conference report: curatorial lab, melbourne

"For a profession that is still only really in its infancy, curating has received an awful lot of flak. If would be hard to find a profession more beleaguered by critique and self-analysis, nor one that pays as badly for the amount of expertise generally required."1

It is usually hoped that conferences will live up to their proposed aims and objectives but (from a jaded perspective) these promises are rarely achieved, possibly because they are too difficult to actually accomplish within the limited timeframes, budgets and administrative conditions available to coordinators. It was therefore a great relief that the Melbourne Curatorial Lab, organised by 200 Gertrude Street, was in most regards a productive and successful conference.

Curatorial lab was a think-tank that offered a formal setting for emerging and practicing curators, artists, exhibition designers and project managers to exchange ideas, research and experiences relating to contemporary curatorial practices. Natalie King, freelance curator and writer, and Max Delany, Artistic Director, 200 Gertrude Street, managed the Melbourne program, selecting speakers with varied professional backgrounds to address issues relating to a range of curatorial contexts: art museums, artist-run-spaces, touring exhibitions, international exchanges, festivals, public art projects and hybrid art events. Substantial discussion, debate and professional networking took place during the initial two weekends of the lab and, over a third weekend, the masterclass provided an opportunity for emerging curators to develop new projects in consultation with Juliana Engberg, Visual Arts Curator, Melbourne Festival, and a panel of other experienced curators.

Amongst the speakers were artists Destiny Deacon and Kathy Temin; Andrew Seaward, Coordinator, Platform Space,Melbourne; Tessa Dwyer, Director, Centre for Contemporary Photography; Wayne Tunnicliffe, Curator, ContemporaryAustralian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Stuart Koop, Curator, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art; Alison Carroll, Director, Asialink; Rhana Devenport, Senior Project Officer, Asia Pacific Triennial, Queensland Art Gallery; Naomi Cass, Executive Director, National Exhibitions Touring Service, Victoria; and Ross Gibson who was until recently the Artistic Director of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. While Curatorial Lab focused on the varied approaches and contexts relevant to contemporary curatorial practices, it also stressed the importance of innovation, self-critique, professional ethics and collaboration between artists and curators. The conceptual and imaginative side of curatorship was explored, as well as the pragmatic aspects of project management. Participants were encouraged to think about contemporary curatorial practices as dynamic and flexible forms of interface between the maker, curator and viewer/user.

One of the strengths of Curatorial Lab was the high quality of papers presented. Most presenters excelled in terms of delivery, content and their willingness to share knowledge. Dossiers featuring useful examples of exhibition proposals, media releases, budgets, contracts, wall tags, text panels and recommended readings, were distributed to all participants, offering further research trajectories. Another important outcome was the acknowledgment that projects sometimes fail and that failure is a part of professional development and experimentation. Keeping in mind that we live and learn, the main criticism of the lab by participants pertained to the group workshops. Participants were randomly grouped together to conceptualise a creative project, then design a budget, schedule and publicity strategy for this project within a short timeframe. Several people felt that this was unsuccessful because it tried to force a process that is usually more organic, and the time may have been more productively spent in less structured discussion sessions.

A significant outcome of the Masterclass and Curatorial Lab generally was the understanding that curators need to bemore self-critical and willing to challenge or test their own ideals, concepts and curatorial approaches.

notes: 

1. Storer, Russell, 'Questions of Curatorship: Connoisseurs or Cultists?', Postwest, #16, 2000, p.28.