Acknowledging the Intellectual Labor of Curators in a Museum

Thoughts on why curatorial effort isn’t always acknowledged by museums and the press.

“I Made This” meme by Tumblr user Pictures in Boxes, based on the original “I Made this” comic by Tumblr user Nedroid (real name: Anthony Clark) posted on January 30th, 2013 with the caption “The Internet.” (via Pictures In Boxes)

In the era of “fake news,” anonymous or ambiguous authorship is suspect in any arena. Now more than ever, I want to know who has created the content that I consume, whether it is a news article, a public speech, an exhibition, or something else. In the world of museums, where I work as a curator, and where I have often witnessed lack of proper crediting, it is time to properly recognize the deeply collaborative intellectual labor that underpins so much of what we do.

One of the first things that I do when I visit an exhibition is read the introductory wall text to understand the intellectual foundations of the work on view. I look for the same in exhibition catalogues. And I want to see authorship explicitly outlined in any reviews, too. (It frustrates me when authorship is not apparent — I devour acknowledgements and bios in almost any book I read. If this tendency wasn’t already latent, grad school ingrained it — knowing background is crucial to comprehending any reading.)

So when I see that a New York Times review has omitted the names of an excellent exhibition’s key curatorial members (who happened to be my office mates for several years) — and when at least one of those junior members is clearly mentioned in the exhibition press release but I don’t see their name in the review — I feel the same gut punch any of us might if one’s intellectual labor were to go unmentioned in a very public forum.

I felt the same when I read a recent (and rightly) praiseful article on the work of another senior curator (who is, full disclosure, an admired colleague of mine), which lauded the innovative exhibition roster produced under this curator’s leadership, yet failed to acknowledge by name any of the (majority female) colleagues that played key co-authorial roles.

This happens all the time in newspaper reviews (here’s another recent example, a review that fails to credit the co-curator of a major exhibition in London).

I know anecdotally — because I polled peers when writing this article — that this failure to give credit where credit’s due plays out again and again. A few people told me stories of how they worked up the courage to ask their seniors to be credited for intellectual work they had shouldered at least half of — and sometimes much more; one person told me how they filed a correction with a newspaper after their co-authorship on a massive years-in-the-making exhibition was unacknowledged. But most peers said they just let it slide, finding the asymmetrical relationships of power both inside and outside the museum too difficult to challenge without landing themselves in a deeply uncomfortable place. I have been there, too, more than once.

I know many of the curators, publicists, journalists, and other hands through which such decisions pass, and I know these are wonderful, thoughtful, good people. I know that not one of them is out to intentionally obfuscate. I also know in several cases that museum press departments have pushed for correct crediting and been rebuffed. So what gives?

We can all do a bit better. Include junior names, journalists, whenever possible. Even double-barreled hyphenations won’t necessarily destroy your word limit, and acknowledging collaboration and co-authorship is not only generous — it’s historically and factually accurate, which is a minimum standard for serious writing. (Curatorial teams are usually five people or less; when they get larger, it becomes more forgivable to abbreviate and suggest “X and her team.”) And internal museum colleagues — let’s make not only a pact but also proper guidelines to ensure recognition of intellectual labor, especially if it comes from below us, especially if it’s a precariously paid intern or fellow. A lower title or pay grade does not mean lower intellect or contribution. Raise it up. If it sounds like nit-picking, perhaps it is. But when you’re the nit, it matters.

Apart from offering readers and visitors context at the micro level of their own consumption, correct attribution of authorship is also a matter of the larger historical record. Knowing who has created work (and, indeed, indicating to outside audiences who don’t know that intellectual labor in the museum is usually a team effort) is critical to an understanding of how history and culture is produced. Failure to credit — whether deliberate or absent-minded — is a material alteration to this record.

What gets me every single time I see this erasure is the irony of the fact that the very work of reconsidering and recuperating such elisions in canons of visual culture is the springboard for some of the most compelling contemporary scholarship happening today (as well as countless Wiki edit-a-thons). Whether text, exhibition, or otherwise, the important art historical work that reinstates and celebrates artists and designers who have not been correctly recognized for their contributions — so often women, people of color, the differently-abled — is compromised if we don’t properly recognize the labor that created the exhibition or book, too. (The same analogy applies to the institutional treatment of art workers across the museum — you simply cannot have politically righteous conversations in the galleries and simultaneously threaten behind-the-scenes staff members’ basic rights to healthcare or the right to a family life. Or you can try to, but the resulting hypocrisy invalidates the very public institutional work you’re doing, and undermines any position of trust and respect you might hold.)

So let me say it clearly: if someone provides intellectual labor in service of a project of any kind, they should be properly credited for it using the mechanisms appropriate to their field and, indeed, the same mechanisms—from mention in the review to written credit wherever it appears—that anyone else who has similarly contributed to the project is receiving. It doesn’t need to interrupt hierarchy (expertise and time spent in the field matters!), but I think the rule is fairly simple: if your mind helps write or create something, your name should be on it. Anything else is altering authorship. In the academy, it’s called plagiarism.

We all need not only to call out this behavior between friends, but to speak up politely but firmly in public when it happens. This is, in the words of artist and academic Luiza Prado, going beyond the politics of acknowledgement (the Facebook post, the carefully composed Insta picture) to a politics of action.

My politics of action is to write this post. But it is also to live this out in the projects in which I am involved. To claim the right for my intellectual labor to be acknowledged, to always remember to credit accurately and wholly, and to be quick to make amends if I err (we are all human, it happens). However, you’ll notice that I’ve not referred to anyone by name here. The point here is not name-calling or blame, but to come together around the same principles we all support when we consider canons and records and practices of art. The history and practice of our own work deserves as much careful thought too.

One of the most satisfying examples of an exhibition credit that I have ever encountered came as part of Activist New York at the Museum of the City of New York, where — in place of the expected solo or dual curator mention — everyone who worked on the exhibition had their names silkscreened onto the intro wall. This is my ideal.

I’ve been lucky to have had great role models in this regard. Today, I am extremely grateful to work for a mentor who consistently lives these principles of crediting, sharing, and scholarship that I aspire to emulate. During the four years I worked at the Museum of Modern Art, my direct mentor and supervisor never got up on stage without thanking by name (first and last) the people with which she collaborated across departments, including me. (In the words of a development colleague, she was a “class act”). This inspired her team to work hard and earn trust, to meet the challenge of her intellectual fierceness with as much as we could muster of our own. And in doing so, it went without saying that intellectual work was credited — on the spine of the book, on the exhibition wall, on the article byline. In the last exhibition we did together, we acknowledged every hand that went into making it with placards throughout the show. I can’t imagine undertaking another exhibition like this again without doing the same.

And yes, for that showmy name was credited in the New York Times review, too (thanks, Roberta Smith).

Thank you to everyone who spoke to me and provided thoughtful feedback as I researched this article; you remain nameless only because of the sensitivities of the topic at hand.

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