Design or Curation?

This is an eternal question that I struggle to answer. When you make an exhibition, the answer seems theoretically obvious: both. It is as much curation as it is design. It is what you display as much as how you display it. However, when you look at who makes exhibitions and how the industry is organized, there are curators on one side and designers on the other. They might collaborate – even though it is not always the case – but are distinct. The question then stays: in practice, is there a choice to make between design and curation?

This question goes back to 2012, when I started making exhibitions. We were a small team with very limited budgets, therefore, we were quite dependent on the spaces we found, often for free, that we couldn’t alter in any way. As a result, and also out of interest being art history students, our focus was on curation. We looked for artists to showcase and made a selection. However, the more I made exhibitions, the more I felt frustrated not to also ‘curate’ the space. Indeed, we always had a concept and I wanted the space to reflect it. There was always a couple of elements going in that sense: wordings around the space, ‘eat here’, ‘jump here’, expressing the wish to change the ‘white cube’ attitude in our first exhibition for instance, however, our first true attempt at it was with Touche d’Arts in 2014 for which we linked all artworks to each other with ribbons, creating an atmosphere. It was simple and it can seem silly or obvious, but it was a turn-key moment for me: an exhibition is not just about what is exhibited.

That’s why I decided to do the MA Fashion curation at London college of Fashion. Even though is it called Fashion ‘Curation‘, there is an understanding that an exhibition is both objects and space. During these 15th months, I was pushed to and found myself exploring both side of the job, or at least tried to. At the Center for Fashion Curation, it is quite exceptional to find a team which cares and work on both in parallel. However, there is no training in design, only an understanding of its value. We were not designers and I was not trained to become one. I was trained to become a curator with a spatial sensitivity (the team sometimes uses the term ‘exhibition-maker’ which could be discussed in another post). At my current job – which I may have gone for because of a wish to explore the discipline I knew less of – we focus on design. Actually, we call ourselves designers working in a design company. We collaborate with copywriters, illustrators, curators, … but we design.

We all complement each other on the field and work well together, the issue is in the process. Curation and design have different processes because they have two different end goals. When you curate an exhibition, the selection of items to exhibit is where your expertise comes in. When you design an exhibition, where and how you display the items chosen is your field. Shouldn’t I say that they are both important and complementary. Yes, of course they are. But think it in this scenario: making an exhibition, there’s a choice to be made between an innovative exhibit, interactive and digital and display a rare, incredible object. There’s no budget to do both. Designers and curators would probably choose differently. This is not problem, but communication and understanding can be.

For what I have seen of the industry, an exhibition project is given whether to a curator or a designer – you can be whether a curator working with designers, or a designer working with curators. I have never experienced a working environment where both were equally brought to the table and discussed. It can happen on a project level but because of a lack of situations where the two interact, the dialogue can be difficult. Plus, final decisions would usually be made by one or the other which results in an emphasis on one or the other discipline. Of course, I will probably experience different things in the future which will change how I feel but today, I feel frustrated in that regard, as if I had to make a choice. Exhibition-making becoming more and more a discipline of its own, the dialogue between the two needs to happen more often. Without especially becoming a mix of both – even though it is an exciting prospect – we should open our practices to the ideas and processes of the other side. We should always invite the other profession to our discussions. An exhibition is equally design and curation, the professional environment where exhibitions are made should reflect it.

Please feel free to comment and bring any experience or opinion.

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