Everyone’s a Curator Now

Lou Stoppard

The New York Times, 3 March 2020

Recently Maryellen Stewart, a freelance copywriter for luxury brands, was window-shopping in SoHo when she noticed a large sign in a restaurant window advertising a “curated” menu.

“I hate the word,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”

In Midtown, the designer Christian Siriano has opened the Curated NYC, a boutique selling women’s wear and decorative objects. Michigan residents can buy their wedding dresses at the Curated Bride. Fashion fans keen to slim-line their wardrobe can consult “The Curated Closet: A Simple System for Discovering Your Personal Style and Building Your Dream Wardrobe” by Anuschka Rees. Those looking to move can find an apartment through Elika, a real estate company offering “curated New York properties.”

Fly to London, and at Heathrow Airport you’ll be met with the Curator, a new bar and restaurant. The Evening Standard Magazine recently referred to “your page curators” when explaining the masterminds behind a list of “in-car travel companions,” including a Diptyque diffuser that costs 75 pounds (about $95).

“It’s mainstream jargon now,” Ms. Stewart said. “It’s used because it sounds fashionable. It sounds like it’s for … the aesthetically conscious.” As zeitgeisty as other oddly specific and much hashtagged words like “wanderlust” or “journey” or “empower,” “curate” is spreading. The word’s overuse has left it almost devoid of meaning, and curators themselves — the traditional, museum-dwelling kind — are up in arms.

Andrew Renton, a professor of curating at Goldsmiths, University of London, said that for years he used to keep a note of every time he saw a bizarre use of the term, but it has become so ubiquitous that he has given up keeping tabs.

It is, he said, a “battle for the space for the curator.”

The word “curate” comes from the Latin “curatus,” the past participle of “curare,” which means “to take care of.” For years, in museums and archives, curators did just that: polishing finishes, inspecting canvases, layering archival tissue. The idea of curators as creative agents in their own right, and master of the kind of the sociopolitical commentary that underpins many of today’s exhibitions, is relatively new.

In “The Culture of Curating,” Paul O’Neill cites 1987 as a turning point for the role. That year, Le Magasin, an art center in France, introduced Europe’s first postgraduate curatorial training program, and the Art History/Museum Studies pathway of the Whitney Independent Study Program was renamed Curatorial and Critical Studies.

That year, Mr. O’Neill writes, “represents a significant departure in the understanding of curatorship, from vocational work with collections in institutional contexts to a potentially independent, critically-engaged and experimental form of exhibition-making practice.”

Mr. Renton of Goldsmiths said that until recently, most museums didn’t even credit the curators of their exhibitions. “Twenty or 30 years ago, curators were almost as dusty as the dusty objects that they looked after,” he said.

“There has been a rise in the authority of the curator — the rise of the super-curator, who travels the world and makes exhibitions with some kind of signature that reflects their ideology and their position,” he said.

Over the last decade, Mr. Renton has watched “curating” spread from museums to storefronts and social media with a mixture of disdain and amusement. He was recently struck by a cover line on a British Vogue supplement from September 2016 that promised advice on “curating perfect curls.”

“They use curating as a manifestation of smartness — that something intelligent has happened here,” he said. “It is, most of the time, something very banal. Menus are curated. A cheese selection is curated. There is a strong emphasis on selling it back to you with authority. It doesn’t say who curated it. Is it the brand doing it? You’d hope that they were doing the supposed curating already. What’s an un-curated cheese selection?”

The word, and its connotations of editing and refining, has spread as options multiply.

What could be more disturbing, in these times of climate crisis, than the thought of infinite stuff, of worthless mass production and waste? The notion of something “curated” offers reassurance that what we buy is somehow meaningful; not just a dress, but a precious part of a curated selection of party wear.

“Very often you see that the word that goes before it is ‘careful,’” Mr. Renton said. “‘Carefully curated’ — which is, of course, etymologically, a tautology.”

Every era has its buzzwords, which emerge to define the goals and identities of the objects and individuals at the apex of cool. There are the roles — designing, styling, creative directing — and the copywriter clichés; iconic, legendary, chic, edited (the edited wardrobe, the hat edit). The current dominance of “curating” is, like most contemporary oddities, tied to the internet.

Its sister word is “content.” The spread of both is, in part, an issue of linguistics. How does one summarize the relatively new act of creating, collecting and displaying a bunch of digital “stuff,” whether e-commerce pictures or Tumblr posts? One doesn’t pour olive oil on a salad; one drizzles it. One doesn’t arrange an Instagram feed; one curates it.

The proliferation of “curating” speaks of a generation anxious for authority and authorship, and also for meaning.

At the Centre for Fashion Curation at University of the Arts, London, debate over the word abounds. One recent Wednesday, three of the program’s faculty members, Amy de la Haye, Ben Whyman and Jeffrey Horsley, met to plan the schedule for new curation students. All wore black.

“It’s cultural cachet, isn’t it?” Ms. de la Haye said on the spread of the word. “But it’s also to do with the rise in popularity in exhibitions.” She cites “McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which, in 2011, had attracted record-setting visitor numbers for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a turning point for public perception of curating.

The three agreed that many usages were self-aggrandizing, and often frivolous; they rarely correlated with an act requiring considerable contemplation. “I mean, I would die before saying I curated a dinner,” Ms. de La Haye said. “When I see it in magazines, it amazes me. They’ve put some toiletries on a page.”

The agreement ended when it came to a formal definition of the term. “Even from a museological perspective, there are many different types of curator,” Mr. Whyman said.

Ms. de la Haye said: “I would say that a curator has to be someone who works with objects. But then I have colleagues who would say not necessarily.”

Mr. Horsley chimed in. “For me, curation is about collection-based work, and it’s nothing to do with exhibition making,” he said. “For me, they are entirely separate disciplines. If I stand up at a conference and speak about this, I can hear people hissing through their teeth.” He calls himself an “exhibition maker.”

“I start my first session with the students saying: ‘I’m not a curator, I never have been and I’ve never wanted to be,’” he said.

Ms. de La Haye disagreed. “I feel passionately that I am a curator,” she said.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London, is a star curator by anyone’s definition — big in both the world of museums and on Instagram. In his book “Ways of Curating,” he recalls, as a young man, seeking to question the limits of the role.

He has curated exhibitions in his kitchen (”World Soup, “1991) and in 1994 on Austrian Airlines planes, using images from Alighiero Boetti’s “Airplanes” series, both in every in-flight magazine and as a free jigsaw puzzle, given to passengers.

When asked if his attempts to reconceptualize the term have contributed to its newfound popularity, he responded, by email: “The ‘cur’ in curating can obviously be freely associated to curiosity. I believe curiosity is why I am a curator. It is a desire to want to know and to connect what we know.”

His definition is loose, and recently, he’s been toying with a new title: “junction maker,” which was suggested to him by the writer J.G. Ballard.

“I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator — a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public,” Mr. Obrist said. “This is why I always wanted to do exhibitions which go beyond the walls of the museum and into society. In this sense, the expanded notion of curating is positive.”

But curating is not just choosing, he insisted. “The current vogue for the idea of curating comes from the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, processed information and images in the digital age,” he said. “This contemporary resonance risks producing a kind of bubble where the word in itself loses meaning.”

Mr. Renton shares this concern. “Is the end of all of this that the term is so debased that we have to think elsewhere about what to call ourselves?” he said.