I was in my early 20s when I first visited the National Gallery of Canada in our nation’s capital. News headlines were abuzz about the Voice of Fire, the tall acrylic abstract painting by American artist Barnett Newman with its three vertical stripes of blue, red and blue. The piece was commissioned for Expo 67 as part of the U.S. pavilion curated by art critic and historian Alan Solomon.
In 1990, the Gallery announced it had shelled out $1.8 million ($3.4 million in today’s dollars) to purchase the artwork for its permanent collection, setting off a firestorm of controversy and mockery. Was it too pricey? Was it too simple? Was it art? T-shirts, editorials cartoons and homemade versions popped up across the country. Even a farmer’s reproduction painted on plywood was propped against his field’s fence.
For my young mind, here was an introduction to curated exhibits, a welcome to the world of impressionism, and a front-row pass to participate in a national media story.
Gary Goodacre, who sees his role as “the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage” heads up the Gallery’s public education program.
“In our programming, we try to empower people to look, describe, analyze and interpret art,” he says. “This way they leave, maybe not loving the work, but at least understanding the context in which it was produced.”
I’ve strived for that same ideal in my roles as writer, journalist and editor.
Peter Taub, who curated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for twenty years, says, “curating is more than a reflection of a person’s interests; it is scholarship, framing ideas, telling stories — showing the edge that exists between the thing curated and the rest of us.” (Everybody’s a curator, Chicago Tribune 2013.)
Back when I stood before the Voice of Fire, curators were found in those hallowed halls of galleries and museums. Today, in a world of stuff, stuff and more stuff, curators are popping up everywhere — offering a go-to setlist of podcasts, a road-trip worthy playlist or a must-see shelter-in-place selection of Netflix pics.
The word curator comes from more humble beginnings. A parish priest, a curate, was entrusted with the care of souls. Curating is more than a matter of style or simply building a list. It’s delving deeper, building up real knowledge of the items in your care.
As editor, my hope is that the stories we present to you, the voices we reveal and the trends we uncover (or question) provide signposts for your life’s journey — as well as offer up a few unexplored paths to venture down.
My calling may not be as a spiritual guide, but the soul of our community matters.
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