Learning through Doing: A Conversation with Steven Henry Madoff, Chair of SVA’s Masters in Curatorial Practice

Learning through Doing: A Conversation with Steven Henry Madoff, Chair of SVA’s Masters in Curatorial Practice

School of Visual Arts (SVA)

May 14, 2018
Owen Duffy
School of Visual Arts (SVA)
Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Following the path of their European cousins, institutions of higher learning in the United States have caught the curatorial wave. While art history programs at New York’s universities have produced generations of esteemed curators, until recently, the disputed center of the American art world lacked a dedicated program in the ever-expanding field of curatorial practice. Enter Steven Henry Madoff, an art critic and curator with forty years of experience and a spry intellect, and the School of Visual Arts. In five short years as chair, Madoff has carefully stewarded the Master of Arts in Curatorial Practice program into existence—and prominence. In the following conversation, Madoff shares his insights into what it is that curators do exactly, the importance of a good kitchen to pedagogy, and why curating is another kind of making.

Owen Duffy: Why do we need a graduate-degree program in curating?

Steven Henry Madoff: Of course, our program is not the first to focus on curating, but to me it’s a question like, “Why do we need an MFA in writing?” and “Why do we need an MFA in acting?” SVA’s program feels like the kind of concentrated experience one would have over a much, much longer time, if you were to enter the field as an apprentice. For example, over the course of the program, students get to spend two hours each with forty-two curators from around the world talking not only about the history of their practice but also about the anecdotal detail of, “How did I solve this problem? How do I negotiate this loan?” etc. This is something that cannot be experienced just being out in the world, at least in two years’ time. And, of course, the fact of the matter is that people are not going to read the equivalent of all those syllabi on their own. It’s just not going to happen, or it’s going to happen over a lifetime. So, I feel like those experiences, the opportunity that we provide by facilitating a network, which all these programs do and which we certainly do here, gives a curator a huge leg up.

OD: That being said, why would someone choose SVA’s Curatorial Practice program over a competitor, such as Bard or Goldsmiths?

SHM: Other programs, such as Bard’s and Goldsmiths’, for example, both of which are wonderful programs, are more theoretically inclined. First of all, when I founded this program, I did so at the School of Visual Arts, at a place of making. There are twenty-two master’s programs at SVA, and almost all of them, in one form or another, are about making: painting, photography, animation, documentary filmmaking, etc. So, my original premise was that curating is another form of making, and that’s the way we should frame the program. Secondly, of course, as they say: location, location, location. We’re in New York City, where there are hundreds of curators at work passing through from around the world. It seemed to me an enormous opportunity for those people to come here and say, “This is actually how you do it.” Theory is important, but you can read it anywhere. You can read theory on the moon.

SVA is on the outskirts of Chelsea. It’s a fifteen-minute walk to the Whitney Museum and to hundreds of galleries where the students can immerse themselves in the way that exhibitions are made, in the way that curators think about all the other things that curators do. This seemed to me a great opportunity, and that’s why the program is set up the way that it is. Why should students come here rather than go elsewhere? It’s New York, and so it’s very hard to beat New York if you’re interested in art, art making, exhibition making, the intellectual communities around art. That’s all here. So, I think that location is an enormous part of it, and then that so much time is spent in the program with faculty whose case-study seminars, as they’re called, are positioned toward specific acts of curating, different kinds of materials, different approaches to the practice. There is, by the way, plenty of theory, there is plenty of history in the program, but always with the emphasis toward curating, toward actually doing it.

OD: That might explain the decision to include “practice” in the actual program title, rather than, say, “studies” or “theory.”

SHM: Right. That’s the reason. We wanted to highlight the fact that the coursework in the program is hands-on with curators as the instructors, teaching students how to do it, the emphasis therefore being on practice rather than theory. Even though, again, I want to underline the fact that it’s not as if we ignore theory, because that, too, is crucial. We teach theory and we teach the history, but always toward practice.

OD: What are some of the core elements of the curatorial practice curriculum?

SHM: There’s a kind of narrative spine running through the curriculum: the practicums. These start in a way unique to the program, which is before the normal academic year begins. There’s a practicum in research methodologies, which happens with a librarian at a museum—for the last four years it’s been at the Museum of Modern Art. A senior librarian there teaches the students how to research because, of course, research is absolutely at the crux of curating.

This is accompanied by another practicum in classical logic and rhetoric, which may seem like a quirky thing to do.But what do curators do? They make an argument. Where does that idea come from, at least in Western civilization? So, it’s an intensive, looking at Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, at the figures of rhetoric, at the formation of rhetoric in our culture. The students then do actual logic exercises, so those ideas of constructing an argument logically are in place before the program even formally begins. That leads into the exhibition practicum during the first year, which is done under a working curator. This year, it was Mia Locks, co-curator of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. That leads to the exhibition that the first-year students do. And then there is another practicum which is focused on all the other kinds of discursive things that curators do: publications, panel discussions, symposia, etc. So, these run through the program from beginning to end.

Writing, of course, is so crucial to curators, though curators are not necessarily the best writers, so we emphasize writing as well. There are three workshops during the four semesters, all on becoming a more efficient writer. One of them is just on reading the way that curators of exhibitions in the great New York museums have curated their shows. What is the curatorial argument of the show? In the first semester, the students must write five-hundred-word reviews—not of whether they liked the art, but of the strengths and weaknesses of the curation of the exhibition. So, they are learning to analyze exhibitions while they learn to be more efficient writers.

The second of those workshops is led by Daniel Kunitz, who was the managing editor of the Paris Review and then, for many years, the editor-in-chief of Modern Painters. He works with the students to develop the “Writer’s Voice.” In the final semester, students work with David Frankel who, for a decade, was the editorial director of MoMA, on catalog essay writing. I don’t think there’s anyone in the English-speaking world better than David in teaching how to write a catalog essay. Those elements are crucial, along with, I would say, the curatorial roundtable which, as I mentioned, are those forty-two opportunities over the two years to meet with curators in the relaxed environment of this program and discuss practice. Everything has been purposefully kept very small, to seminar size, usually eight to ten students.

OD: Picking up on those informal aspects of the learning experience, how important is sociality and, let’s say, assembly for the students in your program?

SHM: It’s really interesting because one never knows how a cohort will be together. It’s always different, but because it is so small and because almost every class is taken together for those two years, the students form a very tight unit. I’ll see them out on opening nights as a group. They have to curate their first-year show together and they are constantly doing other projects, it turns out. They do a lot of things on their own. They don’t even tell me part of the time, but they’re doing exhibitions or different kinds of panels in spaces in New York. They write for different publications. This is not something that I foresaw in any way, but they are extremely entrepreneurial and they often work as teams, or as groups, or as duos. So, one of the things I say when students arrive for our first meeting together is, “Look around the room. These are going to be your professional colleagues for life.” And if you look at other curatorial programs, that’s quite true, and I would imagine it will be true for our students as well. Already, even from the small group of graduates from the program, this is the case. They’ve formed curatorial collectives or they’ve done one-off projects together. So, it is a very tight formation.

OD: Have thesis shows been held at the Pfizer building in Brooklyn since the program was founded?

SHM: The first year of the program, no. The first year of the program, students found their own spaces and, therefore, they either found them for free or they had to pay for them. I thought I could facilitate this if I were able to find, as I did with the Pfizer building, a space where the students could do shows and not have the burden of paying for them. So, the program took that on. Of course, that means there’ve only been three iterations of shows there.

OD: And why do you like having the exhibitions there?

SHM: It’s to the point of the program that this is a program of practice in New York City. Therefore, the exhibitions should not be on a high floor in an academic building—cloistered—but rather, like the program itself, part of the New York art world. That’s the way I see the program, as another hub in the New York art world. Their shows are in Brooklyn, where so many shows are and where most of the artists and curators live now. It feels like the appropriate place for it.

OD: What specific experiences, professional or otherwise, have determined your understanding of curating and how it should be taught?

SHM: Have I got the scars on my back! I started reviewing exhibitions for Artforum in 1976. Even before that, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I was writing reviews for Columbia’s newspaper. So, I’ve been looking at exhibitions professionally, horrifyingly to say, for over forty years—forty-two years. And, of course, I’ve been curating independently, on and off, all through those years, from the very start of the East Village scene, SoHo, and internationally. So, I would say that though I’ve done a fair amount of curating, it has not been my particular focus. My focus has always been as a writer and editor. I edited ARTnews for seven years. I wrote for the Times’ Arts & Leisure section for many years, I was the art critic for Time magazine, for Tina Brown when she had Talk magazine. So, looking professionally at exhibitions, dealing with artists, working with artists, I would say that forty years in the field is pretty good preparation.

OD: There’s a wonderful irony in the fact that the individual responsible for minting or accrediting new curators actually comes from an “unprofessional” background.

SHM: A different field. Right. So many people in the art world do so many things, and in the program, we touch on this in different ways and teach that the field is so wide open now that we need to consider all forms of the “curatorial.” In fact, a big international summit that I put together to announce the program the year before it began was called “On the Curatorial.” So, that notion, I think, applies to me, too. Is it an irony? I suppose it is. I don’t come from a museum, for example, or from a curatorial program. I do happen to have a PhD in art history, so I think that that counts toward something—as well as forty-plus years in the field! I would say those form a professional background.

OD: From that symposium announcing the program five years ago, what definition of the “curatorial” emerged?

SHM: Well, the point was … there wasn’t one. Right? There were over twenty speakers, and there were many more definitions.

OD: Were there any particular findings from that symposium that really determined some of the elements of the program?

SHM: That’s such a good question. I’m not sure that there is one specific instance. I would say that the point of the summit was to bring together people who think about their practice and the profession on a continual basis. In the formation of our curriculum, the focus has been completely on the idea that at the program’s end, one will have studied sufficiently the fundamentals of the profession in the field. We try to hit that from many different angles, for example, from workshops in professional practices, where students spend time with exhibition designers, with lighting designers, with grant writers, to the fact, again, of the case-study seminars, focusing on new media curating, interdisciplinary curating, etc. That, at the end of the day—that kind of very hard, very practical look at how to do this for a living—is our goal. A student can leave and check off the boxes, “Yes, I know how to do that”: loan form, condition report, insurance, grant writing, installation.

This plays out in different environments, from large institutions to Kunsthallen to places in New York like The Kitchen or Art in General, the internships students have all over the world, from institutions large and small. All those experiences working with, talking to, and listening to curators, I think, gets them to that point where they can enter the professional field with a fundamental working knowledge.

OD: Your book, Art School, tackled many of the most important recent developments in art pedagogy. How have the research and editing that went into that book impacted the pedagogy that’s practiced here?

SHM: Well, the point of that book was to be as cranky as possible about art schools and pedagogy, to really interrogate ideas embedded in them through inviting as many people as I could to share their experiences of what we can think of art schools in the twenty-first century and what’s actually relevant. To ask, in other words, “How do we form these pedagogies?” And, of course, in the years leading up to that book, there were symposia in New York, in Miami, in London, that I oversaw, all to say, “Well, how do we think about a program in a relevant way?” Therefore, when I had the opportunity to design my own curriculum, I was thinking about different formats for learning: so therefore, workshops, internships in the field, histories of different kinds, seminars. All the different ways that we can do it.

One pedagogical element that I’ve very specifically left out is lectures. I feel one learns best in small environments. After speaking with Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was part of the programming for the Art School symposia and, of course, whose practice has a lot to do with cooking and bringing people together, I asked Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, to design our space here, and the first thing I said was, “Make me a great kitchen,” because learning happens around eating and drinking together. And he made us a great kitchen. Even that is built into the program. For the students, and to your earlier question about how they exist as groups, well, that also happens around eating together. The space is open twenty-four hours a day, and students can gather here and can eat together. Eating leads to discussion. The Curatorial Roundtable takes place around food together. Even something like that is something that I learned from doing Art School.

OD: What’s your response to critics of curatorial education? At times, it seems there’s a sentiment among artists and other practitioners in the field that curators have consolidated too much power.

SHM: First of all, I’d say to take the long view. If we look at the history of art, even if we look at art history since the 1960s in the United States, those centers of power keep shifting. From the critic—think Rosenberg and Greenberg in the 1950s, 1960s—power shifted in the 1980s to the dealers, then to the collectors, then to the curators. This seems to be a cyclical pattern in the history of art and the art world. So, I don’t think that power stays for that long, historically speaking, with anybody.

And yes, absolutely, there have been arguments that curators have become too much the auteur, following Harald Szeemann and that curatorial tradition, as opposed to the old English sense of the curator as the keeper of the collection, someone there just to maintain the works for posterity and the scholarship around them. Well, both of those traditions are true now. I don’t think there is one way. I don’t even know that if, at the moment, power is consolidated around curators. I wonder if it’s already shifted. It feels to me like we could think about it in the sense of the age of the internet, and that really power appears to be completely amorphous or multi-headed. It seems to be varied between people who use social media and toward opinion-making. It can be a critic, it can be a curator, it can be a collector, etc. So, I think it’s already shifted.

OD: That being said, what do you feel needs to change within the field?

SHM: I think that the field is constantly changing on its own. It’s almost impossible to keep up. Look at e-flux every day and the range of exhibitions presented. That was going on, to a certain degree, of course, before e-flux was around to announce them, but it is indicative of the exponential explosion of the global art market and, therefore, the art world, which includes academies and schools, which includes new Kunsthallen, new museums in China. At this moment in China there are so many museums that are at some point in their process of opening, of being planned, of trying to find collections, of trying to find curators. Think of all these shifts in technology, the ways that it has been made accessible to all of us, and the thinking that artists are doing around it. And artists are always at the center. As with other aspects of cultural production and knowledge production, it seems as though we’re in an acceleration period for curating.

Owen Duffy

Contemporary Art, Education
Curating, Art Activism, Accelerationism, Food & Cooking, Libraries & Archives, Artistic Research, Relational Aesthetics

Owen Duffy is the Director of the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in New York.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.