Osman Can Yerebakan expresses a similarly open-minded approach. An art writer who holds an MA degree in fine and studio arts management (not curatorial studies), he’s also organized shows at the Queens Museum
and the Center for Book Arts, and expresses a similarly open-minded approach. “It’s not law, it’s not science, it’s not medicine,” he said. It’s not about the technical know-how needed to sell a company or conduct a blood transfusion—curating is about having “a certain way of being able to see things that’s different, or being able to see connections” between artworks.
Francisco Correa Cordero—who runs the Tribeca gallery Lubov, works as executive coordinator at Independent Curators International (ICI), and serves as a “guest curator” for Foundwork
(a new online platform
for emerging artists)—began his career studying photography and studio art. Calling himself a curator, he now helps artists realize new projects and organizes public programs. The role, for him, is less about objects than about engagement. “Artists bring an entirely different approach of conceiving shows and working around ideas,” he told me. Such examples are myriad: Earlier this year,
organized a major show at the Yuz Museum
in Shanghai, which centered on the idea of copying, or appropriation (his contributions included a small replica of the Sistine Chapel). MoMA gave
curatorial credits for last winter’s “
contributed and curated her own eclectic art collection into a two-part exhibition at Artists Space
in 2013; the Whitney
to curate an exhibition of paintings by
in 2010; the list goes on and on.
Artists also understand the process of working in a studio better than most academics. It’s silly, and elitist, to dismiss what Cordero does as non-curatorial because he’s taken an alternative route to get there.
But where do you draw the line? It’s simple enough to malign self-proclaimed “curators” outside
the art world. Back in 2012, Choire Sicha wrote a stellar takedown
of all the bloggers calling themselves “curators” in his publication, The Awl
. “This precious bit of dressing-up what people choose to share on the Internet is, sure, silly, but it’s also a way for bloggers to distance themselves from the dirty blogging masses,” he wrote. “You are no different from some teen in Indiana with a LiveJournal about cutting.”
“Being super-sensitized to the word’s overuse in the last 15 or so years, I think we then began to reintroduce it with some irony, then of course promptly forgot that there was supposed to be some irony, then just decided it was a straight-up useful term of art,” Sicha wrote to me recently, admitting that some of the headlines were “a bit *raised eyebrow*,” but defending its application to Kimberly Drew.
Drew is indeed an interesting case. In 2011, she launched a Tumblr called “Black Contemporary Art
,” which aggregated pictures of and information about art made by people of African descent. Its popularity, in part, led to an influential position as the Metropolitan Museum of Art
’s social-media manager. Brooklyn’s long-standing A.I.R. Gallery
granted Drew its inaugural Feminist Curator Award—despite the fact that she doesn’t regularly take on any traditional curatorial responsibilities for brick-and-mortar exhibitions. In September, she told Broadly
: “My thoughts on the word ‘curator’ haven’t changed very much. It’s really a word that’s much more about ‘care’ than anything else. I am definitely a curator in that sense.” No one ever said that curatorial care necessarily
had to be limited to the real, and not digital, realm (and even Sicha seems to have come around to accepting and promoting such alternative platforms and definitions).
In fact, online art exhibitions (and even Tumblrs) are uniquely able to transcend some of the major issues with institutional shows: They don’t fetishize any objects, since the exhibited art is available to anyone with a wifi connection, and they democratize the typically pricey process of finding appropriate real estate in which to house the works. Since launching in 1996, New York–based organization Rhizome has become known for its digital art shows. This January, the New Museum
will honor the platform with its own physical presentation within institutional walls. Rhizome staff members Michael Connor and Aria Dean receive curatorial credits—for their “care” of 16 works of
Brian Droitcour, current associate editor at Art in America, formerly contributed to Rhizome’s website and organized online art exhibitions for the platform. For him, curating still means “putting together exhibitions in an institutional context, conducting research on works of art,” and taking care of them. Yet he also believes that the heyday for star curators is over. Instead, today’s most interesting conversations are about how institutions are run: how they treat their employees, and other administrative affairs.
Droitcour mentions that smaller alternative spaces are making the most progress in this realm. Instead of further glamorizing individual personalities and that elusive and rarified act of “caring” for objects, they’re focusing on how to change the structures themselves. They’re removing the curator from a questionable pedestal—not by expanding the term in wacky new directions, but by directing attention to more significant issues surrounding labor. While such spaces do facilitate exhibitions and new artistic commissions, public programming and outreach are just as integral to their missions.
Nevertheless, as long as the word is in circulation, its application requires more mindfulness. “To ‘keep the treasures’ does mean to put them out into the world in a way that educates the public,” Cameron said about his own understanding of what “curator” means. “I suppose it has something to do with whether or not you see certain exhibitions as having a really vital educational imperative versus when they feel more part of a market engine.” In an ideal world, the term “curator” connotes a responsibility to the public, not to financial stakeholders. The job is about sharing, not hoarding—about stewardship, not selling things. Many people outside institutional contexts are actively fulfilling this role, which has very little to do with possessing a degree.
Yes, the word “curator” is overused, especially in a commercial sense. But there’s a lot to be gained by expanding who we accept as a curator in the art world. Broadening the definition promotes a greater range of perspectives about what art can mean, and for whom it’s intended. Let’s keep calling out egregious misuse—you are not
a curator for naming five different cannabis strains, for instance—while welcoming more diversity in art-viewing spaces.