Why is that on the wall?

‘Night Lights’ by Ray Hassard. ‘Night Lights’ by Ray Hassard.

The great mystery of the curatorial

By Jane A. Black

‘Night Lights’ by Ray Hassard.

‘Night Lights’ by Ray Hassard.

If you look at and think about art, I’d venture to guess you’ve wondered, at least once or twice, why the heck the object before you was chosen for display. Chances are, the reason remained inscrutable. Who chose the art is one of the details that are often left out.

There are almost as many ways to put together an exhibition as there are kinds of art. But if you are in a museum or university gallery, there is a good chance you are looking at a curated show – one in which someone other than the artist has selected the work. That person is usually deemed “curator.”

I was thinking about this because I have curated a couple of shows for galleries in the past two years. Through October 16, you can visit my most recent venture in selection. The Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery will present Natural Light, an exhibit that showcases 16 members of the Ohio Plein Air Society. I know all the work will look new to me, since I chose it in the dead of last winter, when looking at verdant hillsides and leafy trees seemed more like a fantasy than reality.

If you go to Columbus to see this show, swing by the Ohio State Fair, too. They have a fine arts exhibition that is a competition – submitted work chosen by a juror or jury process.

Some of the locals who will be in this year’s show, on view through August 8, include Bridgette Bogle, Diane Dover, Richard Jurus and Christina Pereyma.

Curating still makes me a little uncomfortable. (“I’m not a curator, but I play one on TV.”) I am really an artist at heart … non-practicing at the moment, but it’s still my primary identification and worldview. So, I feel like a bit of an imposter, as well as a little intrusive, when I am deciding for one of my fellow makers what goes on the wall. A lot of people think I do this at the Dayton Visual Arts Center (DVAC), in my day job. Not true. DVAC leaves shows to the artists, who decide what work to show themselves. Nonetheless, I enjoy the process immensely. It’s always a pleasure to look at other artists’ work and to talk to them about their concepts, processes and experiences.

When I googled “curator” there two definitions on brainyquote.com: “One who has the care and superintendence of anything, as of a museum; a custodian; a keeper” and “One appointed to act as guardian of the estate of a person not legally competent to manage it, or of an absentee; a trustee; a guardian.” Wow – one subtext lends gravitas … the charge of protecting in perpetuity … and the other is slightly insulting … artists can’t manage their own body of work?

In less-curated shows, you have a clear view into the artist’s intent. That can be a very exciting thing. On the other hand, you sometimes – not always, but too often – end up seeing poorly hung and lighted work that doesn’t hold together as a fully realized exhibition; Or not being able to find or reach an outdoor installation. That can be a disappointment. Still, it’s the artist’s choice whether to wait for someone else to recognize the quality of their work and put it on a pedestal, so to speak, or to put it out there however they can.

More and more, there is less and less vetting in what goes on the wall. Much of what you see now would once have been classified as a vanity show – artwork that is presented by the person who made it, either by opening a gallery, paying for a space in an established location or by creating a new, often temporary, space to hang it. Not a thing wrong with it – but it’s good to know what is what!

Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at www.daytonvisualarts.org. Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout.

She can be reached at

Jane Black

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