Becoming a Curator
“Warm. Sunny. Curated. That’s your Caribbean,” says Silversea’s ad for its cruises. Gwyneth Paltrow, in partnership with J. Crew, modeled “eight outfits curated from the fall collection.” A New York Times comedy critic recommends a weekly Brooklyn stand-up show as “superbly curated.” Curating, an activity once confined to museums and galleries and carried out by trained professionals, has become the favorite pastime of every influencer with an Instagram account.
Initially, curating entailed bringing an educated eye to bear on art, wielding the impeccable taste and discernment that comes with long exposure to masterworks. The halo of expertise persists though curating in the popular sense requires no credentials. Any shopper with a sense of style can become a self-appointed curator whose authority is ratified by a legion of followers. At which point curating confers value: the books Oprah chooses rise to the top of Amazon’s
frequently purchased list; the makeup beauty bloggers promote sells out at Sephora.
So ubiquitous is this exercise of assessing the world and ranking everything in it that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are people—still—who work as curators in the traditional sense of the word. Many are based in museums and galleries. Others, independent, direct big exhibitions, often on an international scale, like the Venice Biennale or Documenta in Kassel, Germany. There are curators who act as advisers to individuals and corporations, helping them assemble and maintain a collection. There are curators who steer artists’ estates, positioning their legacy, ensuring that the work is taken care of and seen in a sympathetic context, placing it with museums and determining what to sell.
If your interest in curating is in becoming a tastemaker and building an empire on sponsored posts, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’re curious about what happens when you train your mind’s eye on art and bring that art to the attention of the public, you’re in the right place. This book explores the curatorial profession through the life and work of one of its leading practitioners.
Meet Elisabeth Sussman. Her title since 2004—the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art—doesn’t begin to convey the breadth of her expertise or the responsibilities of her job. Over four decades, at museums in Boston, San Francisco, and New York, Sussman has passionately championed artists across multiple disciplines. As a result, their work has become more widely known and highly regarded. You may recognize one or more of their names: Diane Arbus, Eva Hesse, Florine Stettheimer, Robert Gober, Paul Thek, Mike Kelley, Gordon Matta-Clark, Nan Goldin . . . The list goes on. But unless you work in the art world or read reviews of museum shows, chances are you’ve never heard of Sussman. Which is, to her mind, the way it ought to be.
There are rock-star curators as famous as the artists they show, who post photos of their celebrity friends on their Instagram pages. Sussman has no Instagram page. Like many if not most curators like her, she prefers to go unannounced.
“It’s always about the artist,” says Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director and Sussman’s boss. “It’s not the Elisabeth Sussman show, putting her name in lights.”
David Ross, former director of the Whitney and the
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for whom Sussman worked in both places, says, “Elisabeth’s not in it for the fancy friends and the social prestige. She’s worked a long and complicated career, she’s done things that are intellectually and critically significant, and she’s never compromised. She’s the real deal.”
Lynn Zelevansky, a curator herself, former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and Sussman’s collaborator on major shows, says that curatorial work requires a unique combination of skills. “It’s very creative. You need to be a scholar—maybe you learn that in graduate school. And then you need to know how to interpret someone’s story in space and over time; some of that you might get through on-the-job training. But I think there’s a certain degree of talent, too. It’s not super common to get all those qualities together in one curator. Elisabeth’s got the whole thing.” Zelevansky considers Sussman an excellent representative of their field. “She’s sort of the best that we can do.”
Tony Ganz, a Los Angeles–based film executive who loaned works from his collection for Sussman’s retrospectives of Eva Hesse, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Paul Thek, says, “Elisabeth is in a league of her own in every way. I think people are probably disarmed by her warm,
affable presence. But just under the waterline is someone who will look for the truth where other people will just accept clichés, and that will lead her to an understanding of these artists she gets so involved with and committed to that other people might miss.”
Diminutive, dressed in black, her dark hair cut short, blue glasses framing her eyes, Sussman has the appearance of a scholarly pixie. On a Friday night in November 2018, she attends a dinner hosted by David Zwirner, the New York art dealer, at his house in the East Village. The occasion is the opening of Untitled, sixty-six photographs from Diane Arbus’s last project. Arbus died in 1971, before she
could finish editing the negatives. Doon Arbus, the photographer’s daughter, to whom the task of managing her estate fell, has now made a definitive selection of the images that this show comprises, some of them on view for the first time. The evening also marks the start of a partnership between the Fraenkel Gallery, a highly regarded San Francisco showcase for photography, and Zwirner, with galleries in New York, London, and Hong Kong. Together they will represent the estate worldwide.
In this company, Sussman is known for her landmark 2003 retrospective Diane Arbus Revelations at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For that show, in collaboration with Doon, Sussman assembled postcards, letters, notes, and other records of the photographer’s thoughts that offered a deeper understanding of Arbus as an artist and as a person.
Going to gallery openings is part of Sussman’s job. This evening has more heft than most, if only because the artist has been dead for forty-seven years and because the project she considered the culmination of all her years of work has at last been presented whole. Both Doon and her younger sister Amy are in attendance. The forty guests have been drawn from the art world A-list. At a table in the far corner,
opposite a wall dominated by a huge Cy Twombly, Sussman is seated between Jeffrey Fraenkel, founder of the San Francisco gallery that bears his name, and Robert Gober, a New York artist with whom she has worked since early in both their careers.
The conversation turns to lighting. David Chipperfield, the English architect whom the Metropolitan Museum of Art has commissioned to design its new wing, talks about the stringent policies museums have lately adopted in an abundance—some would say overabundance—of caution, reducing light in the interest of conservation. Sussman recalls working with one photographer, Zoe Leonard, who wanted her work seen in brighter-than-usual light and prioritized the installation—a decision that ran counter to the standard protocol of showing the most beautiful print with the most interesting provenance, which can only be seen under restricted light for a restricted period of time. Instead, Leonard made a dedicated set of “exhibition prints” explicitly for the duration of the show.
But that was a onetime solution for a single show. In many museum galleries, the lights have been dimmed, making it harder to experience the art in all its nuances and details. The table’s consensus is that this is a shame and that it’s
the monetization of art that is largely to blame. As prices for contemporary art have climbed, those who show it are increasingly playing it safe for fear that too much light will harm the art and reduce its value. The stakes are higher than ever—so high that prices have gone beyond the reach of most public institutions, which changes the calculus in terms of which art ends up where. “Museums today can’t afford to buy the art they show,” Sussman laments.
“The artists and photographers working when she started—there was no market,” Fraenkel says a few days later. And that made for a certain freedom, which was “both a minus and a plus.” Take Arbus, for example: a single mother struggling to support her kids, hoping to make a living through her photography. “The magazines were the only thing that paid,” Fraenkel continues. “Nobody was going to buy the pictures. Now aspiring photographers have exhibits in high school, and by the time they go to art school, they’ve already thought about their gallery trajectory.” Fraenkel calls this careerist landscape “a curse young artists today are born into. Elisabeth fell in love with art before that.”
For all her success and recognition, Sussman represents only one kind of curator at a time when there are many. Others who work in big museums may spend their lives not
curating exhibitions but thinking about the collection and tending works of art, specializing in a particular period, like nineteenth-century French painting or the Italian Renaissance or Modernism. And these responsibilities vary from one museum to the next. “In the contemporary art museum in particular,” says Scott Rothkopf, chief curator at the Whitney, “we have maybe a different idea of what being a curator means in terms of being an advocate for artists and trying to make sense of the time that we’re living in.”
“There are different models,” notes Jane Panetta, an associate curator at the Whitney, in charge of the museum’s 2019 Biennial, who has looked to Sussman’s example and sought her out for advice. “There’s the big personality who’s maybe great with boards, very external facing, with broad-brush visionary capabilities and the ability to excite people about an idea; that’s one model.” Curators of that variety often go on to become directors. And then there’s a different model, “maybe not heading toward a director position, and that’s more Elisabeth. It helps that she’s been an appealing, passionate, compassionate, funny, thoughtful person along the way. But more important is the fact that she’s been open-minded and hardworking and brilliant, and that’s why she’s where she is. It’s not because she’s been super-
charismatic.” Sussman isn’t naïve enough to think that star power and bold ideas don’t matter, but, Panetta says, “she’s also made a commitment that she’s not going to traffic in all that stuff. She’s just going to be about the work.”
When Fraenkel calls Sussman “old-school,” he means it as a compliment. “She has a quality surprisingly rare among curators,” he says. “She actually loves the art. I cannot think of an exhibition she’s done that has lacked a depth of feeling.”
To hear Sussman talk, you’d think that curating was some kind of highbrow service industry. Which, in a sense, it is. Something gets triggered when the art finds its way into her mind. “There are little doors that can open up through your senses,” she says. “That’s where it starts”—in reaction to breathtaking beauty or some aspect of the work that “gets to” her in some other fashion. Through those doors lies “something you hadn’t thought about, some road to enlightenment. With the artists I’ve worked on, all I’m doing is allowing myself access to a certain kind of joy through what they’ve found, in their brilliant ways. And then, through me, the public has access, too.”