I say curating, you say….. An inquiry on the emergence of performing arts curators


This article addresses the first chapters of my thesis for City University’s MA Culture, Policy and Management. In the past twenty years, the term ‘curator’ has been increasingly applied to disciplines other than the visual arts, including the performing arts. The latter has undergone a number of transformations, and experienced a proliferation of festivals in an increasingly globalized world, while trying to survive amid general public funding cuts aggravated by the 2008 global economic crisis.

Despite a vast and ongoing debate on visual arts curation, there has been little discussion about this profession in the performing arts field. The research contributed to fill this void by envisioning what curatorial practices entail in the performing arts, through qualitative data consisting of interviews with professionals working in the field in Europe, North America and South America, and a data triangulation with performing arts curator’s job description.

The analysis of the data indicated that there is no clear definition of the curator in performing arts and concluded that it is not possible to simply transpose visual arts curatorial practices to the performing arts field. The research acknowledges the influence of the context and the particular economy in which the field operates as key factors, and argues for the development of different terminologies to identify the cultural organizers of such field.

This study was limited in a number of ways. First, since notions of the performing arts curator appeared in the literature first in Europe and North America, these regions were my focus in researching interviewees. I tried to include an international perspective in order to check if this claim is located in specific regions and contexts. The number of interviews was limited due to the timeframe for this dissertation and the availability of the interviewees. I deliberately excluded Asia because of the difficulties in matching terminology due to language barriers. One important aspect of culture is the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, which affect how institutions operate. This was also a common observation between the interviewees but would require a whole separate study on the theme. Another issue that would require dedicated research is the preservation of performances – an ephemeral art. However, this was not central to initially defining the curatorial practices of performing arts, considering the theoretical framework and the literature reviewed.

This chapters will address the rise of the performing arts curator.


In 2009, Beatrice von Bismarck (2009, p. 3) declared: ‘curating as an independent form of producing and conveying cultural meaning has emerged, mainly in the visual arts but increasingly also in neighbouring disciplines, such as dance, theatre, film, literature, music.’ In 2010, Frakcija magazine devoted a whole issue to performing arts curating (Malzacher, Tupajić & Zanki, 2010). In 2011, the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) established the first graduate course on the topic (Wesleyan University, 2015b). In the same year, the symposium ‘Beyond Curating: Strategies of Knowledge Transfer in Dance, Performance and Visual Arts’ (Boldt, 2011) was held. In 2012, the Whitney Museum appointed its first performance curator (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012). In 2014, the journal Theatre (Sellar, 2014) explored how the performance curator could affect the development of the performing arts field, while new literature was conveyed on Envisioning the Practice: International symposium on performing arts curation (Acaq, 2014).

These developments indicate a growing discourse on performing arts curating, somewhat similar to what occurred in the visual arts, when ‘over ten years ago there was only one Curatorial Studies Masters programme…and barely six publications available on the subject’ (Fowle, 2012a, p. 11). As O’Neill (2007, p.6) contends, curating is ‘a method of conveying ideas – about art and production – in which those involved in the process determine the ways in which those idea and the field of cultural production are experienced and discussed’.

This study traces the emergence of the performing arts curator and contributes with an investigation into these practices in order to define this professional. As Ricci (2014, p. 15) argues, the increasing number of professionals defined as performing arts curators exposes a shift in the field.

To understand what curatorial practices in performance entails one must first comprehend what is understood by contemporary curating. There has been an astounding production of literature on the curator over the last two decades (Smith, 2012; Thea & Micchelli, 2009; Greenberg, Ferguson & Nairne, 1996; Rugg & Sedgwick, 2007; Marincola, 2006), particularly focused on curatorial discourse and on the act of exhibition making.

1987 – The rise of the curator

So, 1987 represents a significant departure in the learning of curatorship, from vocational work with collections in museum or institutional contexts, to an understanding of curating as a potentially independent, critically engaged and experimental form of exhibition-making practice. At this time, the practice of curating became a possible area of academic study, as much as a professional career choice (O’Neill, 2007, p. 9).   In 1987, Le Magasin de Grenoble, in France, founded the first postgraduate programme in curatorship. In addition, on that same year, a course from the Whitney Independent Study Program, in the United States, changed its title to ‘Curatorial and Critical Studies’.

Le Magasin. Photo: P. Blanc
Le Magasin. Photo: P. Blanc


The new curator that emerged from the 1990’s is a direct development from Szeeman’s ausstellunsmacher – the ‘ independent exhibition maker’. According to Von Bismarck, ‘this professionalization and differentiation in the field of art allowed the term “curator” to become a semantically and hierarchically structured word for a profession’ (Von Bismarck, 2010, pp. 50–51).

The Economist
The Economist

So, as the world progressed and the digital evolution promoted the marketization of culture, the idea of the powerful curator who can act as a creator of artistic ideas (Altshuler, 1994, p. 236) was consolidated. A scene of multiplying biennials and super exhibition acted as propellers for the curator’s stardom. This independent exhibition curator also internalized the critique of institutions, embodying the concept of institutional critique, ‘directed at the institutional basis of art and its systems of Institutionalisation (O’Neill, 2007, p. 25).

These developments led to the curators of today, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, to whom the exhibition is the medium that serves his role of a bridge between audience and artists (Bonomi, 2011) – in other words, a mediator. This aspect of the curatorial practice is increasingly emphasized; ‘through mediation the curator would acquire subjectivity’ (Andreasen & Larsen, 2007, p. 27). Mediation refers to the process of intervention between two or more ends, deriving from the 1990s landscape, as described below:

Mediation covers intervention practices and measures implemented by a variety of actors – museum professionals, artists, amateurs, guides, and therapists – to encourage a closer connection between art and publics. Mediation, which has both an aesthetic and a social vocation, is based on bringing alive and creating value for an experience with art by proposing a dialogue among the artworks, the creative approach and individuals.” (Fourcade, 2014, p. 3)

Thus, the curator acts as a mediator not only between artists and institutions, but also between artists and audience(s), creating contexts in which both can meet, while selecting a background and references to describe and present these works. Arguably, the curatorial focus also shifted to the ‘marketing and packaging of contemporary art’ (Bryan-Wilson, 2003, p. 102). Furthermore, socio-economic transformations and public funding cuts, in Europe particularly, have also pressured cultural institutions to become more accessible and bring in new and socially diverse audiences: ‘Because exhibition media are didactic in nature, curators are also educators and may be charged with creating educational programming…Museums have shifted to emphasizing service to their public’ (Kreps, 2003, p. 311).

As the exhibition gains relevance as a tool for creating meaning, the curator’s role broadens; particularly its mediating responsibilities. The curator is not only in charge of creating the artistic programme, but also accountable for the potential audiences to whom the work is presented, besides creating partnerships and liaising with stakeholders.

Researching, fundraising, educating, directing the institutions, taking care of artists and of the art work, developing an exhibition since its inception, documenting and promoting projects, pitching new projects, networking, branding and selling projects…. Curators also fill in for critics, when the latter are absent.” (Rifky, 2012)

In sum, the curator’s role evolved from preserving collections to creating thematic exhibitions, suggesting collaborations, promoting new talents, writing, publishing and working on constant self-actualization. A multitude of graduate courses, conferences and symposiums on the theme accompanied this shift (Martini & Martini, 2011, p. 262), maintaining this ‘curator-centred discourse’ (O’Neill, 2007, p. 50). As an illustration of this curatorial turn, typing the term ‘exhibition curator’ on Google Ngram – a tool that creates graphs of keywords from over 5 million books from over 500 years – shows results from the 1980s onwards and ‘performance curator’ shows no results.


Figure 1. Google Ngram for the term ‘exhibition curator’ (Books.google.com, 2015)

 Contemporary curating transposes the museum walls and mere exhibition making, and now can also encompass ‘programming at many kinds of alternative venues…. Exhibiting artistic meaning is the main task of the contemporary curator, to which all other roles are subservient’ (Smith, 2012, p. 29). As such, curating evokes a transdisciplinary condition as described in this dictionary entry:

‘someone who selects items from along a large number of possibilities for other people to consume and enjoy; applied to many areas including music, design, fashion and especially digital media” (Macmillandictionary.com, 2015)

Performing Arts

It is vital to define the scope of this term. Performing arts is often used in the context of theatre, dance and also in what is known as live art or performance art. Often, performing arts and performance art are used as synonyms, and it is not rare to see works from these disciplines blurred and programmed together at a festival or in a museum, for instance (Bishop, 2014, pp. 62–76). These boundaries are now ever more fluid and the transdisciplinarity and intersection of dance, theatre and performance have arguably ‘marked the history of Art in the 20th century’ (Art Review, 2013). In addition, ‘theatre festivals have expanded from a narrow range of dramatic theatre to include other stage forms, and indeed the entire diffuse area of the performing arts’ (Klaic, 2014, p. 46). According to the ICPP, performance is defined as ‘time-based art practices…..working in dance, performance art, experimental theatre, traditional or culturally specific programs, and/or various combinations of these and other disciplines’ (Wesleyan University, 2015a). Thus, the research conceptualizes performing arts as time-based art, tending to all those disciplines.

The performing arts also require an audience to be presented to, and its output does not produce a physical object. The concept of audience is broad and understood as one who pays attention to something: ‘the assembled spectators or listeners at a public event such as a play, film, concert, or meeting; the readership of a newspaper, magazine, or book’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015).

Performing Arts – Context

It has been almost fifty years since Baumol and Bowen’s (1966) seminal theory pointed to the cost disease in performing arts organizations, contending that while production costs have continued to rise, revenue has not. This is explained by the performing arts nature, in which technological innovations do not increase its productivity. Furthermore, the contemporary arts landscape presents a growing range of entertainment options, while at the same time most of the population has less available time to partake into leisure. Economic crises, most recently in 2008, have led to drastic public funding costs – particularly in the European context – and economic standards are commonly applied to measure culture’s value in society (Galli, 2011; Byrnes, 2003). The following analysis details the current European public funding landscape:

In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Hungary, the economic crisis, topped by a lack of political support for the arts, has led to disproportionately larger cuts on arts budgets in relation to the overall budget.… In countries under pressure to meet standards of fiscal responsibility in order to retain their Euro Zone membership (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland), drastic reductions to overall budgets are also resulting in severe cuts to arts budgets. (Benedikt, n.d.)

In the United States, McCarthy (2001, p. 111) exposed the difficulties of sustaining non-commercial performing arts initiatives, and a decrease in the number of performing artists. This report questioned if the ongoing marketization of arts and culture would still enable the production of original and valuable works. In 2013, an independent study also considered these, such as lack of funding, diminishing presenting venues and payment difficulties. Thus, the performing arts cost disease affects the field worldwide.

The $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) represents just 0.012%….of federal discretionary spending (the NEA’s budget reached an all-time high of $175,954,680 in 1992, only to fall below $100M from 1996-2000, indicating that arts funding isn’t necessarily a straightforward partisan issue). (Avganim, Bartosik, Benacerraf, Dana, Hamlin, Horwitz & Lind, 2014, pp. 2–3)

If the visual arts saw a proliferation of biennials and multi exhibitions, one of the most remarkable shifts in the last decades for the performing arts has been the proliferation of festivals and the ‘festival mentality’ across presenting venues. The post-World War II period required a new formula to ‘assert the values of culture against hatred, brutality and persecution’. This moment coincides with the beginning of the Edinburgh (1947) and Avignon (1948) festivals and UNESCO’s World Theatre Season (1954) (Klaic, 2014, pp. 10–11). In general, these festivals had strong national ties and broad public support since they were part of a system of values and were instrumental to political objectives. This mentality is still present, as one notices on publications such as: ‘European Arts Festivals: Strengthening cultural diversity’ (Giorgi, Segal, Delanty, Sassatelli, Santoro, Solaroli, Maguadda & Chalcraft, 2011).

In the 1960s, alongside these mainstream festivals, an independent festival scene boomed, taking place in disused factories or other locations. These developments led to site-specific performances, while starting a trend for audience participation in the performances (Klaic, 2014, p. 22). However, like in the visual arts sphere, the digital revolution inserted its marketing models and an increasing neoliberal market mentality ‘diluted the meaning of festivals by softening essential differences and distinctive features’ (Klaic, 2014, p. 35). The proliferation of festivals is illustrated below:

Captura de Tela 2016-03-13 às 13.09.43

Figure 2 Google Ngram for the term ‘performing arts festival’ (Books.google.com, 2015)

Performing arts festivals operate in a constant balance between standing up for an artistic vision and depending on public funding to survive. Nonetheless, festivals are central to the field as platforms of production experimentation and presenting, as well as recently offering the possibility of achieving a certain audience and/or funding:

If I want to attract a large number of young spectators, I have to programme several festivals throughout my season…if I want to programme some prominent artists in my season, I have to bring them within an invented festival formula because only in this way can I hope to acquire the extra funds needed to pay for them – either in the form of additional subsidy or sponsorship.” (Klaic, 2014, p. 43)

 Curating Performing Arts

If the 1990’s mark the curatorial shift in visual arts to the exhibition-making star curator, they also mark, among European sources, the emergence of the performing arts curator.

Formats such as festivals and congresses were pulled into theatres, which started to become a place where the production of art was linked to the development of theory and where interdisciplinary work was fostered.… Activities such as the combining and mediation of information, objects and people started to be in demand in a society that is more set up for content concepts and theoretical foundations…and looks to the relational quality of events. (Boldt, 2011, pp. 4–5)

According to Malzacher (2010, p. 14), this shift also relates to Szeeman’s ausstellunsmacher becoming a synonym for the curator and the contextual changes brought about since the 1990s. New institutional frameworks and operating economies demanded new skills from the professionals. For Ricci (2014, p. 15), the curator’s emergence also coincides with its application at the Berliner theatres HAU and the new festival scene:

When internal structural changes were happening and the practice of programming thematic festivals was introduced.… The term curator in performing arts contexts goes hand in hand with drastic re-consideration and bold experimental approaches to festival format”.

A symbol of this shift can be found in the new statutes formulated in 1997 by the European Festivals Association, to accommodate collective members (European Festival Association, n.d.). Notwithstanding, this is a Eurocentric vision. In Brazil, for instance, where some of the interviewees worked, dictatorship lasted until the late 1980s and public funding for culture was erratic. The first international theatre festival in the country’s largest city has only been in existence for two years. But, as noted previously and reinforced by Ellis’s (2008, p. 65) account of theatre festivals, the current widespread festival trend is a global one and generally originated in the 1990s.

Ferdman (2014a, pp. 5–6) argues that 1963 marks the rise of the performing arts curator, at the Edinburgh Festival happenings promoted by John Calder with invited artists Allan Kaprow and Ken Dewey. The performances caused a huge stir and were presented on a completely original framework.

The very conventions of the theatre event—when it took place, where it took place, why it took place—were being challenged ….. Dewey’s performance stirred much anxiety precisely because it undermined the hierarchy of theatrical production and questioned the very politics of this art system. It would have been impossible to purchase this show and present it at the festival. It could not tour in the conventional way. By paying attention to the context of the theatrical event and rethinking the norms of participation in the realm of the live, prompting everyone to ask what is this?, Dewey and his collaborators had unwittingly upset the logic of the programming establishment

This performance curator is also a mediator, responsible for framing the way the work is presented and received by an audience, theoretically similar to the visual arts curator. This would arise from a necessity to question institutional frameworks in performing arts, just as Szeeman and his counterparts did at the time, in a visual arts context (Ferdman, 2014, p.7). From this logic, the performance curator must be established in order to converge theory and praxis, approximating it to the visual arts tradition. Visual arts curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (2010, p. 47) also sustains that ‘in performing arts you have great artists, but there has been barely a book published on their work.’ O’Neill (2007, p. 57) also pointed to this relationship between active practice and discourse, arguing that the act of curating inevitably requires a discourse as ‘speaking or writing’ to exist.

curatorial practice has been made perceptible as the participation in the selection, co-production, display and/or dissemination of art by a framing of these practices. Those who curate exhibitions articulate a position and, through public discussions, conferences and publications about curating, they….situate this position within a broader discourse. (O’Neill, 2007, p. 56)

At an ICPP symposium, Philip Bither, curator of the Walker Arts Centre, connected the curator to the programmer, suggesting that ‘presenters are often expected to be great curators, marketing people, and finance. Our approach was: sometimes we are just presenting. Sometimes we are commissioning and presenting…. Sometimes we’re almost all in and almost a producer. ‘(Curating as a verb: What is artist-centred curatorial practice?, 2014).

In sum, one notices that there is an advocacy for a curatorial model to be closely drawn from the visual arts, which would understand institutional frameworks in order to push its boundaries, bringing the concept of institutional critique. It would also augment the volume of specific publications in the field and create new ways to engage with the audience, and by reshaping institutional structures. The curator would add value to the performing arts scene.

The independent performing arts, these arts in a niche without a proper name, need articulation, contextualization, discourses, and publicity in order to be able to take their deserved place among the contemporary arts. The curator is one of the symptoms of a change.… Even though programming in dance, theatre, performance has undergone fundamental changes over the last decades there are barely any texts that reflect on its specific role in art production, reception and market” (Malzacher, 2010, p. 19)

However, the available literature has so far failed to provide a deeper analysis of the practices and strategies involved to reach such goals, or any insight into the consequences of such actions. Indeed, some authors are reticent about the introduction of this curator. Ritsema (2010, pp. 6–7) links it etymologically to ‘cure’ instead of ‘care’: ‘[there is a] difference between to prescribe (to pro-gram) or to cure. I like to decide myself about the way I want to be cured. I don’t mind when someone prescribes me things.’ Spångberg (2010) argues that programmers are not curators, and often present similar acts, restrained by budget cuts, audience engagement and so on. He posits:

If you are keen on promoting the local scene, why not offer them the central venue on the weekend…. The central problem with programming today…is that ideology…has become subordinate to financial and political circumstances…the visual sector has developed strong curatorial discourses…. An important consequence of such discourses is a disconnection between director and curator.… The independent curator of course has to obey economic circumstances but the objective is not simply to stay alive but to produce specificity” (Spångberg, 2010, pp. 73–74)

Klaic (2014, p. 53) counter argues that, for the audience, these acts are not necessarily repeated, since ‘audiences are less mobile and thus it does not matter for a local public that the same artistic work has appeared elsewhere…..as long as the work is in itself appropriately provoking or exciting.’ Nonetheless, the constraints raised by Spångberg (2010) are also described by Malzacher (2010), among others, and must be considered. This mix of artistic vision and strategic factors is presented as part of the praxis balance between artistic vision and pragmatic factors. As Kawashima (1998, p. 34) explains:

Programme choice is firstly constrained by seasonal patterns of consumer behaviour and the arts centre’s geographic location in relation to general arts provision in the area and its audience characteristics….The programmer then considers the suitability of the product in the light of its costs, audience potential and artistic quality”.

This brief review pointed to some general tendencies to analyse and identify the performing arts curator. First, Szeeman’s ausstellunsmacher brings the concept of an interfering curator. Second, the performing arts curator is theoretically a specialized type of programmer, embodied with institutional critique. This curator mediates between artists, audience and institution and has broad responsibilities – from finance and fundraising, to creating a framework to select the work. The curator would also bridge the gap between curatorial discourse and praxis. Finally, there is the question of the audience’s impact on the curator’s role:

Performance has been always more concerned with the audience element than visual arts…. Even the rather small audience that is interested in advanced forms of theatre is far less informed about the actual art field as a whole than its counterparts… it travels less and its artworks are more difficult to access, and are not reproducible in catalogue”. (Malzacher, 2010, p. 14)

Nonetheless, considering how audience is central to define the performing arts and the curator’s role, it is astonishing how little research exists on the audiences’ reactions and perspectives.

Cruz (2013, p. 3) presents a useful framework to differentiate the three main professionals, on a civil level, who organize the performing arts field: the cultural manager, the programmer and the curator. The cultural manager aims to ‘achieve an efficiency between institution, investment, events and cultural consumers’ (translated by the author). The programmer is linked to the local community and aims to link it with an artistic programme, while also tending to the community’s needs. Finally, the curator would be the least bound to an institution, with broader responsibilities in terms of the art and the audience. His or her mission would be to perceive contemporary trends and developments, and arrange information alongside the artworks to create connections and ‘ultimately transmit to the public the feeling of discovery provoked by the face-to-face encounter with art’ (translated by the author). The curator would create new formats to present the work with the intention to access a broad and diverse audience.

Isabel Passos Sachs,  October 2015.




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