Riff Raff, Are we there yet?, video still, 2016. (Masks featuring: artist Simon Denny, curator and Serpentine artistic director Hans-Ulrich Obrist, art historian and Royal Academy of Art artistic director Tim Marlow).

Curating, Dark Matter and the Art World Conspiracy

Bruce E. Phillips explores the complex role of the curator within the art world, unpicking some of the more circuitous relationships and coming to some uncomfortable conclusions.

Li-Ming Hu, Putting it together, video still, 2016. 7. Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Li-Ming Hu.

Curating is not so much the product of curators as it is the fruit of the labour of a network of agents. The outcome is a stirring of smooth surfaces, a specific, multilayered way of agitating environments both inside and outside the white cube. ~ Maria Lind

The "art world is highly dependent on its Dark Matter much in the same way the physical universe depends on the presence of cosmic Dark Matter", writes artist and critic Gregory Shollette. He proposes that the majority of the art world is comprised of an unrecognised and undervalued network of agents who create a vibrant ecology of exchange, experimentation, debate and community.


This premise takes its cue from Carol Duncan's seminal 1983 text Who Rules the Art World in which she demystifies the art world and levels a damning critique against the art elite by claiming that there is a great waste of creative energy measured in the “'millions [of artists] whose creative potential is never touched."

More recently the debate of ‘who rues the art world’ has focused squarely upon the role of the curator and in particular the so-called ‘star curator’.

Best caricatured by the critic David Balzer, star curators are untrained “vampiric/parasitic” individuals that act like multinational brands flitting from museum to museum and from biennial to biennial all the while perpetuating a rhetoric of critique in a self-effacing manner to become “alluring and vexing in equal measure”. 

Similarly, critics and curators such as Paul O’Neill claim that the desire for “celebrity, economic advantages... career advancement for artist friends, and the influence of the art market” now drive curatorial motivations.

Others emphasise that the reputation producing function of curating may have even supplanted actual curatorial skills, as Nina Möntmann argues: “sound experience frequently counts less in curators’ favour than their global presence and networks and their PR and management qualities.

"These blatant extrinsic incentives have skewed and limited the role of curating to being about social manoeuvrings and reinforcing hierarchical power dynamics.

In terms of the curator’s suppression of an art world dark matter, there is no more telling acknowledgment of this than in the speech at an exhibition opening. Ask any gallery technician and they will tell you that the gushing gratitude from the curator is usually an indication of how many late nights the exhibition staff have worked due to curatorial decisions.

For these reasons, it is easy to become overzealous about the idea that curators are an all-powerful elite taking advantage of an undervalued art world proletariat, which can risk simplifying a more complex reality.

Such generalities can also gloss over other realities like those in a small art scene such as Aotearoa New Zealand where cooperation is more common and advantageous than megalomaniac agendas. After all, as Duncan perceptively notes, “[e]veryone feels caught up in a ‘system’ whose controlling power is everywhere but in no one in particular... The art world is hardly an organised conspiracy”.

Riff Raff, Artist talk reenactment, performance still, 2016. Photo: StJohn Milgrew (Masks featuring: curator and New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, artist Tracey Emin, Tim Marlow)

Plus, much has changed in the last 5-10 years. Today, most creative practitioners have access to digital platforms to self-publish, be self-employed, to seek crowd funding, to initiate crowd collaboration or the power to be seen and heard. Furthermore, due to the educational, curatorial and collaborative turns of the 1990s and early 2000s there has been a significant proliferation of democratic modes of working.

In any case, curators have a far more important, interesting and challenging responsibility in being a conduit for connection within a network rather than seeking out selfish desires to work the ‘network’.


For the curator's role as a mediator, connector, facilitator, communicator or producer is a point through which many nodes in the exhibition making mechanism converge. The theorist Judith Butler reminds us that “the body is less an entity than a living set of relations” and therefore it is through the connection and reciprocity of relationships that curators practice and the means through which the art world turns.

By continually locating the curatorial role within a web of relations, there might be less emphasis upon individual career advancement and more attention given to serving the dark matter of the art world. In the words of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy “one cannot make a world with simple atoms... There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, of one by the other, or from one to the other."

Li-Ming Hu, Best in show/Wanna dance with somebody, video still, 2015. (Masks featuring: Hans-Ulrich Obrist applying fake tan to Whitney Houston)

A curatorial reader for the curious:

Balzer, David. Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014.

Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Duncan, C. In The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in the Critical Art History. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lind, Maria. “Active Cultures: Maria Lind on the Curatorial.” Artforum, 2009.

Möntmann, Nina. “Art and Its Institutions.” In Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations, pp8–17. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. 1991st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and Oxford, 1986.

O’Neill, Paul. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: The MIT Press, 2012.

Shollette, Gregory. “Heart of Darkness: A Journey into the Dark Matter of the Art World.” In Visual Worlds, edited by John R. Hall, Blake Stimson, and Lisa T. Becker. New York: Routledge, 2005.