Spotlight: Mark Scala on Curating

<strong>Mark Scala</strong>
Mark Scala

What are curators talking about? What is the global role of the curator? How can curators broaden the curatorial voice? In this conversation, Mark Scala, the Chief Curator at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, offers important insights on these critical questions.

Lilia Ziamou: What are curators focusing on as they strive to provide meaningful experiences to diverse audiences?

Mark Scala: We are in constant conversations about engaging the next generation of museum-goers. We know that people are thirsty for the kind of intellectual and emotional substance that too often is absent in social media and other interactions that are superficial, non-nuanced, and mono-dimensional. At the same time, we are increasingly excited about using innovative technology to enhance the art experience through interactive interpretation and websites, as well as other means of in-gallery participation: technology not as an end but rather as a portal to deeper experience.

Lilia Ziamou: Have any basic assumptions been altered by local, national, or international events of recent years that may have shaken certain ideas about the global role of the curator and the instrumentality of exhibitions?

Mark Scala: Museums will continue to advance humanist values such as authenticity, diversity, beauty, knowledge, and empathy. These ideals run counter both to the flattening effects of globalism and to the cultural cocooning that comes with nationalism and neo-tribalism. Today, as people increasingly recognize their responsibility to engage more fully in shaping society, curators are crafting experiences not only through the lenses of personal expression and philosophy, but also of social interaction, economics, and politics. There are real-world stakes in the choices we make as curators.

The art world operates within a meta-narrative of international connectedness. In terms of distribution, communication, and consumption, it is a perfect signifier of globalism. But like cuisine, music, literature, and films, the art that seems to matter the most silhouettes personal and cultural differences against the gray field of uniformity. I think most of my colleagues agree that it is imperative to present voices that have gone unheard, creating opportunities to enlarge the lives of our audiences while helping to unravel enclavism and retrenchment.

Lilia Ziamou: As much contemporary art relates to ideas and experiences with which a curator might be unfamiliar, are there collaborations or alliances with other curators or specialists in other disciplines that might broaden the curatorial voice?

Mark Scala: It is great fun and a little humbling for curators to invite interactions with disciplines within and outside the arts, from poetry to physics, in which we have no training but plenty of interest. If the enhancement of curiosity is one of our goals, as surely it is, we benefit from finding the unexpected angle, the new reading, the twist that makes our understanding of art a little less assured. As everyone knows, the word “curator” has been generalized to indicate anyone who orchestrates a presentation of any type—curators of songs and sock displays. Rather than take umbrage at the implied trivialization of curatorial work as a scholarly pursuit, we can embrace and guide the curatorial impulses of our poets, musicians, and astronomers, helping them see our world while we get a peek into theirs. This will help us build toward a future of intersecting knowledges.

The transcribed text has been edited for length and clarity.

Lilia Ziamou is a visual artist.

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