CuratorIal Flow Patterns

by Linda Weintraub
Copyright Linda Weintraub

Curators are in the hot seat in this essay. Preparation to compose these paragraphs consisted of scrutinizing conventional curatorial art practices and then reconfiguring them to enable curators to help art respond to social concerns about ecological integrity. Minor tune-ups proved to be insufficient. This process required a major overhaul of our professional protocols. Because it necessitates the redirecting of curatorial ‘flow patterns’, this shift heralds a ‘watershed’ opportunity. Each modification helped realize the linguistic root of our profession. Curators ‘cure’. They share this function with doctors whose therapeutic role is focused on matters of the body, and curates, parish priests whose therapeutic role is focused on matters of the soul. Art curators are not circumscribed by medicine or religion. They are at liberty to direct their therapeutic role to the functional well-being of ecosystems. This essay attempts to answer the following question: how can curators promote a ‘curative’ relationship with habitat?

Let us begin with the curator’s job description. Besides research, management, and formulation, the professional requirements of curators include imagination, inspiration, and ingenuity. Curators are creators of art experiences. They originate an exhibition’s organizing principle. They select artists and art works. They construct relationships between art works. They articulate these relationships. They interpret the art and elucidate its significance. It is curators who decide if the audience will be coddled or provoked or inspired or amused or perplexed or instructed. It is curators who are granted the wand that magically imbues something with special status as an art work. While individual works of art carry the intentions of an artist, exhibitions manifest the intentions of the curator

With all this authority available for the summoning, curators can play a formative role in awakening ecological consciousness and instilling environmental responsibility. Their capacity to affect environmental change far exceeds selecting works of art that address ecological themes. They can activate these themes by actually adopting ecological models of organization into their professional activities.

Structurally, eco systems are complex.

Formally, eco systems depend upon relationships.

Temporally, eco systems involve momentary perturbations and evolutionary transformations.

These conditions assure the vitality of ecosystems. They provide advantages to human organizations as well. For example, the decentralized organizational structure that characterizes eco system dynamics has been adopted by on-line technologies that conduct banking functions, shopping transactions, news services, and music swapping. Furthermore, a substantial number of professional disciplines have adopted systems analysis of energy flow patterns, habitats, and communities that derive from analysis of ecoystems. The list includes political ecology, social ecology, urban ecology, health ecology, behavioral ecology, population ecology, landscape ecology, software ecology, etc. One discipline that is missing from this list is art ecology. May I propose a reason why the art profession has not yet attained the prerequisites for eligibility?

The structural, formal, and temporal principles that conventional art practices exemplify have emphasized stability, not dynamism. Consider, for instance, the high value placed on archival papers and stabile patinas and UV filtering glass and mold resistant papers. Consider, also, climate controlled storage and waterproof crates and white glove protocols. Such an art work takes the form of a finite material object that is isolated within protected chambers where it is preserved through infusions of energy from human and nonhuman sources.

By elevating preservation over responsiveness and longevity over vigor, such practices ignore half of every system’s oppositional requirements. The half represented by sstability is necessary, but it is not sufficient to assure continued existence of natural systems. These defensive mechanisms against change must be accompanied by the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Survival is a precarious, on-going tight-rope walk between constancy and mutation. Homeostasis contributes to survival by assuring that the organism can adjust to short-term environmental fluctuations. Mutation contributes because it generates new properties to enable life forms to accommodate to long-term environmental shifts. Surprisingly, this balancing act is not most secure at a midway point between the two. Biological analysis has disclosed that the system is most vital when it is teetering at the brink of chaos. It is there that flexibility is maximized.

Conventionally, curators have served as stabilizing forces by centralizing their authority and pursuing precise directives, thereby assuring a predictable result. As in ecosystems, these principles are optimal to accomplish a task within a stable environment that has a pre-determined goal. Curators subscribe to this principle when they organize exhibitions that are held in closed environments in which interaction between the artist, the artwork, the audience, and the environment are suppressed to accord with the sterilized austerity of museum protocols and the authoritarian determinations of curatorial mandates. Such separationist tactics are characterized by the hidden artist, the anonymous curator, the mute audience, and the neutral site. Such a model is practiced by every living organism because each cell, plant, and animal is intent on preserving its own life. If, however, adaptation and creativity are the goals, the advantage shifts to interactive principles that are non-controllable, non-predictable, and non-immediate.

What would a curatorial practice consist of if it were to engage dynamic change instead of equlibrium? Ecosystems are dynamic when they are complex, collaborative, and adaptive. If curators were to follow this model, they would have to downsize their authority. But sharing curatorial privilege need not signal a professional demotion. As they reduce authority, they actually accrue influence. This frontier exploration involves orchestrating social practices that help ‘cure’ our environment because it accesses the creativity of the audience as well as the artist.


GOOD? Curators prescribe a single, correct response to the art experience. Because they model their exhibitions according to the principles of mass appeal, the audience is treated like a predictable good that can be molded, poured, and stamped out along conveyor belt of artistic experience.

BETTER. Curators acknowledge that each member of the audience represents different economic, cultural and political traditions. They adapt their exhibitions to the discrete interests of diverse audiences. Furthermore, curators invite multiple responses to the art experience they have devised. Each viewer is at liberty to act as an adversary, challenger, rival, collaborator, admirer, ignorer, etc. By allowing differences to be articulated, curators help preserve a full storehouse of human diversity.

BEST! Curators not only welcome contrasting responses among viewers, they provide the opportunity for these responses to become publicly expressed. By creating both an exhibition and a network of responses, art provides opportunities to connect autonomous members of the audience. By accessing differences, the field of inquiry and the exchange of information vastly increase.


GOOD? Curators monopolize connoisseurship and are the sole arbiters of the art experience. Their influence travels from a single source along a one-way thoroughfare.

BETTER. Curators utilize the audience response by altering the art experience in accordance with its input. The curator remains the arbiter, but the audience becomes a contributor to the art experience by expressing its interests.

BEST! Curators invite the audience to actually affect the art experience. Interactions between the audience and the artworks are multidirectional instead of being one-way. A dispersed network replaces the hierarchical pyramid of authority. Art not only provides an opportunity for members of the audience to speak and imagine. It also invites them to act.


GOOD? Curators protect the exhibition so that it will remain unchanged throughout the duration of its display. The artworks are segregated from any environmental influence the curator does not prescribe.

BETTER: Curators allow for specified kinds of interactions. These exchanges affect the outcome of the artworks according to rules that have been established, and in ways that can be anticipated. Thus the artworks evolve but the exhibition concept remains intact.

BEST! Curators abandon all forms of circumscription and allow the art experience to evolve and the exhibition to self-organize. Complexity joins dynamism as concentrations of power are replaced with communal participation. The affecting communities may be human or non human life forms, or chemical and geological processes. Multiple, discontinuous, and coinciding inputs comprise networks of causation that alter the artworks and the exhibition. Structures in the exhibition may be built or dismantled. Energies may be concentrated or dispersed.


GOOD? Curators eliminate variables and suppress vagaries in order to create coherent exhibitions with knowable outcomes.

BETTER: Curators accept that their ability to predict the resulting art experience is defeated by the complexity of the system they have set in motion. The variables are too multiple, too open-ended, and too uncontrollable to calculate.

BEST! Curators celebrate unpredictability as evidence of dynamism, a condition that is associated with such desirable qualities as vigor, adaptability, inventiveness, perseverance, and strength.

GOOD? Curators base their exhibition themes upon abstractions and generalizations. These themes are as generic as city streets, monoculture farming, and suburban lawns. Standardized exhibitions disregard local culture, climate, history, fauna, flora, etc.

BETTER. Curators choose exhibition content and art works that are specific to the time and place of their display. The artworks are no longer the curator’s only concern. Local government, demographics, cultural history, economic provisions, religious practices, and environmental conditions also factor into the design of the art experience.

BEST! Curators design exhibitions that both manifest and augment diversity. Because such exhibitions are breeding grounds for diversity, they function like conservation initiatives, wildlife management projects, and transgenic technologies. Such exhibitions contribute to the resilience and productivity of society and the environment.


The artist exits the studio and takes to the streets with the curator hot on the artist’s heels. Formerly disparate parts of the art profession overlap. Ecosystem dynamics prevail. The initial encounter between artist and site includes the curator who engages the artist by commenting, inquiring, participating, and observing the creative process. People on the street become members of the art audience by acknowledging the art experience even in the midst of its formation. The curator creates this audience by initiating exchanges between the public, the artist, and the art work. Thus, the curatorial task of dissemination of art coincides with the originating impulse which coincides with the act of creation. If the audience seems confused, the curator can offer instantaneous guidance. The artist is present to hear the comments and enter the discourse and revise the artwork. In this manner previously segmented processes within art’s formal operations coincide. For the artist, sources, options, decisions, revisions, and presentations coalesce in time and space. For the curator, assessment, analysis, response, and instruction evolve in response to real-time observations of the artist’s process, the artwork, the public presentation, and the audience’s reaction. The artist is not the exclusive creator of the art experience. The curator is not the exclusive arbiter of the art experience. The audience is not exclusively a recipient of the art experience. All share each other’s role and all assume the role of critic. As art stimuli are discharged they are greeted by a stream of responses. Feedback signals ricochet in real time. Artist, curator, and audience observe the creation, affect the impulse, review the strategy, witness the witnesses, and celebrate the outcome.