Elisabeth Sussman is Curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Too often today, curators are still medium-specific. A museum’s performance curator, if there is one, often has a status similar to the curator of education—as an add-on, a provider of supplements to the core program, which is object-based and static. I believe this has to change in certain ways.
First, performance curators should attend all curatorial planning sessions and should suggest programs and exhibitions in which performance is not only integral, but also central to the initiating impulse. Performance curators might tread into the territory of visual art curators with exhibition ideas for artists, which would be led by the curator with the most expertise—the visual art, photography, or new-media curator. But they could also curate shows of their own. Very important “exhibitions” could be based on the careers of key dancers, for instance, such as Yvonne Rainer or even George Balanchine, organized with all the supporting apparatus of catalogues, programs, and educational activities. These exhibitions could be game-changing in the way they configure exhibition space and time.
Traditional curators of contemporary visual art should be fluent, if they are interested, in the history (histories) of performance—music, film, dance. If they lack the expertise, but have the interest, they should collaborate closely with colleagues who have the knowledge. Those colleagues are often operating in small institutions and would be enthusiastic about sharing information and audiences.
Visual art curators develop specific skills for organizing exhibitions and writing catalogues. They are generally less knowledgeable about production requirements for time-based activities. In a large, well-funded institution, support staff can help with specialized demands. In a smaller institution, a curator, in order to maintain a performance program, would have to add onto his or her own skill set. Certainly, performers will be reluctant to work in places that do not have responsible, experienced, committed curators.
Along with production skills, curators might be expected to gain an awareness of other aspects of presenting time-based art, such as pacing, the relationships between durational and static objects in the same exhibition space, whether the audience is sitting or standing, sound bleeds among exhibition spaces, etc.
The move to the inclusion of performance and its history is already taking place in an integrated way with traditional museum programs. Performance curators must be given equal status in the institution to ensure the integrity of the scholarship.