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Over the past two decades, the art system has embraced, and indeed fostered, an increasingly pronounced bipolarity: that of the artist-curator. Despite the emergence of a greater focus on a horizontal process of artistic creation (as in the last edition of Documenta) and the realisation that multiple professionals participate in the chorus-like development of complex projects, the attribution traditionally remains anchored to these two figures.
This phenomenon has, on the one hand, legitimised the omnipresence of the curator, making this role central and bringing it closer to that of the artist in terms of creative freedom. On the other, it has hung a veil over a series of professional figures who contribute to the development of projects, which are in many cases the outcome of collective work.
The genesis of this dualism can be traced to the late-twentieth-century attempt to create more dynamism within the art system and to overcome the rigid limits of certain roles. The result was certainly an amplification of creative potential, but the bid to create hybrid figures on a broader spectrum instead stopped at this bipolarity. Identifying and recognising the two-directional authorship of a project ─ again, that is, with reference to artist and curator ─ generates an imbalance that does not only concern intellectual honesty or the question of hierarchies within institutions. Rather, it redefines the actual importance of each profession, with side-effects also in the field of education.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, the first curatorial courses and departments emerged within the Universities and Fine Arts Academies, which later multiplied exponentially. One of the first in Italy to host a curatorial course was the NABA — Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti; it was then followed by the Academies and, finally, by several masters courses and study programs straddling Art Management and Cultural Heritage, including at LUISS in Rome and Ca’ Foscari University in Venice.
The growth of the training offer around the role of the curator is certainly justified by the professionalisation of this figure and the key position it holds within the contemporary art scene. However, it also responds to a market demand, as the increase in supply is directly proportional to demand: both from young people who are about to enter the world of work, seeing the curator’s role as a path toward promising professional growth; and from the labour market, in terms of positions, calls for applications, and residencies. This trend not only shapes the training on offer from public and private institutions, but also drives a gradual convergence of emerging talents towards that role, which best responds to the needs expressed above.
In the light of almost two decades in in which curatorial studies have had such an extensive presence, it is appropriate to ask what figures and skills these courses actually generate, and whether they correspond to the real needs of the art system. At the same time, is also important to analyse which professions remain excluded from educational pathways, and are thus required to train directly on the job.
Numerous professionals are involved in the construction of an exhibition or publishing project, especially an institutional one. For instance, when it comes to preparing an exhibition, we can cite: coordinators, producers, registrars, exhibition designers, and fitters. The expertise of each figure is fundamental to the realisation of the project, since it develops from multiple relationships, which become an integral part of the creative process.
These figures normally come from different educational backgrounds and have structured their professional identity through work experience, filling in the gaps left by their studies. The producer’s role, for example, requires managerial skills such as the ability to manage a budget, define a timeline, coordinate a working group (assistants, suppliers, etc.), but at the same time it requires knowledge of technical aspects, for example related to the requirements of different types of artworks, the processing of materials, audiovisual equipment or set-up solutions. Last but not least, the producer has to interpret the artist’s requests with sufficient powers of discernment to grasp the profound nature of the project and support its development.
A course or a master’s degree focused on this role would be easy to organise: to achieve a good result from an academic point of view, it would be enough to formulate a curriculum capable of ensuring the student’s acquisition of the aforementioned knowledge and tools — through lectures, the analysis of case studies and practical exercises. This would work precisely because these are skills and information that can be transmitted and learnt if communicated correctly. Paradoxically, the university system instead revolves around the training of figures such as the artist and the curator, roles which are characterised by a strong creative component and which should thus be considered difficult to transmit.
Observing the training paths of numerous curatorial courses in Italy, one notices how they are built on a strong theoretical, critical and creative basis. The introduction to curatorial thought and practice is usually followed by an analysis of best practicesand exhibition models, and then by an in-depth study of expressive research and more specific focuses such as law in art and the management of new communication tools. This type of training responds to an ideal model of curatorship, but it does not much fit with the real demands encountered on the job — especially at the beginning of the graduate’s career, when they are unlikely to start working in already structured realities.
A deeper knowledge of aspects not strictly regarding curatorial practice tout court would provide young art professionals with the tools to move within the occupational system with less difficulty, and to manage independent projects with greater autonomy. Above all, if educational institutions acknowledged this need, via the creation of dedicated masters programs or courses of study, this would allow students to orient themselves more consciously in their professional choice and in their selection of roles more aligned with their skills, adapting to the actual needs of the contemporary art system. So, on the one hand, future curators often finish their studies without sufficient skills in the most practical and essential aspects of the organisation of an exhibition, from production to budget management; on the other hand, the figures who (would) deal with these aspects struggle to find directions towards their role within the existing educational offer.
It is, however, important to point out that many of the limitations of today’s education system can be traced back to the Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR). In order to receive recognition from the MIUR, institutions are, in fact, obliged to comply with guidelines characterised by reduced flexibility in terms of updating their curricula. To enrich or supplement their offer, institutions tend to invest in the field of optional activities, such as seminars and workshops, where private universities have greater room for manoeuvre than public ones.
Various educational institutions have taken steps to fill in these gaps, by introducing practical projects and devoting in-depth studies to these topics in the form of workshops and seminars. Yet even this approach is still insufficient. International models are certainly an important point of reference, as they offer more comprehensive curricula more oriented toward the world of work.
Numerous courses and academies have included an end-of-course project; for example, at the end of each year, the students of the two-year Visual Cultures and Curatorial Practices course at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, as well as at CAMPO ─ a curatorial studies course launched by the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo ─ are called upon to set up a curatorial collective and follow all the design and organisational steps of an exhibition: from the conceptto the choice of artists, from logistics to set-up, from communication to the preparation of a catalogue.
To conclude, it is interesting to zero in on the initiatives promoted directly by students or by organisations close to young art professionals. CASTRO, a Rome-based training project, organised an intensive seminar with the MACRO Museum in 2022, revolving around the question “How do you imagine your ideal course?” The reflections which emerged during the discussion among a group of students from universities all over Italy led to the creation of the HOW TO workshop cycle, organised in collaboration with the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Students themselves thus had the opportunity to attend workshops with experts in the field such as AWI (Art Workers Italia), which dealt in depth with issues related to the legal aspects and protection of art workers, or other professionals who guided the students towards a proper presentation of their work, between portfolio creation and personal statements.
While in the case of the offer coming from universities, the shortcomings highlighted above can be traced back to various factors, it is difficult to find an explanation for the total absence of calls for applications, residencies and scholarships aimed at other professionals. These opportunities are crucial, as they enrich the world of education, giving students the possibility of expanding their knowledge, gaining new experience and widening their networks. In addition to public calls for applications, there are also numerous opportunities promoted by private institutions and centres, whose boards aremade up of professionals who are fully aware of the needs and dynamics within the contemporary art system. Excluding figures such as coordinators, project managers, producers, and registrars, seems to suggest the reduction of their role to a merely technical task. Conversely, the possibility of expanding the field of research and acquiring new skills would enrich the entire system, since more complete and motivated figures would be created in the path of professional growth.