Word of the Year 2009


Firstly, let me apologise for another post that looks back at 2009 given the avalanche that there has been over the past month. I took advantage of a few days of exile to the French countryside over the holidays to think about some of the trends that have emerged over the course of 2009. One thing that I have been particularly struck by is how ubiquitous ‘curators’ and ‘curation’ have become over the last year. I keep hearing these terms used in what I would consider to be unusual contexts, referring to the process by which the stuff that is sold in a store is selected (some ‘trend watchers’ have even labelled this curated consumption), a group of images are put together online, or even to someone making a mixtape. It seems that we now walk around curating all day: which sandwich to have at lunch or which furniture to buy from IKEA. Have I curated my living room or my underwear drawer (I was definitely not aware of doing so)?

We are all curators now, or at least we all want to be: apparently curator ranks as one of the best careers for 2010 in the US. This sounds pretty insane to me given the crisis that is affecting American museums. Maybe it is considered to be one of the best careers because there are so few curator positions out there and this rarity is creating desire? It has become such a popular profession that it has been attracting quite a bit of vitriol from art critics who see the curator as responsible for the bloated state of the art world, particularly the contemporary art one. This is a pretty radical transformation: just a few years ago curators were essentially considered to be overly scholarly caretakers, wandering the dusty corridors of their museum poring over the collection: far from a ‘sexy’ profession.

So what exactly do we mean when we say ‘curator’? This is a question that I am deeply interested in as I work as an independent curator. The term can be confusing: in French for example it is split into two terms ‘commissaire d’exposition’ and ‘conservateur’ which cover different aspects of what a curator does (or at least used to do). These days the term ‘curate’ is often used for any process that requires somebody to make a selection from a large group of some form. In my view, that falls well short of what curating should be. The major transformation is that curating is something which is now done far more in the business sphere than in the artistic one. By appropriating the term, brands and retailers are hoping that its high-mindedness will wash off on them. In a 2.0 world, it makes sense that people need to be told that someone has gone to the trouble of whittling down this infinite choice to a manageable handful of only the best items. But is this really the same thing as what a curator does in a museum?

I think the crucial difference is that curating should really imply more than a process of selection. Ideally it should not only be based on in-depth research into a particular area, but it should also attempt to contribute new ideas that shed light on some unseen aspect or that allow us to see things in a new context. When I think of the best curated photography shows over the past decade, they were all based on several years of painstaking research and all attempted to say something new about their subject. Curators also have a crucial role to play in terms of collaboration with artists. Just as there is some concern about self-publishing because it generally implies that there is no outside editorial input, exhibitions curated by the artists themselves tend to be messy affairs.

What is ironic with the current rise of the ‘curator’, is that museum curating seems to be going through a particularly difficult time. Budgets are being slashed left, right and centre, shows are being extended from 2-3 months to 4 or 5, and many museums are resorting to blockbuster shows to get the maximum number of people through the door. Despite the criticism that has been directed at them of late, I hate to think of what the museum world would look like without them.

Update: This post seems to have led to some kind of Facebook discussion (courtesy of Andy at Flak Photo), so check that out for some more opinions on the subject.

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  1. Posted 27 January 2010 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t know why we can’t just be editors. Anytime someone tries to call me a curator I correct them and say editor/publisher.

  2. Posted 27 January 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Smart post, Marc – I appreciate the links too.

    I agree, it’s a tricky word and not one I typically use to describe the work I’m doing with photographers online – Editor / Publisher seems like a better fit.

  3. Jennifer
    Posted 27 January 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    There is a long history of curating, together with a whole range of curatorial models that serious curators are aware of and informed by. The only problem with the term itself, is it’s bastardization by those who reduce a valid an important process into something over-simplified and not respected.

  4. Posted 27 January 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    When we get into the high-minded language, I bristle.

    The direction blogging is going is more like “scrap booking”. Is there a French term for that? What gets the curate label this days is more like collecting a stream of semi-related ephemera, sometimes on a theme but mostly not. The Web is like a infinite Hobby Barn and we’re just pasting little bric-a-brac into our digital scrap books. Rarely would I say it is as thoughtful in practice as is its portrayed in theory.

  5. Posted 27 January 2010 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Amen, Marc.

    Thank you.

  6. Posted 27 January 2010 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m definitely guilty (and proud) of labeling myself a curator since Amani Olu and I founded Humble Arts Foundation in 2005. I studied photography and Art history in school, with the intent of mainly focusing on my own photographic work, but realized soon after working as a photo editor that I wanted a bit more involvement and control than shooting, editing and assigning photos alone.

    The work I do specifically involves investigating common themes in contemporary art photography and pulling photographic work from a variety of vantage points to help. If Humble is hosting an open call, as we just did for the “31 Women in Art Photography” exhibition, I’m never simply selecting 31 photos I think are great, but instead, 31 photos that are great, AND have some kind of linear, aesthetic, and/or conceptual relationship to one another. It can be difficult to do this with seemingly disparate works, which a defining task of certain curatorial work.

    I think you raise a number of interesting points. Over the past few years, with the advent of crowd sourced media, a variety of words/terms etc that originally had significant meaning in their fields seem to have been diluted by a general desire to belong, or to follow the crowd–to grab a hold of what appears to be significant artistic or creative culture and lay claim in one way or another. As mentioned by others in this thread, this has come up quite a bit over the past few years with the cliche-ification of terms like “emerging” for marketing related purposes. Words like this that sought to define burgeoning talent, are now being overused to a degree of meaninglessness. We have also seen the over saturation of online photo galleries, blogs, JPG magazine style galleries that may seek to expand photography to a wider audience (which is great) but ultimately, dilute the medium by including too much, and “curating” less than they pretend to. It’s much easier to use a buzz word to define one’s self without being called to task.

    I do think it’s completely legitimate to expand the definition of “curator” beyond the physical realm. I don’t think it is a requirement to have “technical knowledge about a great many things: temperature, humidity, materials, lighting and how things react to lighting” in order to define themselves as curator, but more-so a solid understanding of the medium, the aesthetic and conceptual merits of the work at hand, and, while many people may scoff at this, an innate sense of taste. As much as I hate the idea of the “tastemaker” I think that “taste” is just as important as knowledge of the history of the medium.

  7. Posted 28 January 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been calling myself a curator since 1987 and I agree it should be thought of as an honourable albeit rather tricky profession. For all the apparent glamour in the new ‘brand’ the job goes only as far as the art that is shown and, while there is always, in my view, a creative and sometimes robust relationship with the artist, it wouldn’t exist without the artists and the art they produce. It is also, in my experience a roll-up-the sleeves, not a suit job.

  8. Posted 29 January 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting to see how people define ‘curator’ differently. One aspect of this discussion that particularly interests me relates to photography in particular. It seems to me that we in terms of photographic production we are moving more from a world of print-making towards a world of image-making. Associated with this, there seems to be much less of a focus on the technical knowledge that used to be associated with curating such as printing techniques, papers, conservation and more of a focus on selection and conceptual work.

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