Andrew Renton studied at the Royal College of Art, London, and then appointed Director of Curating at Goldsmiths College, London. Renton also acted as a consultant for private collectors, curated internationally on numerous leading curatorial projects, and has previously had a seat on the jury of the acclaimed Turner Prize.
More recently having taken on the directorship of a new gallery, Marlborough Contemporary, London, Renton has finally established a qualified position in both camps, as educator and intellectual, along side his new role as gallerist and commercial dealer. At Goldsmiths College Andrew Renton has foreseen great changes in the principle education and execution of art; that has taken curating as a practice from the periphery to the epicentre of art production and display internationally. There when the likes of Damien Hirst, Simon Patterson and Sarah Lucas were at Goldsmiths, Renton has seen the rise of technologies, new ideas, major galleries, art fairs, and biennales, as multiple ingredients for international art practice and engagement now. And travelling and attending art events internationally, Renton has also seen the globalisation of contemporary art, as artists successfully move from Frieze London, to Art Basel, Miami Beach, and back to their and studio and gallerist in New Delhi.
Rajesh Punj: The principle theme of this interview is that of the art institution in the 21st century, can you explore that?
Andrew Renton: Well, it’s definitely changing. I think the boundaries between public and private, for example, are being blurred. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, as long as we know where our responsibilities lie. And there’s huge growth in a broader public being interested in contemporary art, which is fantastic. And with that come new expectations and responsibilities. The institution, both the museum and the academy can play extended roles. But there are challenges, primarily to do with funding. Art School, indeed any higher education for that matter, starts to look like a luxury rather than a right. Staff and students are squeezed
RP: For me you are synonymous with the curating department at Goldsmiths College, how long have you taught there, and is Goldsmiths College as relevant now as it was in the early 1990’s?
AR: I’ve taught curating in some capacity for 15 years or so – from the very early days of curating as a subject – and ran the programme for more than 10. Before that I was teaching occasionally in Fine Art. I’m sure I’m biased, but I still believe Goldsmiths is hugely relevant. The YBAs may be settling into middle-aged affluence, but there’s great art being made there still, and for those artists, the likes of Damien Hirst are just a distant memory. As for Curating, I feel it’s really come into its own. I’ve always positioned Curating as a practice, rather than an offshoot of art history, more in tune with art making than wiring about it. The famous Goldsmiths flexibility of course structure really enables this. It enables you to develop your own practice and not a house style.
RP: What institutional changes have you since in your time as head of department? And are changes a matter of course for a profession that is constantly in flux?
AR: Less and less funding, more rigid structures in terms of time spent with students. I’m old enough to remember when you could drop in on tutors for an informal chat. That’s more and more rare, as those sessions have to be strictly timetabled. It does eat away a little at the magic of the place, but not completely! Obviously there’s more career anxiety these days, the stakes are so high, especially in the past five years. So we’re conscious of our students’ ambitions in this area, even during their studies. We want the transition into the professional world to be seamless.
RP: When I consider ‘curating’ as a profession I am always prone to consider several disciplines collectively, ‘critical writing’, ‘facilitator’, ‘ exhibition’s organiser’, ‘administrator’, ‘artist liaison’, ‘promoter’, and ‘creator’. Are these curatorial threads the keys elements of curatorial practice in your opinion, and has it always been such?
AR: I think all of these things are part of it. In a way ‘curating’ is that portmanteau concept that can embrace many disciplines. It’s definitely not just shuffling works of art around a gallery. Once upon a time a curator simply took care of a collection. It was a specialised, scholarly activity. Today, as we know, curating spreads much further afield, away from collections, or even a fixed space. And there’s a whole other side to the word now – everything is ‘curated’, the way that everything was ‘designer’ twenty years ago. Over- and misused, for sure. But as much as I do think the curator wears many different hats today, it is a more visible profession than it ever has been.
RP: What are the distinct differences of teaching curating and art theory now as opposed to 1999, 2000? Are those differences entirely based on the advancement of information technologies?
AR: At that time the job was really to try to define curating as something independent from the museum and the collection. The rise of the independent curator, who defined their practice outside of a specialisation in a field and collection. It was a huge cultural ‘battle’. Now that everyone recognises this practice is possible, ironically, curators have renewed their interest in collections. After all, the past decade has seen the emergence of many private collections around the world, where we often see the most telling curatorial interventions. I’m less concerned with information technologies, but it’s clear that it’s almost impossible not to rely on the ability to move images around by email, to google a work of art, etc. A colleague of the late Harald Szeemann reminded me recently that he never included a work in a show without traveling to see it in advance. Without communication technologies being what they are, a younger generation of curators might not be so disciplined! And, by the way, I wonder, for example, what the impact of Google’s museum project might be on viewers also; if they feel they can click through our cultures in the comfort of their home?
RP: As a leading critical writer, curator and art intellectual, what do you make of the health of contemporary aesthetics and its relationship to curatorial practice? Would you consider one requires the other?
AR: Despite Harald Szeemann, there is a discourse of aesthetics today that might make you believe you don’t need to look at art! But I think we probably become more visually aware over time, if sometimes less precise. And we are trying to find tools to manage this visual overload. The discourse is always trying to catch up with the art, find a voice to articulate it, make sense of it. I don’t think we are in such a bad place. I guess for an old theorist like myself, the most refreshing thing to witness in art has been what we might call a post-theoretical discourse.
RP: And what of the artist turned curator, are they guilty of trying on too many hats?
AR: I don’t think so. This is a special, privileged position. I suspect that the curator always has to give the final word to the artist. But the artist/curator can carve out a special role and can probably get away with more! Artist/curator is a practice in itself. And it reminds us also that a great deal of artistic practice is also curatorial.
RP: What do make of the phenomenon of the super-curator? Hans Ulrich Obrist, Okwui Enwezor, Massimilliano Gioni, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Paul Schimmel, among others, have all become as significant to the visual art as are the artists’ work’s they facilitate; as lead facilitators among their contemporaries, are they born out of a necessity to curate many more monumental shows, or are we in the age of the ‘ego’?
AR: I don’t think this is about ego. Authorship, yes, but not ego. It’s about making the curatorial process more transparent. And the names you cite are visible because they are so highly engaged with the art with which they work.
RP: Counter to the success of the super-curator American art critic Dave Hickey in a 2008 printed roundtable transcript, declared that his position on curating was that “the meaning of the show should emerge from the show itself. The curator is a more or less inspired art herder.” He goes on to assert that “this is what curators are doing: they are flying around to national capitals, taking government-paid tours to look at government-approved artists that are biennial-friendly. Curating is a very corrupt discourse.” what do make of that?
AR: Phew. That’s quite tough. The job of the curator is, of course, to resist those possibilities of corruption. Of course there is the possibility that intentions aren’t honourable, but such projects are so transparently weak in their conception you can spot them a mile off. But as for meaning emerging from the exhibition itself, I totally agree. That’s the curatorial acid test: Is it self-explanatory?
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