IHME 2017: What are curators for?

Exclamation mark“Art is like an exclamation mark," says Tuula Arkio, chair of the IHME Contemporary Art Festival’s Expert Team. Image: iStock/Getty Images

The heart of the programme of talks at the next IHME Contemporary Art Festival will be a discussion of the meaning of art. In April at the Gloria Cultural Arena we will be asking: Why is there art? What use is it? And should art be useful anyway?

The recent cuts aimed at culture call into question the role of art in society. Art funding is being switched to targets that have what is known as ‘measurable benefit’. On the other hand, artists themselves have always seen art’s potential for acting in various settings, and not solely in spaces and places dedicated to art.

Should art be useful? What kind of uses can art generate? And how is the usefulness of the work of curators or other artworld players made manifest?

Welfare service or an end in itself?

“The choice of theme is linked to this year’s debate in Finland, in which art can easily be seen as ‘welfare art’. An uncertainty has arisen about the intrinsic value of art, for example, with the extension of the percentage-for-art principle to social and health care,” says Tuula Arkio, chair of the IHME Contemporary Art Festival’s Expert Team, giving the background to next spring’s theme.

For Arkio, former Director of Kiasma and the Finnish National Gallery, its significance is clear: “Art is like an exclamation mark. It arouses, awakens, asks questions, prompts thought, disturbs, and also evokes great joy and a sense of gratitude. As Ingmar Bergman said, it is the best thing in life, the best thing we have.”

This discussion will continue at the Festival on April 8, 2017, with the added participation of the longstanding curator from the USA, Dan Cameron.

The uses and uselessness of art

“If the curator’s work has no reproducible meaning, no original on which it is based, and no lasting material form by which it can be appropriated for the purpose of monetization, of what does its value consist?” Cameron asks. He continues: “My somewhat hesitant response would be that the curator’s role is to be as useful as possible, especially to the community in which she happens to find herself.”

But for Cameron usefulness here is not what is usually meant by the word. “By useful, I do mean functionally utilitarian, in the sense that the curator’s work should be able to be adapted by others for the purposes of bettering one’s life, one’s surroundings, and one’s world. In fact, art can be completely useless and still have profound consequences for its viewer, just as it can be overflowing with humanitarian purpose and yet still register as banal.”

For Cameron, the artworld does not exist outside the logic of the market, which also affects art’s relationship with the public: “With the transaction of money for art becoming the sacred bond that holds the rest of it all together, those whose attentions are not focused on the space of that transaction increasingly appear to be missing the point.” He goes on: “The entire field of exhibition-making is being compelled to shift its own center of gravity to meet the potentialities of a public that is ready to engage dynamically with contemporary art, but is not necessarily eager to enter a museum in order to do so. Once again, new art has to find its public, and it doesn’t always do so at Art Basel Miami Beach.”


Curator Dan Cameron will participate in the discussion at April’s IHME Festival about the role of art in society. He has been Chief Curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in California, Curator of the Prospect New Orleans biennial, which he co-founded, and at New York’s New Museum. He also curated the Istanbul Biennial in 2003, and in 2006 was one of the curators of the Fifth Taipei Biennial.

The discussion will be on Saturday, April 8 at the Gloria Cultural Arena. Other participants will be announced at the start of February. Keep an eye on IHME’s channels and Festival preparations on social media on hashtag #IHME2017!