Robert Cozzolino

Robert Cozzolino
Curator of Modern Art,
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

I grew up in a family that was constantly focused on survival and the myriad challenges of daily life. While my mother liked art, and even drew a little (something passed on from a favorite aunt who entertained her by drawing), there was never any sense that art could be a profession. I visited the Art Institute of Chicago once when I was very young, and again when I was in high school, but it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I had any idea that one could become an art historian, and later, through internships, that I developed a sense that humans worked behind the museum walls conjuring the magic in the galleries.

My family has always been a little baffled by what I do; there have been illuminating moments at exhibition openings and formal talks, but I think they still have very little sense of what a curator does. That’s fine, because young and beginning curators also have very little sense of the range of things a curator will be expected to do during his or her run in the field.

Three years ago I was asked to give a “career talk” at PAFA to art students and whomever else wanted to attend from staff, to describe what role I play in the institution. I titled my talk, “Hydra, Juggler, Curator: Reflections on Curatorial Practice.” Curators, more and more, are becoming chimerical or hydra-headed beasts, responsible for more than the art they research, write about, discover, preserve, and exhibit. This is especially true at an institution like PAFA that is relatively small (in terms of infrastructure and staff) yet has grand ambitions and works hard to fulfill them. In one 12-month period between 2008 and 2009, for instance, we implemented 11 special exhibitions. When you are running on three full-time curators, that is a lot, and I was the only curator working for four of those months; curators #2 and #3 started much later.

Reflecting on the nature of the job inspired me to begin a list of the different roles curators add to their relationship with the art and artists – not to mention audiences, patrons, collectors — in their immediate line of sight. The result follows, as a work in progress. I simply call it “Job Description (part one).” I think this is the closest I have come to describing what I do:

Curator as accomplice

Curator as activist

Curator as administrator

Curator as advocate

Curator as anthologist

Curator as archeologist

Curator as barometer

Curator as borrower

Curator as builder

Curator as Charon

Curator as chef

Curator as chess player

Curator as choreographer

Curator as coal mine canary

Curator as collagist

Curator as collectivist

Curator as collector

Curator as conductor

Curator as conduit

Curator as conscience

Curator as consumer

Curator as cover

Curator as collaborator

Curator as confessor

Curator as coroner

Curator as defendant

Curator as defender

Curator as designer

Curator as diplomat

Curator as dismantler

Curator as editor

Curator as educator

Curator as enabler

Curator as eulogizer

Curator as excavator

Curator as facilitator

Curator as farmer

Curator as fundraiser

Curator as gardener

Curator as gatherer

Curator as griot

Curator as harmonizer

Curator as healer

Curator as herald

Curator as historian

Curator as hunter

Curator as hydra

Curator as illusionist

Curator as impresario

Curator as improviser

Curator as instigator

Curator as integrator

Curator as intercessor

Curator as interventionist

Curator as juggler

Curator as lender

Curator as magician

Curator as mediator

Curator as messenger

Curator as mirror

Curator as missionary

Curator as mortician

Curator as navigator

Curator as oral historian

Curator as orator

Curator as patron

Curator as pitcher

Curator as poker of holes

Curator as polyamorist

Curator as preservationist

Curator as prophet

Curator as provocateur

Curator as receptacle

Curator as recycler

Curator as researcher

Curator as resurrectionist

Curator as scholar

Curator as screen

Curator as scrim

Curator as shield

Curator as showman/woman

Curator as spy

Curator as strategist

Curator as sympathizer

Curator as talent scout

Curator as tight-rope walker

Curator as trash picker

Curator as troubadour

Curator as trouble-maker

Curator as ventriloquist

Curator as weathervane

Curator as witness

Curator as zookeeper

Robert Cozzolino
Previous Artjaw story

When I was a little boy I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I memorized their names and patiently taught the adults around me how to pronounce them. I had a collection of dinosaur books, plastic and rubber dinosaurs of varying sizes, and plush dinosaurs to take to bed. I drew them, considered what sounds they’d make and imagined what they would look like moving about in the real world. This is before Jurassic Park and other hyper-real simulations of prehistoric beasts: my frame of reference was the stop-action movies of Ray Harryhausen and the numerous Japanese monster films that popped up on Saturday afternoon TV in Chicago.

Naturally, my mother thought it would be perfect to take me downtown to the Field Museum of Natural History and show me the dinosaur bones on display in the long hall of that 1912 classical temple of a building. I had my favorite, not the T-Rex but the Brontosaurus, a large and — to my young mind – peaceful beast. As we entered the exhibit hall I was suddenly struck with absolute terror and a sensation of being out of my body. It was a thrilling mix of feeling completely exposed, suddenly tinier, and aware that anything could happen at any moment. The dinosaur hall was larger than any room I had experienced, the space unfathomable and distances ungraspable. I felt like prey, wandering into a place far out of my scale and realm. And in the center, massive creatures rose to extraordinary heights, lit so as to suggest slow subtle movement; heavy, brooding, presented matter-of-fact. Not the hands-on, intimate, kid-scaled brightly-colored and education-driven dioramas that museums favor today. These were gargantuan beasts stripped down to their dirty skeletons to let you know that they had existed. Their unmitigated realness possessed power. I clung to my mom’s leg and made sure she was between me and the dinosaurs, lest they creak to life and crane their long necks down to have a bite of little boy.

To this day I am convinced that this partially explains why I study, write about, spend hours with, and grow more absorbed with art. And it relates to the art that attracts me. I seek out objects that fill me with wonder, quicken my pulse, and challenge my notions of the real.

Later, when I visited The Art Institute of Chicago as a high school student, I had similarly visceral and emotional, but less terrifying, experiences before paintings: absorbed, lost inside the image, with reality quieted and fading at the edges, projected into paint and color; hearing sound emanating from canvases; and mystified by the miracle of a riveting image that seemed to simply have appeared, rather than been made by human hands. Art holds me because it still retains that capacity to transform my everyday experience in harrowing and joyful ways. I will continue to be here until that feeling fades.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art