Cultural Sociology

Beyond the Head: The Practical Work of Curating Contemporary Art

Sophia Krzys Acord 

Abstract In contemporary art, the curator plays an important role in the production of artistic meaning through exhibition-making. Although sociology has tended to see this work as the exercise of tacit or embodied knowledge, curatorial knowledge and plans may be elaborated and altered by the situated actions of exhibition installation. While curators know a successful installation “when they see it,” this depends on the indexical particularities of artworks and environments which cannot be predicted in advance. In demonstrating the practical ways in which culture is mobilized in situations of object (inter) action, this paper emphasizes the “making” in artistic meaning-making.

Keywords Culturalsociology.Distributedcognition.Actor-networktheory. Object-interaction


Speaking at the outset of the 21st century, art critic David Sylvester suggested that the most important people in the cultural world are not artists but curators, “the true brokers of the art world” (Millard 2001, p. 118). Curators have risen to prominence in the contemporary art world because of the increased importance of mediating between institutional bureaucracy, market forces, artistic representation, and public taste. In particular, the crux of curatorial practice in contemporary art is the construction of artistic meaning through the exhibition. As Greenberg et al. (1996, p. 2) describe, “Part spectacle, part socio-historical event, part structuring device, exhibitions—especially exhibitions of contemporary art—establish and administer the cultural meanings of art.” Yet, little is known about how curators go about creating these meanings in the physical process of exhibition installation.

S. K. Acord (*)
Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, 771 Evans Hall #4650, Berkeley, CA 94720-4650, USA


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As a form of artistic mediation, curatorial work is traditionally seen by sociology as tacitly structured by “conventions,” “internalized dialogues,” and artistic “codes.” Particularly in contemporary art, this expertise is developed through a curator’s widespread familiarity with the international art world (Moulin and Quemin 1993; Octobre 1999). A curator’s knowledge about how to present contemporary artworks to the public is generally assumed to be part and parcel of their knowledge of the artwork (Tobelem 2005). This reduction of curatorial work to the exercise of tacit knowledge, however, overlooks the role played by artistic objects in their own mediation, and in doing so, fails to provide a documented, explanatory model of how culture enters into action. If something goes without saying because it came without saying, how, when, and where can it finally be said?

In order to look in depth at the practical and material dimensions of curatorial meaning- making in action, this article draws on comparative video-based, microethnographic studies of the exhibition-making process at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and ARC/ Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, supplemented by visual interviews with 34 other elite curators of contemporary art. This paper also draws on useful theoretical concepts in human-object interaction, distributed cognition, the sociology of affordances, actor-network theory, and learning to illuminate the extra-verbal dimensions of curatorial work. In particular, by examining how curators build successful installations through their physical orientations to artworks, this study demonstrates the reflexive and process-oriented ways in which tacit knowledge, aesthetic codes, and meaningful conventions are born, communi- cated, and mobilized in situations of (inter)action. In doing so, it argues for a more dynamic understanding of curatorial mediation, and the central import of object-oriented qualitative research to the sociological study of culture and action.

Dawn of the curator of contemporary art

The curatorial profession became standardized in the nineteenth century, hand in hand with the advent of the modern museum. As Bourdieu (1993 [1987], p. 204) explains, among an array of “specialized agents” (e.g., curators, critics, art historians, dealers, collectors) who shaped the economy of cultural goods, curators became crucial actors “capable of imposing a specific measure of the value of the artist and his products.” The combining of artworks by different artists to give selective readings on art and on the history of art is one of the fundamental principles that has underwritten curatorial practice since the mid-19th century. As traditional art curators overwhelmingly hold advanced degrees in art history, they generally mount exhibitions that are scholarly in nature (Alexander 1996; DiMaggio 1991; Zolberg 1981). This scholarly nature is reflected in the art historical nature of museum display, where exhibitions generally display artworks in a linear fashion within an overall historical perspective.

The 1960s and 1970s, however, witnessed the emergence of a new breed of curators in the burgeoning contemporary art world, including Harald Szeemann, Pontus Hulten, Lars Nittv, and others. Rather than base their approach to exhibition-making in art historical conventions, these curators engaged in critical curatorial practice, experimenting with the very nature of the exhibition format. In other words, the avant-garde movement among artists was met by an avant-garde movement in curating. This new breed of curator, akin to a stage producer or orchestra conductor, became sought out by institutions, often those dedicated to contemporary art but others as well, for their wide personal networks, effective


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social abilities, expertise on a particular subject, and powerful visions, rather than an advanced degree in art history.

Key here to the new museum curator’s role is the planning of temporary “ahistorical” exhibitions (Meijers 1996), often arranged thematically or contextually (Staniszewski 1998), in which the curator plays a role not unlike “author” of the exhibition (Heinich and Pollak 1989a). The exhibition is a way to validate the originality of the curator’s point of view, his or her aptitude for discovering new talents, and the artworks themselves by exhibiting them in a dialogue with each other to an initiated public (Octobre 1999). In contrast to the taxonomical or art historical approach to exhibiting traditional art, the exhibition process in modern and contemporary art is integral to the meaning of the art work (cf. Caillet et al. 2002; Ducret et al. 1990).

Significantly, the exhibition of contemporary art communicates the object by contributing another layer of meaning or interpretation to the artist’s original intention (Davallon 1999), which may be hazy to begin with. Practicing artists and performers have long recognized that artistic creation is an experimental and emergent process, involving input from traditions and intentionality as well as physical objects and spaces (Elkins 1999; Becker et al. 2006; Jarvis 2007). In contrast, as I will now examine in the following literature review, sociology has tended to see artistic mediation as distinct from the creative process, based on theories and guidelines rather than situated knowledge production.

Literature review

In their review of work in the sociological study of culture, Wuthnow and Witten (1988) describe two distinct views of culture as an “explicit” social construction and an “implicit” feature of social life. While the sociology of the arts continues to be driven in the main by the “explicit” conceptualization of culture as a recorded product or symbolic good, the specific study of the mediating activities surrounding explicit cultural forms is a window onto broader sociological conceptions of implicit culture (Acord and DeNora 2008). As demonstrated in this brief literature review, the study of knowledge production by mediators in art worlds (i.e., what informs curators’ decision-making) sheds light on how culture operates in general (i.e., to inform general patterns of individual and social meaning-making).

In the dominant “production of culture” approach in the sociology of the arts (cf. Peterson and Anand 2004), meaning-making is seen to be an outcome of institutional structure or the values held by particular actors. The artistic value of an artwork resides not in its material properties, but in the individuals, institutions, and processes that mediate between artist and spectator (cf. Crane 1987; Heinich 1998; Moulin 1967, 1992; White and White 1965; Wolff 1981). These different groups have a highly interrelated existence; for example, museums buy what galleries promote, and critics justify their value.

As Bourdieu (1985, p. 728) describes, the position of a mediator in this social space— what he terms the “field of cultural production”—plays an important, structuring role by suggesting the cognitive “‘filling-in’ strategies” by which he or she makes meaning. Using the example of a manuscript submission to a publisher, Bourdieu (1993 [1976], p. 134–135) observes how the publisher explains his choice to accept the manuscript with an absolute kind of “flair,” what Bourdieu describes as the “ultimate and often indefinable principle” behind his choice. This indefinable principle is explained by the fact that both parties have


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what Lamont (2009) terms a “shared sense of craftsmanship,” which led the author to prepare his text based on what he perceived the publisher would want to read. In his “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception,” Bourdieu explains how such tacit “codes” play a central role in artistic knowledge:

An act of deciphering unrecognized as such, immediate and adequate “comprehen- sion,” is possible and effective only in the special case in which the cultural code which makes the act of deciphering possible is immediately and completely mastered by the observer (in the form of cultivated ability or inclination) and merges with the cultural code which has rendered the work perceived possible. (Bourdieu 1993 [1968], p. 215)

Artistic meaning-making, then, is the reference to and propagation of cultural codes, as linked to the mediator’s position (and strategic position-takings) in the cultural field. It is exercised through the mediator’s habitus, the set of “objective” dispositions he has by virtue of his place in the social order (Bourdieu 1979). As Bourdieu (1972, p. 79) notes, “It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know.” The power of the habitus as a reproducer of cultural codes (in the explicit cultural sense of the codes by which one encounters art) comes from its tacit mastery (implicitly acting through the habitus). 

Cont. reading...