is there such a thing as curatorial IP?

Do curators have “rights” which supersede an artist’s Intellectual Property rights?  It’s one thing to criticise a curator’s thesis, or the complex decisions that are made in order to mount an exhibition or hang a collection. And sure, of course there is a particular mode of creativity involved in the curatorial process. But are these activities defensible as a higher form of Intellectual Property over that which is embodied in works of art? Some curatorial practices seem to assume this is the case. To open the question for critical debate, here is Iconophilia’s list of the eleven common ways in which curators may interfere with the Intellectual Property inherent in a work of art. As we witnessed in 2010, curators may/do:

1. redesign integral elements of a work of art

2. rearrange the elements of a work of art

3. frame it in a way that’s inconsistent with its original manifestation

4. hang it on a wall that’s painted in a dominating colour

5. locate it amongst competing architectural forms (for example, hang flat art on a curved wall)

6. exhibit the work in dynamic lighting conditions

7. subject the work to intense spotlighting

8. exhibit a work of art without giving attribution to the artist(s) (names)

9. vary the orientation of a work of art

10. ignore the artist’s instructions

11. use fragments of artworks as logotypes

Iconophilia seeks readers’ contributions of examples of the ways in which public institutions interfere with the integrity of works of art. If you wish to contribute to the Iconophilia database of the following kinds of curatorial actions which appear to infringe the integrity of a work of art which is currently on public display in a museum or art gallery, please download this pdf checklist.


#1 Ian Hodgson on 01.29.11 at 5:10 pm

In the just-closed Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, every painting on display was spotlit in a way that could be described as intense. Everybody I have spoken to who visited the exhibition commented on the lighting, agreeing with me that it was superbly done. In fact the whole exhibition was brilliantly presented, I think. Perhaps the curators were trying to simulate the brilliant sunlight under which the paintings could have been done. But in any event, I do not see how the lighting, in this exhibition could be described as infringing the artists’ intellectual rights.
Perhaps there is a difference between an exhibition in a museum, where the artworks are telling a story, and a gallery, where the artworks are there simply as art?

#2 Nigel on 01.29.11 at 5:29 pm

Thanks for the comment, Ian. However I too spoke to lots of people who found the intense lighting against a black background turned the subtlety of the painting surface into a kind of back-lit screen experience. And did you notice how by the time of the end of the show the ceiling vibration had caused the spot frames to shift, creating a vibrating shadow sometimes 2 to 3 cm across the surface of the painting? And did you see how those paintings which use a lot of medium to create a shiny surface cause a myriad of reflective points of light to bounce back at you? Isn’t it an effect which changes the viewing experience, effectively changing the painting? And to follow Ron Radford’s commentary, that the lighting should mimic the open air, because that’s the way Aboriginal art is made, is a kind of romanticism, in my view. This is not to say that the curators did not amass a great and significant collection, but rather the black gallery/relatively bright lights routine has a visible effect on the experience of looking at a painting.

#3 HB on 02.15.11 at 4:45 pm

The precedent for the Yiwarra Kuju exhibition was the NMA Papunya Tula exhibition of some years ago. Its devilish hard to get those walls repainted, and I am not talking technical difficulties here. Its a decision making /financial obstacle course (or has been till now). (Please Andrew rethink this one.) I am sick of those black walls myself but the general feedback was that it was “impressive”. People feel ‘awe’ faced with intense light in darkness, maybe its the bling thing. I personally found that it interfered with my ability to engage with the surface of the painting, that the lighting although visually enhancing the colours to the point of iris burning intensity, flattened the paintings. They were no longer objects (paint on canvas on a stretcher) but a glowing yet flat apparition that was suspended within the darkness resembling screen based works. Ironically, the “backlit” repros of the paintings on the multi media touch tables gave a wonderful eyeful of the “objectness” of the unstretched canvases.

#4 Nigel on 02.16.11 at 11:17 am

Thanks HB. I particularly remember the (vibrating) intense light flickering off the otherwise wonderful Elizabeth Nyumi. It’s a killer. Yes the black multipurpose space (not really a “gallery”, more like a warehouse) is just a cheap alternative to proper exhibition spaces. Dazzle and entertain is a low common denominator…

#5 HB on 02.16.11 at 11:56 am

Well I wouldnt quite reduce the Yiwarra Kuju exhibition to dazzlement and entertainment. I really admired the interelationship between oldies and youngies, differing technologies to tell the story etc. And yes, the motivation behind that exhibition wasnt all “art exhib”. Old bloke Tom Lawford told me it was the black history of the track more than anything else that he wanted to get across.
What really astounded me was that the edited spotlighting when it moved out of place was not corrected.
Having said that I think that space needs to change with the visual/aesthetic needs of the material to be displayed. A repaint cost needs to be factored into exhibition design and implementation budgets.
Making a decision (which might well be a hang over) that black walls equals ‘museum’ and white ones are ‘art gallery’ is meaningless. It does have to be a multipurpose space so let it change with the needs of the exhibition of the moment, not dictate how that exhibition should be seen/installed.

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