Like canaries in a coal mine, three of the Hartford region's four curators of contemporary art have suddenly disappeared. This should alarm both artists and civic leaders.
For years now, expert economists and urban planners have told us that the arts are critical to the fabric of cities, that the "creative economy" is crucial to regenerating neighborhoods and animating downtowns. A supportive infrastructure for contemporary art is crucial as an economic stimulator, spinning off energy in design, fashion, architecture and restaurants.
Neighborhoods in cities across the country owe their vitality and sometimes even their existence to artists and the organizations that support them. Critical to this success are the professionals who help connect these communities and artists. These professionals are curators, and Real Art Ways, The University of Hartford and Wesleyan University have all just eliminated their curator's positions, leaving only Patricia Hickson at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
In each case (Kristina Newman-Scott at RAW, Zina Davis at U of H and Nina Felshin at Wesleyan), financial crisis is the reason given for the decisions, which should not surprise us given the current economy. But a more careful look at what is happening in Hartford reveals a few things worth thinking about.
Zina Davis was told her position had been eliminated by Hartford Art School Dean Power Boothe, who explains he had little choice after being told by the university to cut $250,000 from his budget. Because faculty positions are protected and relative to other cost-saving measures the gallery director position was, in his words, "not critical to the mission of the art school," the curator position was eliminated. Davis calls this explanation disingenuous, insisting she was never included in budget discussions and would have eagerly worked with administration to find savings, including reducing her own position to part time.
Newman-Scott says almost the same thing. Will K. Wilkins, RAW director, was offered a pay cut in recent belt-tightening. Newman-Scott notes she was not offered any similar option, and points out that bookkeepers, development staff and house managers remain in their positions while a position central to the organization's core was eliminated.
None of this is easy, but arguing a gallery curator is not critical to the mission of an art school, as the administration at the University of Hartford has, ignores what curators actually do.
Davis brought internationally recognized artists to the school and directed a program that placed some of the most accomplished thinkers in the art world in direct contact with the campus to participate in global conversations. What could be more critical to an aspiring artist than joining these conversations? Even simpler, what could be more critical than to learn what a gallery is, what a curator does and how exhibitions are made, when all artists graduate with the hope of having a curator exhibit their work in a gallery?
Meanwhile, RAW (where I got my first job as a curator) will see Wilkins taking on a curatorial role. Wilkins also plans to hire guest curators to do specific projects, and describes democratizing the curatorial functions by bringing development, cafe, bookkeeping and other staff members into the planning of exhibitions and programs in the absence of a curator.
Eliminating a curator certainly saves money, but a curator does more than just choose art to hang on a wall.
RAW's landmark exhibitions of contemporary art from Puerto Rico (2004) and Poland (2006) were initiated and developed by a staff curator who was in close touch with the art world but also knew and cared about the specifics of where RAW is — in proximity to large and vibrant Polish and Puerto Rican communities. RAW's legendary ability to integrate global conversations with the local, specific context of Hartford is by and large the result of its history of curators. Itinerant curators cannot do this.
Pamela Tatge, the director of the Davidson Art Center at Wesleyan forced to eliminate Felshin's position, uniquely understands this, explaining the decision by first describing what she knows is being lost. "We are losing someone who knows the community the gallery serves, and guest curators can't do what Nina did. But we will do our best."
Hartford will have to do its best, too, but three of the region's four contemporary art programs are now without directors and, like dying canaries, it's alarming.
Steven Holmes of West Hartford is curator of the Cartin Collection and adjunct curator at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami. He was curator at Real Art Ways from 2000 to 2005.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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