The Gatekeepers and Tastemakers Who Decide What We Call “Art”

by Kyung An & Jessica Cerasi

August 5, 2017

Curators Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi’s new book, Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art, takes readers on an A-to-Z tour of today’s art industry, familiarizing them with the basics of how the market works, why and how one can appreciate conceptual art, and how certain art and artists gain prominence. Several of their entries detail the workings of the art world’s gatekeepers, the curators, tastemakers, and institutions that cull and present the art we see. Below is an edited excerpt from the book.

Who Decides What’s Hot?

People always say once you’re “in,” you’re “in”—but who decides who’s “in” and who’s “out”? The annual rankings of the art world’s “who’s who” don’t just exist to encourage industry gossip. They tell us who’s pulling the strings and the same names crop up time after time. It’s thanks to them that you suddenly recognize that artist’s name, when you wouldn’t have had the faintest idea who he or she was a year ago.

Let’s start with the super-curators. These are curators, independent or affiliated to an institution, whose intellectual interests and selections of artists are tremendously influential. To be included in an exhibition curated by the likes of Hans Ulrich Obrist (Director of Exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London, or “HUO” to those in the business) is a nod of approval and pretty much guarantees instant global visibility.

And just why are these particular curators so super? Because they curate shows that are almost always worth looking at—shows that make us re-think the experience of an art exhibition and spotlight artists whose practices push the boundaries of what art can be. For artists, the validation and visibility that comes with inclusion in an exhibition of this kind can be career-changing. It can lead to other exhibition and press opportunities, a rise in prices, and hot pursuit from galleries and collectors.

Next up are major collectors. They make it their business to visit these super-curators’ hottest new shows, as they traverse the globe to stay up to speed with the art world’s rising stars and all the latest talking points. While some collectors choose to keep a low profile, many of them are as famous as the artists they collect and the collections they build. Sometimes they even build private museums to showcase their collections: take David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia, or Bernardo Paz’s Inhotim in Brazil, for instance.

Though they may be guided by advisors, the art in their collections is considered a manifestation of their own distinct taste. Collectors can afford to be much more playful with their spending than public museums as they are not bogged down by strict acquisitions policies. A few collectors have become almost synonymous with certain artists, propelling their prices and reputations to new heights—think Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists—or new lows should they decide to sell! Indeed, who and what these collectors buy and sell can have a major impact on the market.

These days, an artist can become flavor of the month overnight. Sales, good reviews, and fame all happen so quickly that we often forget the role good old art criticism can play in offering more studied judgment. Drawing on art-historical and industry knowledge, critics are able to justify and contextualize their arguments. These experts range from art historians and journalists to bloggers, and although it may hold true that all publicity is good publicity, there are still a few big names whose opinions carry more weight than others.

Also in the mix are art prizes and the panels of arts professionals who judge them. A prize can do an awful lot for an artist’s prestige, generating publicity and notoriety. Equally, we cannot discount the role of galleries who are always pushing the artists on their roster. Taste-making in the art world is a complex phenomenon and it’s near impossible to measure the role of individual movers and shakers in any particular rise or fall. But you can rest assured that the art that comes to your attention has been marked out by people of all stripes who really know their stuff.

Who Chooses What You See?

Behind every exhibition, the guiding hand of the curator is always present, setting out the rules of engagement between you and what you experience. Today we talk of curating everything, from playlists to wine collections, but the idea of a “curator” or “curatorship” originally emerged in the seventeenth century to describe someone who takes care of a museum or library collection. Over the last fifty years, curators have outgrown their traditional roles and absorbed a whole variety of new ones to fit today’s expanded art world. Nowadays, curators come in all sorts of guises. They might be independent or museum-affiliated, groundbreaking or historicizing, local or global—but they continue to be the force that connects the artist, art, and the public.

In a museum of contemporary art today, the curatorial department is typically divided into sub-departments. Although this varies from one museum to another, they are largely divided according to “medium” (painting, sculpture, drawing, video), “period’” (twentieth-century, contemporary) and “region” (Asia, Latin America). Each of these departments is made up of curatorial assistants, assistant curators, curators and, at the head of the team, a chief curator. Many museums also have one or more collection curators. Their work might involve proposing new artworks to be purchased for the museum’s permanent collection (this is called an “acquisition”), researching and writing on the works for the public (“interpretation”), as well as thinking of new ways to display the collection.

Across the board, the core process of organizing a temporary exhibition is essentially the same, whether it’s at a large museum or a small independent art space. The curator proposes an exhibition concept and begins researching relevant works or artists. It is the curator’s role to oversee everything, from selecting artworks, obtaining loan agreements and deciding on the hang, wall color and texts, to exhibition catalogues, transportation, and insurance. At a museum, it sometimes takes the curatorial team as long as three or four years to see an exhibition open. During this period, the curator is often as much a fundraiser, budget-master, interpreter, and negotiator as an exhibition manager.

Then there are those who work beyond the confines of institutions. Visionary thinkers adopting an experimental or multidisciplinary approach are invited to realize their ideas at biennials and triennials. These curators are often questioners and anarchists, who seek to challenge existing exhibition formats. There is also a posse of globetrotting independent curators, who would not hesitate to describe themselves as curator-critic-writer-artist-academic-dealer. As the art world expands its borders and takes on new interests, each curator is encouraged, even compelled, to develop the role in his or her own way.

Where Do Museums Fit in?

If one of the key goals of a museum is to collect, preserve, and exhibit the cultural achievements of our past, what does this mean for a museum of contemporary art? In practical terms, it has meant that these museums, by capturing the visual culture of the present moment, are effectively predicting what will be historically important for the future. That is to say, contemporary works that receive the museum stamp of approval are marked out as deserving of a place in our future’s past and written into that history. That’s why, for artists, gallerists, and collectors alike, it is crucial to get the artworks they create, represent, and collect exhibited in museums or, even better, into museum collections.

This confidence in the museum’s authority stems from a belief that public museums are custodians of our shared history; that the objects displayed and preserved reflect our stories, struggles, and achievements, and have the public interest at heart. They can also be a national resource and way to build a sense of local pride and shared patrimony. Since these official institutions are often in receipt of public funds, they must be able to demonstrate their fulfilment of this social responsibility and are held accountable to their board members and public authorities.

Museums must therefore be able to justify their collections in principle, and stand for ideals that go beyond the mere personal tastes of their curators or trustees. For each museum, these overarching goals are often set out in a mission statement. Think of a museum’s “mission” as its “unique selling point.” These can range from building a local arts scene and providing a platform for local artists, to something more specific, such as bringing together the disciplines of art and technology as in the case of FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, U.K. In practice, the museum mission is carried out through its exhibitions and public programs, as well as by building collections and preserving objects. As the primary attraction for visitors and the main focal point for the press, exhibitions are the public face of a museum. They allow a glimpse into the particular artists, art forms, movements, or history that the museum deems significant. For artists, the inclusion of their works in these temporary exhibitions, especially if it’s a solo show, can be life-changing, as it is seen as validating their practice. Still, it is easy to forget that exhibitions are just one manifestation of a museum’s larger mission, with its activities stretching across a wide variety of public and research programming. For instance, SALT, a not-for-profit institution in Istanbul, was first opened in 2011 to develop a cultural community within Istanbul and foster the writing of a Turkish history of art.

While some museums are exhibition halls only (often referred to using the German term “Kunsthalle,” which loosely translates as “art gallery”) and bring together a range of temporary exhibitions, many have their own collections on permanent view. It is often only possible for a fraction of these collections to be on show at any time due to a lack of exhibition space—these works are collected to fulfil the driving goal of preserving them for future generations, not to fill floor space. Each collection will have its own “collection strategy” (a specific focus) and “acquisitions policy” (process by which new works are approved) that are aligned with the museum’s overall mission and identity. The strategy of Tate Modern in London, for example, has been to focus on the “international” to distinguish it from Tate Britain, also in London, which is dedicated to building a preeminent collection of British art.

Collecting for posterity implies that these works must be held indefinitely, i.e. forever. Naturally, the problem with collecting contemporary art is that, at best, it is an educated guess which artworks will stand the test of time. It is anticipated that works added to the collection will retain their significance and grow in value, but this may not be the case. And don’t be fooled by the phrase “permanent collection”: collections and collection-building are fine-tuned and regularly undergo a review process. As years pass, museum management changes and certain artists may fall out of vogue. Or a museum may find itself in hard times, in which case the idea of raising money through the sale of a work from the collection may gain traction.

In essence, each museum seeks to ensure that the best new work is supported and that nothing of note falls through the cracks. After all, the driving aim of a collection is to preserve a legacy. So if you are tempted to forgo the art museum on a rainy day, remember: Museums of contemporary art are more than fancy buildings with overpriced cafés; they are among the most powerful forces in the art world.