Thoughts on Curating ‘There Not There’

These days you hear the word curator all over the place. From people curating their Instagram feed to their vintage sneaker collection, it seems like everyone can be a curator – but what does it actually mean? In the traditional sense the word curator comes from the Latin word ‘curare’ meaning to care for or to take care of. In this way a curator is a person that cares for something, such as a collection of a museum. Today curating as a profession takes on a broader meaning. It not only involves preserving the heritage of art, it can also mean selecting, arranging and displaying objects, connecting them to art history. As a key concept both in and outside the art world, in the past few years the remit of what a curator does seems to change with each new exhibition or biennale, taking on a variety of meanings and definitions. We, as students of the MA ‘Curating the Art Museum’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art, are just beginning to find our way in what it means to be and become a curator. This is the first part of our journey.

Every year the MA group is asked to develop an exhibition to a specific brief as culmination of the programme. While previous years have been invited to respond to a current exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, our journey in curating this year’s show begins with two words: ‘Making Space,’ in relation to the impending renovation of the Courtauld Institute of Art and Gallery. As part of the ‘Courtauld Connects‘ project, The Courtauld Gallery will close for two years making our show the last one to be staged in the familiar gallery space.

From quite literal interpretations – taking an artwork down every week over the course of the exhibition until the space is empty – to more conceptual ideas, such as the investigation into the specific nature and viewing conditions of a gallery space, the possibilities of this brief seemed endless, as was the range of works available to us. For this project, we were invited to draw from two large and distinct collections: The Courtauld and the Arts Council Collection. The Courtauld Collection spans from the early Renaissance to the 20th century and is famous for its Impressionist works such as Edouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ or Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’. The Arts Council Collection was founded in 1946 and is a national loan collection of modern and contemporary British art. As a ‘collection without walls’ it has no permanent gallery space, instead the collection is widely circulated and lends to museums and galleries across the UK and internationally, as well as to public buildings – and to us.

Bringing together works from these collections we settled on a theme that marks this transitional moment in the history of the Courtauld – when the ‘old’ Courtauld Gallery is physically ‘making space’ for the new. Our exhibition ‘There Not There’ explores the concepts of transformation, disappearance, absence and presence through and in the works of twelve contemporary artists, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Paul Seawright, Jasper Johns and Richard Long. Although previous MA groups have often chosen to stage trans-historical shows, juxtaposing contemporary and historic works, we were drawn to the works of living artists.

Between us, we had to form a consensus on conceptual decisions, such as hanging the works, enabling conversation in connecting them to each other, or creating interpretive material. We agreed upon practical questions, such as the colour of the walls and the typography of our writing. Making a decision in a group of twelve creative individuals with wide-ranging ideas was not always easy and often we had to find a democratic solution to conflicting opinions. As curators, we also had to deal with the practical implications of disappearance during the process of organising an exhibition in the short period of six months. Sometimes a work we wished to include would become unavailable as it was already on loan or had to undergo conservation. As a result, the disappearance of some works made space for new works to come in, which transformed and shaped our exhibition into becoming ‘There Not There’.

Marie-Kathrin Blanck


Further Reading:

Hans Ulrich Obrist: ‘Ways of Curating’, London 2014.

‘The new curator : researcher, commissioner, keeper, interpreter, producer, collaborator’, ed. by Natasha Hoare, Coline Milliard, Rafal Niemojewski, Ben Borthwick and Jonathan Watkins, London 2016.


Title Image: Head of MA Curating the Art Museum programme, Martin Caiger-Smith observes Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Gedser’ 2004. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Wolfgang Tillmans

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