A Curatorial Turn in Policy Development? Managing the Changing Nature of Policymaking Subject to Mediatisation





curate, policymaking, curatorial turn, argumentative turn, mediatisation, political animal

How to Cite

Richardson, N. (2015). A Curatorial Turn in Policy Development? Managing the Changing Nature of Policymaking Subject to Mediatisation. M/C Journal, 18(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.998
Vol. 18 No. 4 (2015): curate
Published 2015-08-07

There’s always this never-ending discussion about the curator who imposes meaning or imposes the concept of art, of what art is. I think this is the wrong opposition. Every artwork produces its concept, or a concept of what art is. And the role of the curator is not to produce a concept of art but to invent, to fabricate, elaborate reading grids or coexistence grids between them.

(Nicolas Bourriaud quoted in Bourriaud, Lunghi, O’Neill, and Ruf 91–92)

In 2010 at a conference in Rotterdam, Nicolas Bourriaud, Enrico Lunghi, Paul O’Neill, and Beatrix Ruf discussed the question, “Is the curator per definition a political animal?” This paper draws on their discussion when posing the reverse scenario—is the political animal per definition a curator in the context of the development of large-scale public policy? In exploring this question, I suggest that recent conceptual discussions centring on “the curatorial turn” in the arena of the creative arts provide a useful framework for understanding and managing opportunities and pitfalls in policymaking that is influenced by news media.

Such a conceptual understanding is important.  My empirical research has identified a transport policy arena that is changing due to news media scrutiny in Sydney, Australia. My findings are that the discourses arising and circulating in the public and the news media wield considerable influence. I posit in this paper the view that recent academic discussion of curatorial practices could identify more effective and successful approaches to policy development and implementation. I also question whether some of the key problems highlighted by commentary on the curatorial turn, such as the silencing of the voice of the artist, find parallels in policy as the influence of the bureaucrat or technical expert is diminished by the rise of the politician as curator in mediatised policy.

The Political Animal

Paul O’Neill defines a political animal: “to be a passionate and human visionary—someone who bridges gaps, negotiates the impossible in order to generate change, even slight change, movements, a shivering” (Bourriaud et al. 90). O’Neill’s definition is a different definition from Aristotle’s famous assertion that humans (collectively) are the “political animal” because they are the only animals to possess speech (Danta and Vardoulakis 3).

The essence of O’Neill’s definition shifts from the Aristotelian view that all humans are political, towards what Chris Danta and Dimitris Vardoulakis (4) refer to as “the consumption of the political by politics,” where the domain of the political is the realm of the elite few rather than innately human as Aristotle suggests. 

Moreover, there is a suggestion in O’Neill’s definition that the “political animal” is the consummate politician, creating change against great opposition.  I suggest that this idea of struggle and adversity in O’Neill’s definition echoes policy development’s own “turn” of the early 1990s, “the argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning” (Fischer and Forester 43).

The Argumentative Turn

The argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning is premised on the assertion that “policy is made of language” (Majone 1). It represents a seismic shift in previously championed academic conceptions of policy analysis—decisionism, rationality, the economic model of choice, and other models that advocate measured, rational, and objective policy development processes.

The argumentative turn highlights the importance of communication in policy development. Prior to this turn, policy analysts considered formal communication to be something that happened after policy elites had completed the scientific, objective, analytical, and rational work. Communication was perceived as being the process of “seducing” or the “‘mere words’ that add gloss to the important stuff” (Throgmorton 117–19). Communication had meant selling or “spinning” the policy—a task often left to the devices of the public relations industry by the “less scrupulous” policymaker (Dryzek 227).

The new line of inquiry posits the alternative view that, far from communication being peripheral, “the policy process is constituted by and mediated through communicative practices” (Fischer and Gottweis 2). Thanks largely to the work of Deborah Stone and Giandomenico Majone, academics began to ask, “What if our language does not simply mirror or picture the world but instead profoundly shapes our view of it in the first place?” (Fischer and Forester 1).

The importance of this turn to the argument, I posit in this paper, is illustrated by Stone when she contends that the communication of conflicting views and interests create a world where paradoxical positions on policy are inevitable. Stone states, “Ask a politician to define a problem and he will probably draw a battlefield and tell you who stands on which side. The analytical language of politics includes ‘for and against,’ ‘supporters and enemies,’ ‘our side and their side’” (166). Stone describes a policymaking process that is inherently difficult. Her ideas echo O’Neill’s intonation that in order for movement or even infinitesimal change it is the negotiation of the impossible that makes a political animal.

The Mediatisation of Sydney Transport

Stone and Majone speak only cursorily of the media in policy development. However, in recent years academics have increasingly contended that “mediatisation” be recognised as referring to the increasing influence of media in social, cultural, and political spheres (Deacon and Stanyer; Strömbäck and Esser; Shehata and Strömbäck). My own research into the influence of mediatisation on transport policy and projects in Sydney has centred more specifically on the influence of news media. My focus has been a trend towards news media influence in Australian politics and policy that has been observed by academics for more than a decade (Craig; Young; Ward, PR State; Ward, Public Affair; Ward, Power).

My research entailed two case study projects, the failed Sydney CBD Metro (SCM) rail line and a North West Rail Link (NWR) currently under construction.  Data-gathering included a news media study of 180 relevant print articles; 30 expert interviews with respondents from politics, the bureaucracy, transport planning, news media, and public relations, whose work related to transport (with a number working on the case study projects); and surveys, interviews, and focus groups with 149 public respondents. 

The research identified projects whose contrasting fortunes tell a significant story in relation to the influence of news media. The SCM, despite being a project deemed to be of considerable merit by the majority of expert respondents, was, as stated by a transport planner who worked on the project, “poorly sold,” which “turned it into a project that was very easy to ridicule.” Following a resulting period of intense news media criticism, the SCM was abandoned. As a transport reporter for a daily newspaper asserts in an interview, the prevailing view in the news media is that the project “was done on the back of an envelope.” According to experts with knowledge of the SCM, that years of planning had been undertaken was not properly presented to the public. 

Conversely, the experts I interviewed deem the NWR to be a low-priority project for Sydney.  As a former chief of staff within both federal and state government departments including transport states, “if you are going to put money into anything in Sydney it would not be the NWR.” However, in the project’s favour is an overwhelming dominant public and media discourse that I label The north-west of Sydney is overdue rail transport. A communications respondent contends in an interview that because the NWR has “been talked about for so long” it holds “the right sighting, if you like, in people’s minds,” in other words, the media and the public have become used to the idea of the project.

Ultimately, my findings, dealt with in more detail elsewhere (Richardson), suggest that powerful news media and public discourses, if not managed effectively, can be highly problematic for policymaking. This was found to be the case for the failure of the SCM.  It is with this finding that I assert that the concept of curating the discourses surrounding a policy arena could hold considerable merit as a conceptual framework for discourse management.  

The Curatorial Turn in Policy Development?

I was alerted to the idea of curating mediatised policy development during an expert interview for my empirical research. The respondent, chief editor of a Sydney newspaper, stated that, with an overwhelming mountain of information, news, views, and commentary being generated daily through the likes of the Internet and social media, the public needs curators to sift and sort the most important themes and arguments. The expert suggested this is now part of a journalist’s role.

The idea of journalists as curators is far from new (Bakker 596). Nor is it the purpose of this paper. However, what struck me in this notion of curating was the critical role of sifting, sorting and ultimately selecting which themes, ideas, or pieces of information are privileged in myriad choices. My own empirical research was indicating that the management of highly influential news media and public discourses surrounding transport infrastructure also involved a considerable level of selection. Therefore, I hypothesised that the concept of curating might aid the managing of discourses when it comes to communicating for successful policy and project development that is subject to news media scrutiny.  

Research into scholarship has indicated that the concept of “the curatorial turn” is significant to this hypothesis. Since the 1960s the role of curator in art exhibition has shifted from that of “caretaker” for a collection to the shaper of an exhibition (O’Neill, “Turn”; O’Neill, Culture). Central to this shift is “the changing perception of the curator as carer to a curator who has a more creative and active part to play within the production of art itself” (O’Neill, Turn 243). Some commentators go so far as to suggest that curators have become cultural agents that “participate in the production of cultural value” (244). The curator’s role in exhibition design has also been equated to that of an author or auteur that drives an exhibition’s meaning (251–52).

Why is this important for policy development? It is my view that there is certainly merit to viewing a significant part of the role of the political animal in policymaking as the curator of public and media discourse. As Beatrix Ruf suggests, the role of the curator is to create a “freedom for things to happen” within “a societal context” that not only takes into account the needs of the “artist” but also the “audience” (Bourriaud et al. 91). If we were to substitute bureaucrat for artist and media/public for audience then Ruf’s suggestion seems particularly relevant for the communication of policy. To return to Bourriaud’s quote that began this paper, perhaps the role of the curator/policymaker is not solely to produce a policy “but to invent, to fabricate, elaborate reading grids or coexistence grids,” to manage the discourses that influence the policy arena (Bourriaud et al. 92).

Furthermore, the answer to why the concept of the curatorial turn seems relevant to policy development requires consideration not only of the rise of the voice and influence of the curator/policymaker but also of those at whose expense this shift has occurred. Through the rise of the curator the voice of the artist has dimmed. As the exhibition is elevated to “the status of quasi-artwork,” individual artworks themselves become simply “a useful fragment” (O’Neill, “Turn” 253). One of the underlying tensions of the curatorial turn is the rise of actors that are not practicing artists themselves. In other words, the producers of art, the artists, have less influence over their own practice.

In New South Wales (NSW), we have witnessed a similar scenario with the steady rise of the voice and influence of the politician (and political adviser), at the expense of the public service. This loss of bureaucratic power was embedded structurally in the mid-1970s when Premier Neville Wran established the Ministerial Advisory Unit (MAU) to oversee NSW state government decisions. A respondent for my research states that when he began his career as a public servant:

politicians didn’t really have a lot of ideas about things … the public service really ran the place … [Premier Wran] said, ‘this isn’t good enough. I’m being manipulated by the government departments. I’m going to set up something called the MAU which is politically appointed as a countervailing force to the bureaucracy to get the advice that I want.’

The respondent infers a power grab by political actors to stymie the influence of the bureaucracy. This view is shared by several expert respondents for my research, as well as being substantiated by historian John Gunn (503).

One of the clear results of the structural change has been that a politically driven media focus is now embedded in the structure of government policy and project decision-making. Instead of taking its lead from priorities emanating from the community, the bureaucracy is instead left with little choice but to look to the minister for guidance. As a project management consultant to government states in an interview:

I think today the bureaucrat who makes the hard administrative decisions, the management decisions, is basically outweighed by communications, public relations, media relations director … the politicians are poll driven not policy driven.

The respondent makes a point with which former politician Lindsay Tanner (Tanner) and academic Ian Ward (Ward, Power) agree—Australian politicians are increasingly structuring their operations around news media. The bureaucracy has become less relevant to policymaking as a result. My empirical research indicates this. The SCM and the NWR were highly publicised projects where the views of transport experts were largely ignored.  They represent cases where the voice of the experts/artists had been completely suppressed by the voice of the politician/curator.

I contend that this is where key questions of the role of the politician and the curator converge. Experts interviewed for my research express concerns that policymaking has been altered by structural changes to the bureaucracy.  Similarly, some academics concerned with the rise of the curator question whether the shift will change the very nature of art (O’Neill, Cultures). A shared concern of the art world and those witnessing the policy arena in NSW is that the thoughts and ideas of those that do are being overshadowed by the views of those who talk. In terms of curatorial practice, O’Neill (Cultures) cites the views of Mick Wilson, who speaks of the rise of the “Foucauldian moment” and the “ubiquitous appeal of the term ‘discourse’ as a word to conjure and perform power,” where “even talking is doing something.” As O’Neill contends, “at this extreme, the discursive stands in the place of ‘doing’ within discourses on curatorial practice” (43).

O’Neill submits Wilson’s point as an extreme view within the curatorial turn. However, the concern for the art world should be similar to the one experienced in the policy arena. Technical advice from the bureaucracy (doers) to ministers (talkers) has changed. In an interview with me, a partner in one of Australia’s leading architectural and planning practices contends that the technical advice of the bureaucracy to ministers is not as “fearless and robust” as it once wasFurthermore, he is concerned that planners have lost their influence as ministers now look to political advisers rather than technical advisers for direction.  He states, “now what happens is most advisors to ministers are political advisers and they will give political advice … the planning advice hasn’t come from the planners.”

The ultimate concern is that, through a silencing of the technical expert, policymaking is losing a vital layer of experience and knowledge that can only be to the detriment of the practice and its beneficiaries, the public.

The closer one looks, the more evident the similarities between curating and policy development become. Acute budgetary limitations exist. There is an increased reliance on public funding. Large-scale curating, like policy development, involves “a negotiation of the relationship between public and private interests” (Ruf in Bourriaud et al. 90). There is also a tension between short- and long-term outlooks as well as local and global perspectives (Lunghi in Bourriaud et al. 97). And, significantly for my argument for the privileging of the concept of curating of discourse in policy, curating has also been called “a battlefield of ideas in which the public (or audience) has become ‘the big Other’” in that “everything that cannot find its audience, its public, is highly suspicious or very problematic” (Bourriaud in Bourriaud et al. 96–97). The closer the inspection, the starker the similarities of each pursuit.

Lessons, Ramifications and Conclusions

What can policymakers learn from the curatorial turn? For policymaking, it seems that the argumentative turn, the rise of news mediatisation, the strengthening of power and influence of the politician, and the “Foucauldian moment” have seen the rise of the discursive in place of doing that some quarters identify as being the case with the curatorial turn (O’Neill, Cultures). Therefore, it would be pertinent for policymakers to heed Bourriaud’s statement that began this paper: “the role of the curator is not to produce a concept of art (or policy) but to invent, to fabricate, elaborate reading grids or coexistence grids between them” (Bourriaud et al. 92).  Is such a method of curating discourse the way forward for the political animal that seeks to achieve the politically “impossible” in policymaking?

Perhaps for policymaking the importance of the concept of curating holds both opportunity and a warning. The opportunity, exemplified by the success of the NWR and the failure of the SCM projects in Sydney, is in accepting the role of media and public discourses in policy development so that they may be more thoroughly investigated and understood before being more effectively folded into the policymaking process. The warning lies in the concerns the curatorial turn has raised over the demise of the artist in light of the rise of discourse. The voice of the technical expert appears to be fading. How do we effectively curate discourses as well as restore the bureaucrat to former levels of robust fearlessness? I dare say it will take a political animal to do either.


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Author Biography

Nicholas Richardson, University of New South Wales

Nicholas Richardson is a lecturer at the School of Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales.