Curators of yore got away with having heaps of knowledge and little else. They were prone to displaying art works in chronological order (or by art movement) alone. Curating was a side business to being an arts authority.
But times have changed. Ask Mukesh Panika, director, Religare Arts Initiative. Just in terms of skills, the profession requires loads. Research ability, networking and negotiation skills, “and a zillion more. A good analogy would be (that of) a film director who needs to weave everything together to make a great film.
According to me, the right sequence (would) be – starting (with) a great ‘theme’, to the selection of ‘right’ artist/s; then selection of works by the artist/s so that the works are woven compactly in the theme,” says Panika. Trained as an architect, Panika went on to found an international arts organisation – ArtsAid in New York and curated shows for many years. He now heads the Religare Arts Initiative – a 360 degree platform for the arts in India that represents and promotes contemporary art through curated shows and programmes, including a residency.
Himanshu Verma, director, Red Earth, a New Delhi-based organisation that engages with visual and performing arts, says, “Curators usually only conceive exhibitions while others organise the event. In my case, I do both because when these two (conceptualising and organising) come together there’s a greater sense of intellectual engagement.” Verma is one of the few independent curators on the Indian art scene and has been “able to stay afloat” through passion and innovation. “It pays to be innovative. It’s otherwise difficult to get funding from the government but corporates are now more keen to invest in art.
However, there aren’t that many out there who would respect an idea for its own sake,” says Verma. “For a curator, intellectual respect counts for much more than monetary viability,” he adds.
One should ask oneself certain questions to ascertain one’s commitment to the profession. “Are they passionate enough for the arts so much that when they are struggling, they might not know where the rent will come from? Are they prepared to be self-critical? There’s a lot of learn from the people in the arts.
Even if you aren’t trained, are you willing to learn and be a better curator with every exhibition,” asks Verma, who took this route to curating. In 2008, Verma won a special commendation at the International Young Visual Arts Entrepreneur award held in the UKfor his entrepreneurial contribution to visual arts in India.
Talking of the more conventional path, Dr Alka Pande, consultant arts advisor and curator, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, says “An academic course is the starting point. Reading through a broad spectrum is essential. Cultural studies too are a key segment. An aspiring curator must be curious, must be enlightened and well-rooted in the traditions of the land in which he/she is situated.”
What’s it about?
A curator is an art content specialist who conceives exhibitions, and is entrusted to build an archive, gallery or a patron’s collection. They are required to keep up with the art scene, source art pieces, identify new talent and present art with special insights gained through research and cultural awareness.
While some curators only conceive art shows, others are directly involved in organising them. In such scenarios, curators are able to express the intent of the show in a wider set of facets – marketing, public relations, online promotion, design etc.
8.30 am: Check mails, read art journals, online resources
10 am: Call gallery to book space
11 am: Meet an artist for coffee, discuss possibilities for a show
12 pm: Meet corporate house for a collection they want to build
2 pm: Have lunch with gallery owner, discuss rates
3.30 pm: Check on production design of upcoming show
6 pm: Visit visual arts exhibition launch
8.30 pm: Stay on for the after-party to network
11 pm: Head home, catch up on reading
Independent curators work from show to show. While debutantes might not get anything more than credit for curating an exhibition, established professionals can earn Rs 25,000 to Rs 10 lakh per show. Like any free lance professionals, prepare for lean periods, especially when the art market is down.
. Undying passion for the arts
. Keeping up with the dynamic international art scene
. High degree of cultural and social awareness
. Ability to set the context for art and its presentation
. Networking skills
. Ability to sell abstract concepts to patrons
. Tenacity to follow through on original idea for show
. Creative thinker
. Hunger for knowledge, curiousity
How do i get there?
At the bachelor’s level, you can go in for an art history course at an Indian university. History and cultural studies offer other routes to entering the profession. At the Master’s level, you can go in for various advanced arts courses or go in for specialised curating courses, though none of the latter are available in India.
Institutes & urls
. Royal College of Art, London -
. Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi -
. Kingston University, London -
. Manchester Metropolitan University -
. Goldsmiths, University of London -
Pros & Cons
Creative line of work
Being part of an ever-growing arts fraternity
Travel all over the world
Potential to develop a wide-reaching network
Dealing with artists’ quirks
Big money, once established
Long time to get established,gain respect
Intense study required
High stress job
A curator represents the ‘zeitgeist’
Prospects are bright for the profession
What are the career prospects for art curators in India?
The prospects for curators are really great. The process has already started, but it all now depends on how professional the art market will be. In more developed markets of art, private institutions, art collectors have their own curators who scout for talent for their clients. In fact, one of the most powerful art collectors, London-based Charles Saatchi, has a team of curators who are constantly on the lookout for talent and building a collection. If a collector is serious then it is important to get advice and in this area, the role of the art curator can become quite significant.
Have corporates become more prominent as patrons of late? What does this spell for curating in India?
Yes, corporates have always been patrons of art. In the history of modern Indian art collecting, it was the Tatas and Birlas who first started collecting for their offices. The Tata offices in Mumbai have some masterpieces of modern Indian art. The ITC Hotel Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi has a collection in their lobbies and corridors, which provides a slice of the art historical process in the ’70s and ’80s.
The new terminals in airports across the country too are making a serious attempt at putting up art on their walls. All this naturally bodes very well for a curator in India.
Any advice for people who want to get into this field.
My inputs on this would be that a curator must read, look, absorb and understand the environment in which he/she lives. A curator represents the ‘zeitgeist’ or the spirit of the times.
Where does India stand in terms of art presentation to the public?
Public art in India really needs to go a long way (even) though public art was very much a part of the Nehruvian vision. In fact, a minute percentage of building costs was to be put aside for public art in buildings. But that was not adhered to. In the last ten years, corporate offices, hotels and resorts are seriously looking at sculptures as part of the outdoor art. Jindal Stainless has taken over the AIIMS flyover and attempted to bring in stainless steel sculptures to beautify the flyover.
The ONGC corporate office has just installed a wonderful piece by Balan Nambiar, again in stainless steel, at their corporate office in New Delhi. I think the trend is growing. With more and more people travelling across the world their aesthetics are becoming more global and cosmopolitan and therefore there is a great revisiting of public art in India. Presenting art to the public was robust in ancient and medieval India as is evident from the large temples and commemorative sculptures which were part of the spirit of India.
Dr Alka Pande Interviewed by Pankaj Mullick