Monday, October 30, 2006


Exhibitions curated and organized by artists are no new invention. There are a number of astonishing examples throughout the history of art in which artists took on the task and the responsibility of putting together an exhibition of art works without having a curator involved. The reasons and motivations behind the aim of self-organizing an exhibition are however often quite varied. On the one hand we have artists who clearly see exhibition making as an extension of their practice as artists, historically that would include artists that we today associate with the term Institutional Critique that emerged in the 1960s and 70s: Hans Haake, Marcel Broodthears, Martha Rosler, Group Material but of course also Fred Wilson or Andrea Fraser all of whom have curated some of the most interesting artist-organized projects and exhibitions of the last 25 years. On the other hand we have shows organized by artists that clearly state an opposition to the curator and institution-lead exhibition system. These are shows in which artists take matters into their own hands without waiting for a curator to come along. Shows which are simply about showing art works by a group of, most often, artist friends. The most prominent one in this category from the recent past is without a doubt Freeze organized by the artist Damien Hirst in 1989 that (without the help of an institution or professional exhibition organizer) catapulted a whole generation of UK artists to the forefront of the public's attention and radically changed the way we think about art in this country till this day. Private: Staff Only is an exhibition that clearly falls into the second category.

I have often wondered how it must be to work in an art institution may it be as a waiter in the café, at the front desk, as a gallery assistant, as an employee at the book shop or, as very often is the case, as a gallery technician but never or hardly ever be involved in what one is actually passionate about in the first place: to show and present one's own work to the public. I have forgotten how many times artists who work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts have asked me to look at their work, have asked me to come to openings of their shows, have told me that what we show in the galleries is in fact 'shit' and we should rather show their work. As annoying as that can be at times it is the only way forward for artists to articulate their position and their role in the hierarchal and often sadly insensitive fabric of contemporary institution. The ideas behind Private: Staff Only are located exactly here: the ICA has plenty of talented artists working under it's roof who in some way live a slightly schizophrenic existence. Private: Staff Only objective is to put an end to this situation, at least temporarily, and get a show off the ground involving everyone who has ever worked at the ICA and would like to contribute a work of art. Yet, in contrast to a proper gallery show the organizers have decided upon a more guerrilla approach, presenting the works of art throughout the offices and in the non-public areas of the institution and with that also resisting the possibility of being in fact publicly co-opted by the institution that could use the show and its idealistic spirit for polishing its own image. What is moreover interesting in regard to the idea of presenting the work in the offices is the fact that we all will be confronted with them on a daily basis, that we will not be able to escape them as they are planted right in those areas in which till this point the boredom of bureaucracy had it's home.

It might be interesting to consider that of all art institutions in London the ICA has always been the institution that has been the most artist-driven. It comes as no surprise that the ranks of former Directors of Exhibitions include for example a titan of post-war British art, Richard Hamilton. I personally took much pride in the fact that to come to the ICA in the role and function of Director of Exhibitions was to follow in the steps of Hamilton, yet of course with the limitations of being 'only' a curator. The merry years of the Independent Group in the 1950s was a time in which the artists were in charge of what was taking place in the ICA. It was a time during which this institution was clearly the place for artists and their ideas unlike today when art institutions, particularly those in the UK, have mostly become part of a corporate machine in which one either complies to what the market and the tranquilized masses are longing for or, should one dare to resist, has to make space for people who will blindly follow what marketing and audience numbers driven institutional polices ask them to do. But there is no need to worry just yet, it is initiatives like this that prove that there are other voices out there that offer an alternative understanding in regard to the relationship between institutions and artists and continue to challenge the hierarchies that try to suppress true creativity and critical reflection.

Jens Hoffmann


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