What Art Curation Can Teach Us About Innovation

We often think of art as being innovative by its nature – but what about curating art? A couple of weeks ago Nancy and I went to a talk Amanda Pagliarino, the Queensland Art Gallery’s Head of Conservation. She was discussing some the challenges that her team faced in getting all the exhibits ready for the Asia Pacific Triennial 6 at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane (the ABC did a nice review of the show last week on the Artscape show).

The talk was fascinating. Pagliarino talked about some of the issues involved in mounting five of the larger pieces of art in the show. Here is a picture of part of the process of installing Line of Control by Subodh Gupta (with more here):

This was apparently one of the heaviest things they’ve ever exibited – so they had to figure out how to have the crane inside the gallery for a full day, how to set it up so that the diesel fumes wouldn’t have an impact on other pieces in the gallery, where to place the piece so that the floor would support it for the length of the show, and several other obstacles.

The issues with Mushroom Mantra by Charwei Tsai were completely different:

For this, they tested a number of different types of mushrooms to see which were easiest to write on, which would decay most effectively (and without creating too much of a smell!), and what kinds of dirt would work best.

Each of the five pieces that Pagliarino discussed had issues that her team had to address. All of them were different, all of them were completely new to the staff at GoMA, and several of them were problems that no gallery curator in the world had encountered previously. So there was a lot of innovation involved in putting this show together. Several of the problem solutions were ingenius. All in all, it was a terrific talk, and I learned a lot.

I think that there are several innovation lessons here as well:

  • It takes a unique skill set to innovate in a situation where nearly every problem is unique. Many jobs encounter difficulties that can be addressed through some form of troubleshooting. In the case of art curation, there is more of an emphasis on creatively attacking ideas, rather than running through a process. One thing that I found very interesting is that the QAG team often used experimentation – they tried multiple small experiments (as they did with Mushroom Mantra), and they failed quickly, cheaply and privately. Once they settled on a solution through experimentation, they were ready to install the pieces in public. However, in some cases, time was so tight that they just had to use their best judgement.
  • That said, over time the problems can be divided into classes. One of the unique features of GoMA as a gallery is that it has a couple of absolutely gigantic walls. They have taken advantage of these spaces to mount some unusually large pieces. After the talk I asked Amanda if she thought that they had developed a unique competence in installing really big pieces of art, and she said that she thought they have. Mayo Martin has an interesting perspective on some of the issues surrounding bigness in this exhibition, which are also worth reading (though I disagree with him about Chen Qiulin’s house from the Three Gorges region).
  • This leads to the third point – that art curation appears to be very strongly collaborative. When they encounter problems that are new to them, they use the international network of curators to find out of anyone else has dealt with the problem before. It sounds like nearly all of the knowledge in the network is tacit, which suggests that the most effective curators will be skilled at working the network.
  • Finally, I think there are some significant parallels between art curation and managing. Both frequently encounter unique problems that require you to think on your feet and come up with something new. Most of the jobs can be done by routine, but it is how you deal with these situations that determine how successful you you really are. This is something that I think we need to keep in mind when we’re training managers – MBA students often want to learn things that they can apply. These are the things that are good for routine problems, but they don’t help with unique ones. We need to get better at training people to deal with these.

One last example from APT 6 – one of the pieces had been commissioned by QAG specifically for the show. They sent the dimensions of the wall that would house the piece to the artists making it in North Korea, who when put together a mosaic. When it arrived, the dimensions of the piece matched those of the elevator, which are about one meter higher and one meter longer than the wall on which it was meant to hang. After trying everything they could think of, the curators eventually concluded that they only way o exhibit the piece was by cutting a meter off the top and off the sides. I would have thought that one of the first rules of art curation would be “don’t cut up the art”, but in this case, it was all they could do. “Don’t cut up the art” actually probably is the first rule of art curation – but sometimes, you just have to get the job done. When you’re curating an art exhibit, and when you’re managing innovation, sometimes the rule book has to go out the window.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “What Art Curation Can Teach Us About Innovation

  1. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about curation in regard to learning, so the innovation application is a natural extension. The images, btw, are nice to see. When I was in Brisbane, Phil took me to the exhibits you mention. Nice memories!

  2. Thanks George – I’d be very interested to see what you have to say about curation & learning… I really enjoyed that exhibition – GoMA has turned out to be a great addition to the cultural scene here in Brisbane.

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