The art world can be a fickle place, but to Hans Ulrich Obrist it remains unfalteringly loyal. Co-director of London's Serpentine Gallery, founder of the Brutally Early Club (for busy people who breakfast at dawn), interviewer, archivist, and one of this year's Crunch festival speakers, he is, indisputably, an art world powerhouse.
In 2009, he became the first curator ever to top ArtReview's 'Power 100', an accolade previously reserved for artists, gallerists, and collectors including Francois Pinault, Damien Hirst, Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian. This year's list, published earlier this month, saw him reach number two. "Twenty years ago the notion of curation was a rather more obscure one", he says. "I remember telling my parents as a child that my dream was to become a curator. They thought it was a kind of medical profession."
It's not the idea of curation that is new - it does, in fact, have a long and colourful history - but rather the extent and frequency of its lexical usage. "The notion of curating is now used beyond the art world", explains Obrist. "Blogs are being curated, websites, conferences, concept stores, all sorts of things. We live in a digital age characterized by an exponential growth in information. The way we navigate through this huge amount of information and transform it into knowledge is a curatorial issue."
The need to select, edit and define multiple paths through this information attributes curation with an immediate and growing significance. It is becoming more widely needed and applauded, and, as such, is there a possibility that the curator will in time usurp the importance of the artist? "I've never thought so", Obrist says. "It's artists that set the agenda. The artist is the centre, the curator a utility."
The analogy of the curator as DJ, prevalent in the 1990s and based on both professions taking something crafted by someone else and presenting it to audiences in a new way, doesn't resonate with Obrist. "It isn't about reworking or remixing materials. It's about talking to the artist, listening to them and learning from them. JG Ballard once told me that for him, curation is a form of junction-making."
The "prescriptive curator" is, therefore, an unproductive concept that doesn't allow for the organic growth stimulated by conversation and dialogue between curator and artist. "The curator can invent new rules of the game, but it can't impose them", he says.
Obrist, who lived a near nomadic existence for ten years whilst working as a freelance curator, remains excited by London, where he has been based since 2006. He admires the city for its numerous centres, branding it the "model of a twenty-first century metropolis." But he's also excited by the "polyphony of dynamic centres" emerging globally. "As a student in the 1980s, the art world was still very limited to a few western centres", he says. "There was ignorance about art from Latin America, China, India and the Middle East. Now, we have a multiplicity of new centres."
This broader canvas presents the curator with a challenge. In order to flourish, each new centre requires visibility and recognition. For this "new cartography of art" to be credible, the public needs to be aware of its existence and widen its focus from the two or three cities that have hitherto dominated the art world landscape.
Balancing the local and the global is, however, a potentially greater challenge. To avoid the sort of homogenized globalization incited by a uniform, standardised "one size fits all" vision, curators instead need to build bridges between different geographical factions. Through exhibitions and biennales, they can facilitate a dialogue that may not previously have existed. "The curator's role is to act as translator, but also to maintain the notion of difference while engaging in this global dialogue", Obrist says.
"When we take shows abroad, we are not just touring them, putting them in crates and shipping them around the world. That would be horrible. Each time a show tours I ask myself: What is the local context? What does the context need? In this way, the exhibition mutates and transforms."
In addition to grappling with how best to work within globalization, the curator faces other particular responsibilities. In the current economic climate, buyers are favouring established, museum record artists over emerging names. Should a curator reverse the balance by offering a platform to figures pushed out by the market? What sort of art should curators be showing?
"That is a very urgent question", says Obrist. "The curator's responsibility is to show the best possible work and make it accessible to everyone. That's why Julia Peyton-Jones and I have such an emphasis on free entry at the Serpentine. Exhibitions shouldn't exclude people."
The curator should also, according to Obrist, encourage cross-pollination between disciplines. "A lot can happen when people have conversations", he says simply. Exploring relationships between the arts and the sciences, for example, can generate new and productive "knowledge constellations". "It's about reaching out to many different communities and peoples", says Obrist, "so that locally and globally people can enjoy an extraordinary experience."
Hans Ulrich Obrist will be speaking on 'The daily practice of Curating' at the Crunch Art and Music Festival at Hay.Suggest a correction