19 October 2021 — Since 2010, the word “curator” has been gradually coming into the public eye. From critical examinations of the term demonstrated by Eliot Van Buskirk’s 2010 WIRED piece “Overwhelmed? Welcome the Age of Curation”1 to a media sensation exemplified by ELLE.com’s 2019 article titled “A Curator Boyfriend is the Hottest Accessory for 2020,”2 the somehow novel figure of the curator and the field of expertise called curation have become part of our colloquial language. However, what does the term “curator” mean, and how would an act of curation unfold in each circumstance? In the time when, as the New York Times observed last year, “everyone’s a curator now,”3 it is essential for individuals and those interested in pursuing curatorial careers to have a better grasp of this practice and profession. Beyond perceiving the curators based on their spectacular portrayal in lifestyle magazines, the public image about curators also reflects changes to the cultural economy.
The term “curator” previously more associated with the arts and culture sector, has become inseparable from the dot-com boom of the 1990s and the subsequent emergence of global e-commerce. Thus, “What is a curator?” is not just an art question, but also a socioeconomic inquiry. However, the popularisation of the noun “curator” and the verb “to curate” is more than an aesthetic trend in our current information society. As Toronto-based art critic David Balzer’s tongue-in-cheek proposal of curationism suggested, “[curationism] is . . . the acceleration of the curatorial impulse to become a dominant what of thinking and being . . . as long as we continue to consume things, be particular and create a culture – that is, be human.”4
1. State of Curation
Balzer’s statement exemplifies an identity crisis among professional curators.5 By this, I mean those individuals who relate to curatorial practice as a vocation or are defined by their job titles. Whether they serve within an institution, professional curators’ works are characterised by a circular process of researching, selecting, collecting and displaying. For the public, typical encounters with these strictly defined curators are likely to occur in an exhibition setting where curators are storytellers who give guided tours and facilitate audiences’ comfortable navigation of gallery spaces. Here, the public trusts these curators as arbiters of artistic achievements.
In the age of Web 2.0, although curators and no longer defined by their capability “to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that [makes] them sing,” the core value of their work remains presenting a form of “controlled chaos” in our everyday life.6 In the social media age, curation is about “the intentional identification, collection, (sometimes) repackaging, augmenting, updating, and sharing of content.”7 One of its most relatable activities is maintaining our social media profiles. Whether or not one is aware of it, in our Internet-mediated lives, we curate and are curated. We are recognized as who we are through our proactive posting about our lives or our involuntary exposure by Amazon regarding our recent purchases. Whether we control or are controlled by the chaos in this platform economy age depends on our attentiveness to how Balzer’s curationism operates through our daily engagement with acts of curation.
2. Curator in Context
According to the etymological studies, the act of curating can be traced back to curare, a Latin word associated with actions such as “to care” and “to cure.”8 The term “curator” originated in the Roman Empire, in which cūrātores were caretakers of public affairs endowed with administrative power.9 In the medieval period, the term became associated with Christianity. From caretakers of public life to “cure[rs] of souls,” “curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest.”10 In the seventeenth century, the French Revolution marked the birth of the new Republic and the emergence of public museums. When artisans converted the French king’s Louvre Palace into the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, the curatorial role was further consolidated.
The dialectical relationship between governmentality and spirituality is probably best exemplified by Hubert Robert’s oil painting Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre (1796). “Education and enlightenment were no longer limited to a privileged handful but were on offer to anybody who chose to enter the former royal palace.”11 As the inaugural curator of a public museum, Robert painted and represented what Tony Bennett called an “exhibitionary complex.” By visiting the display of art objects, museum patrons became part of this public display and therefore became vehicles “for inscribing and broadcasting the messages of power throughout society.”12 In the light of this function of the museum as public education, the curator’s institutional role began to integrate exhibition-making with administrative duty or, more specifically, the governance of the soul.
The arrival of contemporary art heralded what Paul O’Neill describes as a “curatorial turn.” For O’Neill, there is a shifting in an understanding of the curator as a caretaker of a collection to a creator of “cultural meaning and value [that make art and artists].”13 Harald Szeemann (1933-2005) and Walter Hopps (1932-2005), widely recognized as the “principal architects”14 of contemporary curatorial practices, represent the beginning of this turn. In the 1970s, star curators emerged in tandem with the phenomenon of large-scale exhibitions such as biennials, which transcended curators’ custodianship in a museological context and transformed them into brokers of culture and beyond.
3. Thinking Curatorially
If the practice of curation is related to activities evolving around a display mechanism within and beyond a physical space, “the adjective curatorial then becomes a more reflexive way to describe such activity.”15 With the globalisation of contemporary art, the biennial boom in Asia during the 1990s went hand-in-hand with the “triumph of neoliberalism” in the region.16 Challenges of Western-centric aesthetic history came not only from growing regional awareness, but also from local receptions of these star curators’ somehow groundless iterant internationalism.17 Art historian-cum-curators such as Jim Supangkat (Indonesia), Apinan Poshyananda (Thailand), and Patrick Flores (Philippines) gradually shifted the focus of curatorial practices from the pursuit of globalisation to the concerns of local reality. Internationally, the concurrent establishment of graduate-level curatorial studies programs further extended the critique of curatorship’s cultural broker status.
Jean-Paul Martinon summarised the reflexive curatorial stance in his essay “Theses in the Philosophy of Curating.”18 He reminds us that “[t]he curatorial is . . . a way of caring for humanity.”19 Could his emphasis on care at the core of curating be a necessary recalibration? If Martinon’s proposal holds true, it may not be a bad thing to claim that “everyone’s a curator now.”