edited by Paul O’Neill, Lucy Steeds, and Mick Wilson. The MIT Press, December 2017. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780262534321 (pbk), $34.95

Reviewed May 2018
Amy Furness, Head, Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

oneillThe complicated relationship between curatorial practice and the institutions of art is the backdrop to How Institutions Think, a new anthology of essays based on a symposium of the same title held in Arles in February 2016 under the auspices of the LUMA Foundation and the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. The goal of the volume’s editors, all leaders in curatorial studies scholarship, is simultaneously to build upon and to trouble the literature of this growing field, exploring “contemporary art’s dialectic of institutionalized anti-institutionalism.” How Institutions Think will be of certain interest to curators and students of curatorial practice, whether their focus is museums, institutions of learning, or other kinds of collective practice.


How Institutions Think is inspired by Mary Douglas’s 1986 book of the same title, an extended sociological essay on the social basis for individual thought. Although the relationship between the two books might be characterized as tangential, the editors share Douglas’s interest in the way that institutions make possible certain kinds of thought, feeling, and action. Their aim is to explore this question in the context of art-centered institutions and work towards greater institutional self-awareness and efficacy.


The book is comprised of twenty essays, including both papers delivered at the symposium and contributions by additional invited authors. The plurality of voices in the anthology format is particularly apt for the subject matter, providing a diversity of perspectives from an international array of authors. Consistent with the complex dynamic between individuals and institutions that the editors evoke, many of the contributors of individual essays have notably hybrid professional identities that include the roles of artist (often in collective practice), curator, educator, or writer. The cumulative image of the institution is multifarious and evolving.


How Institutions Think is the second title in a planned series of three, joining the editors’ previous volume, The Curatorial Conundrum: What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016). The current title is markedly different in look and feel, with A4-sized pages of a porous-feeling paper stock and a soft paper cover, a design which evokes a workbook and may not weather frequent use in a library setting. This book devotes more page area to illustrations than the earlier volume, but nearly all images are black and white. There are footnotes, but no bibliography or index.