To Be a Ringmaster

Our critic steps into the curator's shoes -- and encounters a snag or two

Call it a noble experiment. Call it seeing how the other half lives. Call it a lesson in humility.

Call it whatever you want, but when I was invited to share curatorial responsibilities for an art exhibition earlier this year, I jumped at the chance. The invitation came courtesy of Jorge Santis, a veteran curator at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale who has been on the receiving end of my art-critic nitpicking more than a few times. Just ask him.

The exhibition in question was the annual show recognizing the recipients of the South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists (say it fast three times). The rewards of this competition include a no-strings-attached $15,000 grant and exposure in an exhibition at a museum in one of the five participating counties: Broward, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach. The list of past winners is a virtual who's who of the South Florida art community.

Richard LaBarbera's "Winter 2004."
Richard LaBarbera's "Winter 2004."
A painted school desk by Thomas Nolan.
A painted school desk by Thomas Nolan.

So what's a curator? Good question. Not exactly the chef in the kitchen or the director on the movie set, nor the conductor at the helm of the orchestra. I've heard him (or her) likened to the ringmaster at the circus, a wrangler of talents, positioning the lion tamer, the fire eater, and the team of contortionists so that their art is brought together in a seamless presentation with its own internal logic.

Sounds easy, eh? Yes and no.

The 2005 consortium show was Santis' fifth, so I was confident I was in good hands. The understanding was that I would be in charge of producing the exhibition catalog, which entailed researching and writing biographical sketches of the artists and coordinating production of the volume from design to printing and distribution.

In reality, I was in for much more, thanks to my colleague's generosity (or was it perhaps revenge for all the times I'd criticized his exhibitions over the years?). For the first stage of the project, we arranged visits to most of the artists at their homes. My job was to gather information for the catalog, although I ended up participating in the negotiations over which works to feature in the show.

The consortium exhibition, as I soon learned, is a strange creature unlike most other juried art shows. It's not the job of the curator(s) to choose the artists who are included, a task which falls first to a regional panel that narrows the field (more than 350 applicants this year), then to a national panel that makes the final selections (nine this year).

Since it is the artists and their bodies of work, not their individual works, that are being recognized, we had great leeway in assembling the exhibition. For some artists, for instance, we settled on a combination of works old and new. Other artists ended up creating works specific to the show.

"This is not a democracy," Santis repeatedly, emphatically told the participants. "Our job is to put together the best exhibition possible." There were no quotas, although individual artists were given roughly the same amount of exhibition space; an artist might be represented by as few as three works or as many as eight. The juxtaposition of those works would be at our discretion, with input from the artists optional.

Therein lies the challenge. There is no theme to a South Florida Cultural Consortium exhibition. The only thing the artists have in common is a check for $15,000 and residency in one of the five counties. As curators, however, we had a mandate to create a show with a flow. In practical terms, that meant reconciling works by a painter and two photographers with works by four mixed-media artists, a filmmaker, and a cyberartist. Here that ringmaster analogy becomes useful again: As curators we had to take artists with disparate styles and present them as if they belonged together.

One of the great joys of curating, I discovered, is serendipity. A work by one artist turns out to have unexpected resonance with the work of another displayed a few feet away. This synergy occurred several times as we assembled the show. Comparisons and contrasts abounded.

On most of the what-goes-where decisions, I deferred to the experienced eye of my co-curator. A couple of times, I felt strongly enough about a placement question to take a stand, and it was gratifying to find that my opinion carried some weight. At every point in the process I felt like a full collaborator. And I can hardly describe the excitement of being on hand when an artist delivers the work and discusses the logistics of its presentation with you.

As a critic, I am keenly (some would say obsessively) attuned to the details of an exhibition. When there's a discrepancy between, say, the information included in a catalog or handout and the information posted in a text panel, I usually point it out, to the chagrin of the curator. Now that I'm more aware of what goes on behind the scenes of a show, I'm apt to be a little more generous.

I said a little. I still can't comprehend how something as seemingly simple as an exhibition title -- and a fairly generic one, at that can be a source of so much fuss. Using the catalog from the 2004 consortium show as a model, I updated it to read "New Art South Florida: 2005 Cultural Consortium Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists." Soon I was being chided that the official title should be "New Art 2005: South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists." A meaningless distinction? Not as far as the people funding the consortium (and hence the exhibition) are concerned.

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