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Social Saturday with James Voorhies

The Vanguard Ambassador as Curatorial Strategy

An ambassador acts as a vanguard, a representative of an institution. The ambassador connects larger governing bodies to specific nodes of activities, ideas and people inaccessible or out of bounds because of limited resources or lack of knowledge. The ambassador is a conduit, a kind of contractor striving to improve relations and further the mission of an institution.

In contemporary art, as curatorial strategy and institution practice, the ambassador figure is used to build audiences and bring together communities for exhibitions, programs, and projects. The Vanguard Ambassador (let’s call it that) is a person or a group of individuals, it can also be a geographic envoy. It can function as a satellite, building commitments while distilling information relevant to the institution. From the “platforms” organized by the late Okwui Enwezor in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa as part of Documenta 11; to Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University gathering together a network of teachers, researchers, and fellows to educate refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants; to the curatorial strategies deployed by Maria Lind at Tensta konsthall connecting Tensta to nearby immigrant communities, the Vanguard Ambassador roots into social, geographical, and political frameworks foreign to a governing body to further an organizational mission.

This presentation introduces case studies of the Vanguard Ambassador in order to talk about its social and political implications, the ethics of the Vanguard Ambassador, examining how the curatorial strategy benefits and changes institution practice. 

Image: The Language Café, Tensta konsthall, Stockholm, departing from Ahmet Ögüt’s The Silent University. 

James Voorhies is a curator and art historian of modern and contemporary art. He is Chair of the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice and Professor of Fine Arts at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He is also Director of the Curatorial Research Bureau, a bookshop, a learning site, an exhibition and public program located at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He holds a Ph.D. in modern and contemporary art history from The Ohio State University and is the founder of Bureau for Open Culture. His book Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form since 1968 was published by MIT Press in 2017. Research for his new book Binding Agents: Toward an Aesthetic of the Postcolonial in Contemporary Exhibition has received support from the Graham Foundation and Etant donnés Contemporary Art.