Feature Articles

June Issue 2002

A Few Words from Down Under
Summing Up The Curriculum Vitae
by Judith McGrath

A Curriculum Vitae, or Resume, is by definition a brief summery of the subject's career to date. Applying that interpretation to the artist's CV, it should provide a record of the subject's artistic journey, annotating stops along the way such as exhibitions and prizes won, and serve as an indication of the subject's commitment to his or her practice. It should be the one document that defines the subject as an "artist". Well that's the theory anyway. But let's look at some facts.

As a document, the CV allows access to certain destinations in the art world in much the same manner as a passport or driver's license allows manoeuvrability in the real world. Unfortunately there is one major difference between passport or driver's license and CV; the former are issued by a government bureaucracy according to set criteria while the latter is produced by the subject, for the subject, often ad hoc, with no external supervision or validation. Official documents have many functions, none of them intended to impress while the single function of the CV as a document is to be impressive. It celebrates who you are and what you do.

Consider Leonardo DaVinci's letter to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, it certainly is the most impressive and celebratory Curriculum Vitae I've ever read. In his letter Leonardo virtually claims to do the impossible as he lists all manner of machines he felt certain he could create, then closes with a comment about how he could "do in painting, whatever may be done, as well as any others, be he whom he may." When he penned his letter, Leonardo summarised what he believed he was capable of achieving not what he'd actually produced, and got the job. Today he would be passed over in favour of another applicant only because he didn't mention any past patron of importance. Contemporary artists must present a CV that lists where they have exhibited and which collections have their work. The modern CV does not consider the subject's abilities, it merely testifies to their popularity. It's a sign of the times; in 1482 if you wanted innovation you looked for someone who could think laterally; in 2002 if you want something "new" you look for someone who has done it all before.

Leonardo's letter and other more contemporary CV's, started me wondering about the accuracy of the document. Leo's highly impressive, if slightly exaggerated, boasts were articulated in a formal letter format while today CV's are written with bullet-point brevity for easy skimming. However, abridging information often results in expanding its interpretation, a reverse form of exaggeration where less means more. For instance, on one artist's CV, one line reads "1994 - Guest Lecturer at So & So Art School". This simple statement implies the artist was sought out by the institution and invited to spend a term (or semester, or year) giving a series of lectures (or presenting practical classes, or delivering a section of the syllabus) for a salary. The fact is the artist gave a single half-hour talk to a small group of students for which he was paid. I know, I asked him to do it because he lived nearby and had an employment number, which saved time and paperwork.

I know artists who present a different rendition of the same CV in answer to various requests. All are factual, it's more of case of putting the emphasis on certain aspects of their professionalism according to the situation. If, for example, an artist is applying for a "public art" commission, the CV will note all educational achievements, prizes won, workshops (attended or given) and community projects in which they've participated. This says they are intelligent, popular and able to work with people. However when applying for a grant to prepare for a solo exhibition, the CV must present every group show, open competition, school fundraiser and county fair the subject has entered. It's saying, "Paid my dues, time for the Big Break Show". And of course when applying for a job as an "art professional" every paid or volunteer position ever held, in and out of the art world, will be added. Fascinating reading, all of them.

Doubt is cast on the veracity of the document when you consider how few art dealers check out a CV to determine its authenticity. Where galleries or educational facilities from another city, state or country are named on the document they are not contacted for confirmation. Nor does anyone ascertain if the work representing the artist in a particular collection listed on the CV was purchased from, or donated by, the artist.

So what is the true worth of a CV as a document? In the primary market it's highly valued as it is the deciding factor when galleries select artists for their stable. Gallerists examine the CV looking at the prestige factor; where the artist has exhibited and in which collections they are represented, who has written about the artist and where it was published. Art prizes won or where the subject studied is not important as it is assumed competition judges are only voicing personal opinions, and even reputable art schools go through cycles of quality. Yes, gallerists do glance at the artwork and even admit there are times when the sheer presence of the work overshadows the CV. But more often, even when the work is good, an artist is not selected to join a gallery if the CV isn't impressive.

Meanwhile, in the secondary market the CV is valued not only for being an indicator of the subject's celebrity but also because it is a document that testifies to the worth of the artwork. When a client is wavering, the CV confirms the purchase is a good investment as it proves how long and where the artist has studied and practiced. Here is one instance when big is better as a multi-page CV can be a "deal closer".

I have to conclude that the importance of the CV as a document is not dependent on what it says as much as how it is interpreted and by whom. As a brief summery of a career to date or as a diary of the subject's creative journey, the artist's CV has little relevance to anyone other then the subject's mother. The truth is, the artist's CV is a self-produced proclamation that the subject is an "artist" and by extension, objects produced by the subject are works of "art". In Leonardo's day, the finished work declared it's maker an artist while today the object cannot bear witness, only paperwork can do that. Considering how an understanding for, or appreciation of, the art object is secondary to being impressed by the CV, I firmly believe the Curriculum Vitae is the only really important work of art an artist can produce! It provides the greatest illusion of all, one of expertise.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseen.vbw.com.au). A collection of her articles can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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