Ask a Curator: Francesco Bonami on Difficult Artists, the Decade’s Biggest Art Flops, and More

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A self-portrait by Franesco Bonami.
A self-portrait by Franesco Bonami.

Francesco Bonami, whose curatorial credits include the 2003 Venice Biennale and the 2010 Whitney Biennial, has returned for the third edition of his column, “Ask a Curator,” in which he addresses the books every curator should read, why Italians are the fussiest art audience, and the often-underappreciated aspects of a show that the public should admire. He can be found on Instagram at @thebonamist. If you have queries for him for a future column, please write to [email protected].The Editors of ARTnews

Which books should be required reading for curators?

Books from which you can get quotes and ideas that are difficult to track down. I use to read Ivan Illich’s books. He was a social philosopher who had nothing to do with contemporary art, and actually, I think he would have despised it, but for me, his ideas could be in some way be used to create exhibitions’ concepts and titles.

What are some details that a curator might notice about an exhibition—one of their own or someone else’s—that an audience might not?
The selection of the artists or the selection of the works. These are not just details, and yet a general audience can very rarely grasp what led to those selections, other than the general idea of the show. Also, shipping and insurance costs, pleasing a particular dealer or collector, refused loans, etc.

What are some compromises a curator should never make under increased budget for a show?

To go below a certain quality and below the dignity of the exhibition. Believe it or not, shows have their own dignity. Better to cancel a show than do something pathetic because there is no budget. I always suggest opening the parachute when you are very close to the land, meaning: Look for the budget until the end. You usually find it. I learned from my first exhibition with the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Venice at the “Campo 5” show in 1995. A week before the opening, I had a lot of debt on the credit card I used to ship the works, and I still had to pay the rent for the exhibition space. I was panicking, and then I met Patrizia Sandretto, who had just opened her foundation and needed a show, and she liked mine. It was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted 25 years.

An artist really doesn’t like his/her placement in a group show. Do they have a right to change it?

Well, it depends if the reasons are legitimate and have a logic, or if it is just a tantrum. Once an artist told me, speaking of a colleague complaining about his placement, “He must be very insecure about his work if he needs so much empty space around it.” Artists that complain too much about the context in which their works are shown should go see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome to understand how a work of art, when it is great, can survive any context. I mean, they placed horrible boxes to collect donations with flickering electric candles nearby, and it still is a masterpiece. And yet, there are artists today who sometimes complain because the floor is the wrong shade of gray…

What’s one piece of clothing that a stylish curator shouldn’t live without?
A hat.

What country has the art audience that is the hardest to please?

Italy. Italians only like shows about Impressionism or Banksy. It’s not their fault they are mostly fed that. Also, the virtual Magritte.

What country has the artists that are the easiest to work with?

Difficult artists are everywhere, and unfortunately, they are often the best.

What, to you, was the biggest art flop of the 2010s?

I would say the 2017 and 2019 Venice Biennales, the Jeff Koons show at the Whitney Museum, and the KAWS show at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation.