These days, everyone is a so-called curator. From closets to playlists, the term “curate” can now be applied to almost anything that requires the slightest bit of selective insight. I am sorry to say that simply putting things together that match is not curation. I call that fancy choosing.
Before curation became part of a loosely used vernacular, it was an activity—a job even—that almost exclusively applied to the fine arts and its related fields. As someone who recently organized an art exhibit, I now have the full respect and understanding of the severe difference between a curator and a person who simply just picks what he or she likes. Curation is a meticulous practice of bringing together something under the auspices of a meaning or concept. Each object in an art exhibition is imbued with purpose and is meant to convey a specific statement or thought within a larger context.
The first show that I curated, with my co-curator Ari Lipkis, was WORKING ON IT at TEMP Art Space. We spent a total of six months organizing the exhibition, which opened in September 2012 and featured twelve young New York artists. Preparation for the show was not a full-time job in the traditional sense—creative freelance work usually isn’t. But every day we would do something, whether it was visiting artist studios to better understand their works (trips to Harlem, Sunset Park, Ridgewood, Bushwick, Red Hook) or agonizing over the final artists list (we probably went through four). In the final week, we were working sixteen-hour days.
We devoted our lives to the project. Spending that much time and energy on something allows a person to analyze the importance of each element that contributes to the final presentation. A good curator will deliberate every detail that will affect the audience’s intellectual interpretation, from the greater significance of a show to the size of the vinyl wall lettering. Curation involves the constant reevaluation of every idea and decision to the very end.
Not to mention the other stuff—figuring out the placement of each art object in a space, writing a press release that accurately describes each work and its purpose, climbing a twelve foot ladder to perfectly position each light, driving an old family minivan to pick up artworks, checking in on participating artists to make sure works will be completed in time (the final delivery came thirty minutes before opening), creating and ordering postcards and other marketing materials, framing and installing each work (I finally learned how to use a power drill), hours of research to check that your show has not already been done, coming up with a catchy but appropriate title (I don’t even want to mention some of the horrendous brainstorming ideas), etc. Needless to say, there is a lot that goes into curation.
So while I see advertisers, fashionistas, Spotifiers, and bloggers talking about curation as if it were a new way to cull content, it is not. On the contrary, it is an age-old skill that takes some serious discipline and crafting. It can be very tedious, and nothing ever goes as planned. But at the end of the day, it is rewarding to see a series of deeply pondered thoughts become an object of reality shared by the public. That being said, if the word “curate” is being redefined to apply to a broader realm, please take note. You should not equate yourself to an art exhibition curator just because you have a Pinterest account.