Ceding Control: Exploring Community-led Curatorial Models

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts distributed curatorial power among its fellow Bay Area arts organizations for the upcoming BAN7 exhibition.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Bay Area Now triennial exhibition will adopt a curatorial process directed by community partners. Image: Anita Hart.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Bay Area Now triennial exhibition will adopt a curatorial process guided by input from community partners. Image: Anita Hart.

A new curatorial model

2014 marks the seventh edition of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s triennial, Bay Area Now (BAN). YBCA, which was founded in 1993 to serve as a venue “… devoted to contemporary visual art representing diverse cultural and artistic perspectives,” presented the inaugural Bay Area Now in 1997, when the organization was still in its relative infancy. Intended to serve as a barometer of the Bay Area arts community and reflect YBCA’s inclusive organizational model, the BAN exhibitions have yielded a variety of curatorial approaches and focuses. BAN7, as with earlier iterations of the triennial, seeks to answer the question of “What’s happening now?”

How will BAN7 represent the current arts community?

Rather than culling artistic voices via the traditional curatorial model in which the curator and institution hold positions of ultimate authority, this year’s exhibition adopted a decentralized curatorial model that dismantled this hierarchy, distributing that power among a sizeable and open cohort of its fellow Bay Area arts organizations. In previous years, the curators selected artists through studio visits or nominations from curatorial colleagues, but for BAN7, YBCA put out an open call to arts organizations that asked: What work are you doing? Who are you showing? What does your Bay Area arts microcosm look like? BAN7 grew from these proposals – a collection of “responses” individually curated by each participating organization. After all, who better to decide how to depict what’s going on in the arts community than the community itself?

Achieving a broader conversation through decentralization

When I sat down to discuss BAN7 with YBCA’s Director of Visual Arts, Betti-Sue Hertz, and Assistant Curator of Visual Arts, Ceci Moss, they shared that the idea for this approach grew from Ceci’s experience participating in the 2010 arts festival No Soul For Sale – a hybrid fair/exhibition that brought together a wide array of nonprofits, collectives, and alternative spaces from around the world to the Tate Modern in London.

Emphasizing “coexistence” as one of the festival’s core tenets, No Soul For Sale showcased the vibrant ecosystem of independents whose work contributes to the larger arts community often dominated by higher-profile commercial entities. In contrast to mega-exhibitions in the biennial and triennial vein, No Soul For Sale organizers did not enlist a group of curators, but instead left the selection of artists in the hands of the 40 participating institutions, thereby broadening the pool of perspectives represented, and elevating the authority and insights of lesser-known, yet no less impactful, art world players.

For YBCA, No Soul For Sale’s decentralized approach to curation and familiar commitment to representing a diversity of voices seemed like a good model to test. By setting a goal for BAN7 to “provide a platform for promoting a stronger sense of shared community among multiple publics,” Betti-Sue and Ceci were pleased at how many young organizations unfamiliar to either of them had submitted proposals right beside longstanding Bay Area arts bastions. It was precisely this co-mingling of organizations – young/old, East Bay/South Bay, and a multitude of other mash-ups – that Betti-Sue and Ceci envisioned for BAN7: a space for the Bay Area to discover and engage with the vast range of artists organizations that comprise the arts community, and a forum, too, for the arts community to discover and engage with each other. 

Today’s conversation about ceding control

If the decentralized approach was a natural fit for YBCA, why start with BAN7? Why not the previous iterations? With the goal of showcasing the arts now, this approach recognizes the ideologies of co-creation and ceding control that are currently shaping the arts field. It would appear that this is a greater conversation emerging across the arts – from theaters to museums; from audience engagement to exhibition development – that stands to drastically shift our understanding of and approach to our work as arts administrators.

It’s a conversation that we’ve been thinking about here on ArtsFwd, too. Earlier this year, Blogging Fellow Erinn Roos-Brown wondered whether the role of the curator was evolving from a position of “knowledge disseminator” to “knowledge facilitator.” In my last post, I shared a perspective gathering strength among some museums that their function is not to create programming so much as to facilitate it. Current Blogging Fellow Francesca McKenzie highlighted the practices of an improv venue more interested in serving as a space for the creative expressions of its amateur audience base than simply hosting pro talent.

The arts field as a whole has always been a progenitor of bold ideas and experimentation – and at present, is grappling with the bold idea that individual arts organizations might quiet their own ideas and perspectives in order to give voice to those around them – whether those voices originate from within their own arts community, or somewhere entirely new and unexpected.

Does YBCA know what BAN7 will look like? Not yet. But they’re not worried – they have an excited, creative community working on that right this very minute.

Alison Konecki graduated with a B.A. in Art History and English from Canisius College and received an M.A. in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. While living in Washington, D.C., she was the Development & Community Outreach Coordinator for Transformer. After transplanting to San Francisco in 2012, she became the Development Associate for the FOR-SITE Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to art about place, and held Fellowships with Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA, and California Association of Museums (CAM). An arts and travel writer, she is interested in cultural policy and funding, and is intent on exploring as much of the world’s cultural wealth as possible.