Until very recently it is likely you would only hear the word ‘curator’ used in the context of art galleries and museums. Today it seems to be popping up in all sorts of other places too; festivals, playlists and shops to name a few – seemingly anywhere there’s a mediator for consumption of something by an audience. It appears to have evolved into “a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.” In short this code word means “I have a discerning eye and great taste.” (Williams, 2009)
The definition of the term is clearly broadening and this could be for a few reasons. Inside big public museums and galleries, job and funding cuts cause the role of the curator to include many more responsibilities, thereby broadening the wider view of what a curator is or does. Outside these walls there could be an attempt to bring some artistic swagger and academic glamour to less important or less creative sounding roles in other sectors to elevate stock or professional status.
Ask any two curators what it is they do and it’s likely to be different depending on what and how they are ‘curating’. The skills and activities they describe however are likely to fit in to the same spectrum. Over time it seems ‘curator’ will continue its evolution (or revolution) and become an umbrella term for said spectrum, attuned more to culture than any one discipline. If we are to embrace this contemporary idea of the curatorial, the dictionary definition in the future may read ‘activities concerned with the mediation and ultimately presentation of an idea to an audience’.
The idea that a curator is just a caretaker of special objects is now little more than a caricature. Curators have always made and commissioned content to explore and promote collections and dealt with emotional resonances (Walker, 2018). Millennials in particular have had their horizons broadened further by those inside and outside academia who have changed the definition of what it means to be an artist or curator, how and where they operate. Perhaps the diversification of the term over time is the recognition it deserves.
One such tangent in the curatorial spectrum is that of the artist-curator, a marriage between the technical, creative and the academic. This practitioner likely has either a background as an artist and sees value in taking more of a driving seat in the presentation of the work, or someone with a background in curating whose practice has evolved in to modes of production they consider to have the same weight as artworks.
An artist makes artworks, thinking hard about communicating through their chosen media. In addition to this behaviour, an artist-curator thinks technically about how, why, where and when artworks (or outputs) will be consumed by an audience. They approach the curatorial in the same way an artist approaches making art; because their chosen methods and media talk directly to their sensibilities, interests and lines of enquiry. There are no ground-breaking artists, in any discipline, who choose methods or media they find unnatural or perplexing. Doing this would be unsustainable and unsatisfying, especially for a species obsessed with happiness and fulfilment.
Just as ‘land art’ shows a rejection of the studio as a place to make and a rejection of the gallery as a place to show (Loveless, 2018), Gillick (2010) describes a ‘refusal’ as “once you get in the position to do something, you don’t necessarily do what would be the logical thing to do”. O’Neill and Wilson (2015) introduce the interaction between the curatorial and research in terms of ‘refusals’, which hints that a curator might be driven and shaped as much by what they are kicking against as what they embrace.
We think about art differently depending on our experiences and affiliations. Some think of it as a tool to express something like drawing and painting, others hold it aloft as having some kind of divine power, and some people see it as an abstract frivolity. It could be that art has been elevated to divinity in some circles because it’s such a good sensory and experiential tool (School of Life, 2013). In the modern world research should be granted equal access to the divine order of art because ultimately research is actually the difference between life and death (and the quality of both), between heaven and hell on Earth.
Loveless, N. (2018) Global Stage for Liberal Arts Research [Seminar at GALA Summer School], Research Creation. Concordia University. 23 July
O’Neill, P. and Wilson, M eds. (2015) Curating Research. Open Editions: London
Walker, D. (2018) ‘Acquiring and presenting the emotional resonances of a collection’. Interview with Duncan Walker. Interviewed by Luke Mitchell, unpublished, 13 April 2018
Williams, A.. (2009) ‘The Word ‘Curate’ No Longer Belongs to the Museum Crowd’, The New York Times, 2 Oct. Available at: nytimes.com/2009/10/04/fashion/04curate.html