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All curators now

“Curating” used to mean caring for part of a museum collection. Now it means all sorts of things

Anthony Gardner | November/December 2013

You may not have heard of "Curate Africa", but when it comes to ambition its organisers are in a league of their own. This "major project of photography and curation" encompasses the entire continent and aims to "mark a departure from histories of representation concerned with African people, places and realities". What this is supposed to mean is anybody's guess, but one thing is certain—the verb "curate" has come a long way.

Twenty years ago, it was a candidate for the least fashionable word in the English language, used only by a small band of art-world professionals, and evocative of dusty showcases in the nether regions of half-forgotten museums. Dictionaries, unless they ran to several volumes, didn’t even list it. The idea that it might become common currency would have been considered ludicrous.

But in the last few years, like the keyboard symbol "@", it has risen from the verge of extinction to become almost ubiquitous. People don’t just curate exhibitions—they curate everything, and believe it cool to do so. The Bestival music festival on the Isle of Wight is "curated" by its founder, the DJ Rob da Bank; a Japanese restaurant in Iowa offers "a collection of sushi curated by the chefs"; the networking organisation Editorial Intelligence runs a workshop on "curating your knowledge". At £500 for a half day, this apparently involves "working out what information you do and don’t currently take in…and avoiding overload".

"I have grown to detest this innocent word," says Sara Hawker, a senior lexicographer on the "Oxford English Dictionary". "It’s a form of self-inflation, used to convey the idea that the person concerned has some expert knowledge that you can trust, and generally accompanied by an adverb such as 'meticulously' or 'professionally'. It was a word that started to crop up more regularly and then all of a sudden it was everywhere. It's now so widely used that it’s become just a way of saying 'select'."

The verb "to curate" derives from the much older noun "curator". This first appear­ed in the 14th century as an alternative—confusingly—to the noun "curate", meaning a priest’s assistant, but later came to be used in the secular sense of "a person in charge". By the mid-17th century, according to the "New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary", it had acquired a scholastic and artistic dimension ("the officer in charge of a museum, library, or other collection"), and a few decades later the verb "to curate" appeared. For some 200 years, however, it was stuck with the obscure meaning of "to provide a record of curation". Not until the end of the 19th century did the definition "act as the curator of" come to the fore, and even then the word seldom appeared outside museum catalogues. It’s true that horticulturalists were once advised on "curating the fruits and seeds separately", but only in the Journal of the Essex Field Club (1923).

In the museum world, the verb implied caring for objects in a particular place: the title "independent curator", popular at this year’s Art Basel fair, would have been nonsensical. But in the early 1980s came a shift, barely noticed at the time, to encompass the performing arts. "The distinction between music and fine arts began to blur," says Ian Brookes, a consultant editor on the "Collins Dictionary", "so it was possible for the word to seep across." The first recorded example in the oed, from the New York Times in 1982, related to a music festival—and since you can’t put musicians in a climate-controlled case, the emphasis was now on the selection process.

So slow was this usage to take off that, ten years later, the "Concise Oxford Dictionary" still didn’t think "curate" worth including as a verb. How, then, did it finally hit the big time?

The boom in the contemporary-art world is one answer. Suddenly curators were not dusty old men peering at Etruscan pots, but young arbiters of taste who hung out with Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin—and many people from completely different spheres were keen to be seen in the same light. Since contemporary art and pretentious language go hand in hand, there should have been little surprise when "curate" started to acquire ever more far-fetched usages. In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle declared that Robert Rauschenberg "didn’t give a fig for…curating his reputation".

According to Sara Hawker, it was another development which made the verb’s fortune: the internet. With reams of random information at their fingertips, webmasters found themselves labouring to sort out what was useful from what wasn’t—and the word they hit upon to denote this was "curate". "It took on a new life in the early 2000s with the coming of Web 2.0," Hawker says. "Now it’s frequently applied to tweets, apps and playlists." News organisations have also embraced it: as the funding for old-style news-gathering shrinks, editors find themselves "curating" reports from other media and citizen journalists who range from the reliable to the certifiable.

In such contexts the verb’s artistic dimension no longer applies—but the connotations linger, which explains why some people are so keen to use it, and why it often seems ridiculously highfalutin. We don’t want to be told that a firework company is curating a Guy Fawkes display when it is simply letting off bangers as it has always done, or that a store is curating its own pop-up shop. But for every usage which elevates the mundane, there is another which is abstract to the point of fantasy: for New Agers, the key to feeling stronger and more vibrant is "curating the self"; the city of York is accused of "curating its own failure"; the rap star Kanye West invites his Twitter followers to "curate your life".

Some examples are more irritating than others. Stephen Fry, as Britain’s favourite brainbox, can just about get away with curating a festival of Verdi and Wagner at the Royal Opera House. But we expect rock stars to be straight-talking, so it jars to find The Clash’s latest compilation "curated by Paul Simonon", or Cerys Matthews hailing Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie as "people that have curated music".

You have to feel for the traditional curators whose raison d’être has been hijacked. Their whole vocation is undermined by a competition launched this summer by the Fondazione Prada and the Qatar Museums Authority. Called simply "Curate", it declares that "we are all curators. Everything we choose and collect to surround us has meaning." Entrants, invited to post a video explaining their idea for an exhibition, are assured that "there are no limits to the form or language in which your curatorial concept can be realised".

On these terms, having a cup of tea ("One lump or two?") is an act of curation; and now even the dimension of choice seems to be leaking out of the verb. A travel show offers hoteliers advice on "curating your crowd", when it means "creating demand among customers"; a cookery writer is asked "to curate a food-blogging masterclass". The word for that used to be "run". At this rate "curate" will soon double for anything you want, like the blank tiles in Scrabble.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The organisers of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition refused to be described as curators. They asked to be known as co-ordinators instead. 

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