UPDATE ONE: I posted this to encourage debate about what roles, rights, engagement, empowerment (or lack thereof) there is or should be in the artist/curator relationship. Please feel free to contribute comments.
UPDATE TWO: Once an artist clears the selection process, they are asked to sign off on terms and conditions and submit an 'acceptance form' confirming their willingness to participate. If the reconfiguration of the work was curatorially-driven (that is, part of a 'big idea') then I would suggest the City include something akin to the following in that document:
'The curator may add to, change or remove any part of submitted artworks at any time, without notice and without liability.'This contravenes NAVA's best practice guidelines* but if artists sign-off then the curator could theoretically be given free reign.
* 'The artists’/craft practitioners’ moral rights must be observed. Moral rights provisions in the Copyright Act give to the artist/craft practitioner the right to be known as the author of a work (attribution), not have the work falsely attributed and the right to have integrity of their art/craft work respected (not to be altered, tampered with or damaged in any way).' - SOURCE: 'Code of Practice for the Professional Australian Visual Arts, Craft and Design Sector'.
UPDATE THREE: There would seem to be an attitude that, when it comes to the artist/curator relationship, 'beggars can't be choosers'. It's arguable that this analogy is not only offensive to artists but also to beggars.
I recently decided to remove my artwork from one of the bigger Western Australia award shows prior to it's closing on the basis of how it had been treated by the curatorial team. This was not a light decision but one of principle, especially when you factor in the various conditions that surround this particular style of event.
Basically I supplied a simple diptych with clear instructions about spacing and the configuration of the two panels. The piece itself was small (approximately 140cm wide when installed) so it's modification supposedly had nothing to do with space issues. This especially considering other works in the same show were significantly larger.
The work itself included two separate images of singular light bulbs: One red (left panel) and one green (right panel). These bulbs (together with many others) had been recycled from a garden of a friend and have a - for want of a better word - patina. They were photographed in isolation on a black background.
Instead of a rather linear (and quiet) reading with the two panels sitting next to each other, the curator instead decided to split the panels, placing them on either side of an 'exit gate' of the award with approximately 2-3 metres between them. This reconfiguration of the work was done with no consultation whatsoever and I only saw the work like this whilst attending the opening.
The event itself is an annual $12,000+ acquisitive award held in a large open area inside a big shopping centre. This 2-3 metre gap included a multitude of distractions including branding elements from stores, people traffic and other visual noise.
Essentially to an uninformed viewer the curatorial positioning appeared as some form of tool of judgement over other works in the show. ie. Was visiting the show a good or bad experience? Were the works on show good or bad?
Further to this - and critically - the installation gave the impression that I had revisited some conceptual, installation-like approach in my practice rather than my current series of essentially 'straight' images. To some in the art's 'industry', this would even contravene ideas that I have discussed with them previously and for others (installation 'fans') any subsequent showings might prove disappointing.
Such awards are rare opportunities for myself (as other artists) to get our work in front of a notoriously apathetic hierarchy. This was completely new work previously only seen by a handful of people. As it was the audiences' first engagement with the series, they now have a perception that will not marry with the broader series itself.
To use context is well and good (ie. proximity of works to manipulate meaning) even should these works be combined with components (non-art objects, performance, 'noise', etc) that we might find 'odd'. Such things can be stimulating on a multitude of levels but actually physically interring with work is crossing a whole series of lines.
As an artist, I would expect some degree of consultation in any invasive processes and – most importantly – that the art object itself is treated respectfully and as it was 'designed' - for want of a better word.
With all this in mind, I expressed my concerns to a staff member during the opening and later that night formally requested via email that my work be removed completely.
This provoked a long telephone call with an arts administrator in which he presented the idea that the reconfiguration of the work was well within his curatorial 'rights' and that he thought that the 'work plays an important part in the holistic layout and without it the narrative of the exhibition is affected.' When challenging him with various scenarios (lying a sculpture on it's side or hanging an image upside down - again without consultation) he agreed that these were also viable ideas.
I then asked if he would mark a work (ie. paint an artist's sculpture) and he said that this would be damaging or changing the work so he wouldn't consider doing such a thing.
In a later email he stated:
'The ever-expanding role of the curator should be considered in terms of potential overlaps, complements, and conflicts with the role of the artist. As curators have become more actively involved in the production of meaning, their work has been increasingly read through the notions of "artistry" and "creativity".
The "curator/artist", on the other hand, emerges from and works within a different set of circumstances. As the role of the curator shifted towards further participation in the production of meaning, curatorial work could be seen as creative or artistic in ways that would have been difficult to conceive of in its more conventional, custodial position. This increased potential for creativity led to the rise of what could be described as the auteur curator. This model of curatorial function posits the curator as a visionary, and the exhibition as their medium.'
I posited that the perception of my practice has been distorted/damaged with his interference into the work itself. I also said that this was not something that I can simply recover from with a reinstall or movement of the work. This especially so when you consider that the majority of the 'professional' audience was in attendance at the opening and was extremely unlikely to revisit the show.
Another analogy I drew in discussions with others (as well as the supervisor of said curator) related to an artist delivering a sculpture of a human figure in three parts with instructions of 'head on top of torso on top of legs'. The curator effectively did the equivalent of ignoring that and scattered the parts as they saw fit - all without consulting the artist in any form.
I will leave the last word to a friend who wrote the following:
'I would challenge the curator to manipulate a work by a renowned artist without their knowledge and see what happens. I still think he should have discussed it with the artist, particularly if there was a clear intention and directions for the display of the work. Any change nullifies the intent of the artist as unimportant, that the artist has not thought about how he/she wants their work seen and experienced or if it fits into a long standing display criteria, an ongoing approach to image making and storytelling which is intrinsically linked to that artist. Sometimes how the work is displayed automatically makes the work recognisable as much as the work content itself.'