Curating as a Teaching and Learning Process

by Edward J. Sullivan
Deputy Director; Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art
The Institute of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Sciences, New York University

In a less enlightened age of the study of art history (not that long ago), there was a distinct dichotomy between those who were interested in entering “the academy” and those who professed to want a career in museums or other forms of what was then called the “non academic” professions. This is to say that the “ivory tower” approach favored graduate students who wanted to dedicate their lives to research, writing monographs on (sometimes) obscure artists and teaching courses that would focus on a formalist approach to the work of art (most often studied in black and white slides). Fortunately these paradigms have shifted dramatically and today it is clear that exhibitions in all realms of the visual arts (and their catalogues or accompanying critical texts) are principal forms of knowledge dissemination on the part of their curators and ways of learning for those who see them (either in real time or digitally). Curating is recognized as a crucial component in the practice of pedagogy. Curatorial and Museum Studies programs have flourished throughout the United States, Europe and elsewhere. In some instances there has been a distinct divide between programs in which practical skills regarding museum practice are taught and those in which the study and practice of art history and curatorial work are blended into a seamless whole. At NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts we attempt to take the later approach. There are, indeed, several initiatives that attempt to foster both of these aspects. The IFA’s new concentration on Curatorial Practice and Museum History is designed for students who wish to delve into the complex problem of integrating their study of the history of art with a sensitivity and expertise regarding with “the object of art” and its amalgamation within art historical training. The Curatorial Collaborative is another such project that has now been in existence for several years and is proving to be one of the most successful student-driven initiatives. Its positive attainments are in no small part due to the fact that it represents a dynamic synergy of efforts between the Institute and the studio art division of the Arts and Arts Professions Department of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. It is all the more dynamic because the Collaborative represents a direct encounter between graduate art history students and the most promising undergraduate art majors – virtually without the mediation of the faculty regarding choice of themes or individual works to be exhibited in the shows produced throughout the spring semester of the academic year.

The current series of exhibitions continues the tradition of excellence established by the first group of artists and curators. Each show is radically different in its focus and in the selection of works. A wide variety of options to artistic expression are represented here – from painting, sculpture and photography to a variety of what might be called “new media.” The Collaborative represents a platform for experimentation in its most positive contexts. Steinhardt art students, in dialogue with IFA art history MA and PhD students, discuss, debate and come together in successfully negotiated ways to show the work to its most positive advantage. In this year’s exhibitions, a spotlight is shown upon artists whose work takes into account their ethnic, geographical, gender and intellectual identities. Other shows focus on the nimbleness of the artists to combine and bend the barriers of traditionally described media. The final groups show showcases a wide variety of student options to self-expression in often surprising (and, we hope, shocking) ways.

The Curatorial Collaborative and the exhibitions that result from the efforts of their participants from both schools has now become an eagerly awaited and much applauded part of the University’s cultural calendar. The exhibitions that result from it serve as barometers of both future achievements in the visual arts as well as harbingers of the growing curatorial expertise of their organizers.