The common perception of a curator is a highly educated, distinguished man in a three-piece suit, smoking a pipe and leafing through old archive photos of ancient masters. Though Manray Hsu (徐文瑞) has a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University and wears a button down shirt, the independent curator who is based in Taipei and Berlin rarely spends time looking through boxes in the archives of old museums.
Like many contemporary artists, Hsu is concerned with how art affects our daily lives and creates a dialogue within the global and local contexts. This notion shapes his entire outlook on the art he chooses for exhibits, such as Naked Life, currently running at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MOCA).
Hsu differentiates between independent curators from institutional curators in two ways. First, he points out that independent curators don't work in or have an ongoing collaboration with any particular museum. Instead, they spend time moving from one museum or biennial to another picking and choosing projects that are most suited to their aesthetic vision. The corollary to this is that independent curators are also intellectually independent.
"Freelance curators have [the] freedom … to develop ideas and projects in [their] own way. If you work in an institution you are more limited as to what you can do and what you can not do," he said.
Hsu also says that working independently enables the curator to collaborate closely with artists, which normally wouldn't be the case working inside an institution. "For me, independent means that I'm also more in contact with artists and those people in the field."
Collaborating with artists and working in the "field" has only become common in the past few decades. Until the 1970s, curators were predominately trained in art history, which had a tremendous influence on what hung on the walls of museums. "You still have an exhibition, but you don't rely on art history anymore. You can still do it, but art history is not the only framework. So you need to have people who can provide a smaller framework but still much bigger than the individual artwork. That's the curator's job. Framework providers," he said.
For Hsu, creating the proper framework for an exhibit necessarily involves a lot of travel because he seeks input from international artists.
"My job relies on my traveling. But an important part of this issue is contemporary culture, [which is] a global culture. There is no simple big narrative that can allow you to say, okay, I know the whole art world. So you need to have people from different parts of the world who can bring their perspective and their experience into the field. And normally these people are curators and theorists," he said.
Hsu's global perspective is readily apparent with the current lineup of artists exhibiting at MOCA who hail from as far a field as Iraq and as close to home as Japan. "[By] traveling, I've built my own conceptual network and this is another thing I bring into the art world," Hsu said.
According to Hsu, his extensive travels combined with a global outlook and a desire to directly cultivate talent fosters greater trust between the curator and artists because the latter are working directly with an individual, rather than an institution. The curator can then have a clearer picture of what the artist is trying to achieve because both sides are working together.