Blackfoot confederacy: Siksika, Kainai, Piikani as well as the Îyâxe Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations, and has lived as a guest on the converging territories of the Ligwiłda’xw speaking peoples of the Wei Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum, and Kwiakah First Nations for two years. She earned her Masters degree at UVic in art history and visual studies on the territory of the Lekwungen speaking peoples of the Songhees and Esquimalt nations.
- A Code of Ethics for Curators. American Association of Museums Curators Committee 2009. Harvard University: Cambridge, Mass, 2009. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/santander/files/code_ethics2009.pdf
- Morton, Tom, “A Brief History of the word Curator,” Phaidon. September 9, 2011. https://ca.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2011/september/09/a-brief-history-of-the-word-curator/
- Kissane, Erin, “The Curate and the Curator,” posted on July 29, 2010. http://incisive.nu/2010/the-curate-and-the-curator/.