Curatorial Dictionary: Unpacking the Oxymoron
An Introduction


The idea and an articulated need of a curatorial dictionary emerged during a reading seminar in preparation for one of the workshops of’s Free School for Art Theory and Practicein Budapest. [1] While discussing and reading about concepts used within international curatorial discourse and practice, we recognized a gnoseological uncertainty: we could clearly point to (or defer to) projects and relevant authors/texts which reflect on the specific concepts; yet—despite the vast amount of writings related to curating—we proved to be unable to determine more general textual surveys about the meanings and conceptual roots of these very notions. After taking a more meticulous look into how concepts work and come about within curatorial discourse, we found that notions, such as performative curatingnew institutionalism, or collaboration, are deliberately vague—as they attempt to delineate a particular practice, rather than a theoretical line of inquiry. We, therefore, also recognized that curatorial discourse—as opposed to other theoretical-academic discourses—is extrapolated from practice; concepts which are created are often “propositions [for a certain curatorial] practice,” and are “employed to mark out a specific current discourse.” [2] We, nevertheless, decided to develop a general, meta-level project through which these concepts, their signification, and discursive formation could be more thoroughly understood, and, at the same time, by which we could also account for their relevancy within curatorial praxis.

At the same time as we detected the inability of curatorial discourse to fully capture curatorial practice, we also identified a cultural and a linguistic-epistemological gap: as native Hungarian speakers, we had to acknowledge that some of the basic concepts in English, such as education, are simply unavailable in Hungarian language; there is no “perfect” equivalent of its English meaning, not just linguistically, but conceptually as well. Moreover, we also wished to question the hybrid language we use in Hungarian—which is the case in many, other than English, languages as well. When talking about curatorial work in Hungarian, the technical terms are given in English, making this discourse more insular and inaccessible for general non-English speakers. It has to be noted that the prevalence of English terms within Hungarian is also connected to fact that so far only a handful of the seminal texts around curating has been translated into Hungarian. [3]



Those involved in early discussions about the dictionary came together to form a working group. This included individuals who are active in Hungary within the field of contemporary art, curating, ethnography, visual culture, and education: Balázs Beöthy, Nikolett Erőss, Zsófia Frazon, Eszter Lázár, and Eszter Szakács. Paul O’Neill also contributed to the project as a respondent/advisor.

The gradually emerging format of the dictionary as a research—and, plausibly, also a problematizing tool—was adopted to serve various purposes. On the one hand, it collected and characterized some of the most frequent terms of curatorial discourse in one place. On the other hand, it sought to find meaningful and often missing Hungarian equivalents of these very terms. Correlatively, many of the objectives of this first phase were formed as we worked on the project, rather than following up to a predefined set of aims. During our initial discussions it became clear that compiling an academic-encyclopedic dictionary was not our goal, as the working group wished to go beyond linguistics, semantics, and etymology, to focus not so much on defining the exact or “proper” meanings of the concepts, but on understanding their contexts and relations. The Curatorial Dictionary therefore attempts to delineate the historical, socio-cultural contexts, and artistic processes in which the examined terms appeared, are used, and are given signification by writers. Hence, the project is also a meta-analysis: it looks at how different lines of discourse create meanings—it is writing about writings on curatorial and artistic practices.



Understanding curatorial practice and discourse through a dictionary format, however, also raised concerns within the working group. This approach was critiqued for the presumed disparity between the rigid and normative framework of a dictionary and curatorial practice’s disposition of being always in flux and moving between different disciplines. It can be argued, nevertheless, that the amount of textual production around curating since the early 1990s calls for analysis [4], and a structuring survey of its elements and modus operandi are pertinent. In its first phase the Curatorial Dictionary is, in several respects, comparable to Raymond Williams’s KeywordsA Vocabulary of Culture and Society and its revised version. [5] The Keywords project similarly goes beyond a philological-etymological inquiry, and, unlike the undertakings of Oxford-style dictionaries, is concerned with the “connection and interaction” of words, rather than with the “range and variation” of their meanings. [6] Williams, hence, attempts to map out a larger framework of words, a conceptual vocabulary of culture and society.

In attempting to outline a framework of curatorial discourse, Curatorial Dictionary, however, is in no way comprehensive. The selection of the concepts was based on the individual interests, and often divergent opinions, of the working group members; thus, the dictionary is again grounded in discourse. Rather than offering a series of statements, it is based on our dilemmas and debates with one another as well as with publications on the examined concepts. A common interest of the group was to understand correlations and processes when writing the definitions of the terms, which yielded texts permeated with expressions such as “change,” “shift,” “transition,” “transformation,” “turn,” or “old. vs. new.” Furthermore, we wished to be attentive to the relations of individual terms. To this end, the primary medium of the dictionary is an online, open-access website where the visualization contains information also about the relationship between the concepts.

In practical terms, the interpretations of the concepts take the form of short essays—for want of a better genre category—and span in time from the 1960s until today. Within the texts, the contradictory pull between the assumed, surveying “objectivity” of a dictionary, and our simultaneous vested interest as well our sociocultural specificities came especially to the forefront when we attempted to provide examples (projects, exhibitions, institutions, spaces, etc.) for the concepts under discussion. We wanted to go beyond merely reiterating the globally renowned and often-cited projects. Instead we aimed to reference examples that took place in Hungary or in Eastern Europe. However, we came to realize that the concepts we discuss in the dictionary have been predominantly developed in Western Europe and North America and that they might not always be relevant frameworks for interpreting practices which take place, for instance in Hungary or the Eastern European region. In the upcoming phase of the Curatorial Dictionary, we plan—through international collaborations—to differentiate the dominant, "international" curatorial discourse with reflections and practices from various positions. At the same time, we also plan to map the local(ized) manifestations and relevance of the concepts in various geographical and geopolitical regions.

For this current stage of the dictionary project, some of terms, such as interpretation orexhibition display, include more general remarks on practices in Hungary and in the Eastern European region. When writing the texts, it was a consideration that, rather than just relying on the reference materials, we should also reflect upon our artistic-curatorial-museological practices in Hungary. In this we sought to deviate from the practice of citing a series of examples without explanations—although, in some entries, we felt the need to discuss relevant projects. This shift of focus from "project-dropping" to meta-discourse analysis may also be related to the fact that we have not seen many of even the best-known exemplary projects. Nevertheless, we now have easier access to books and articles, which, for us, are often the primary site of encounter for such projects.

Curatorial Dictionary, in many ways, also presents “the curatorial turn,” the emergence of curatorial praxis, as composite of various discourses. One can trace the processes of this turn through examining the adjacent discourses on collaboration, exhibition display, curatorial, discursivity, interpretation, or performativity—all of which are equally relevant perspectives on the same line of processes and inquiries taking place since the 1960s within the contemporary art world. What this entails, in turn, is that the curatorial field remains to be a field of contestation, defined and upheld by attempts to legitimize certain types of (curatorial) practices. An important means through which legitimization takes place is writing and publishing.


Eszter Szakács



[1] Curating and the Educational Turn—Seminar with Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson within the framework of the Free School For Art Theory and Practice, Budapest, June 17–18, 2011.

[2] Simon Sheikh. “Burning from the Inside. New Institutionalism revisited.” Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, Thomas Weski Eds. Cultures of the Curatorial, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012: 363.

[3] See Zoltán Kékesi, Eszter Lázár, Tünde VargaEds. A gyakorlattól a diskurzusig—Kortárs művészetelméleti szöveggyűjtemény [From Practice to Discourse—Contemporary Art Theory Reader]. Budapest: Magyar Képzőművészeti Egyetem

[4] See Paul O’Neill. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

[5] Raymond Williams. KeywordsA Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976/1983. And Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris Eds. A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Malde, MA, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

[6] Raymond Williams. KeywordsA Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976/1983: 19.