Everyone’s a Curator. That’s Not (Always) a Bad Thing

Alina Cohen
Dec 21, 2018 6:50PM
Dear Curator
Sabrina Amrani

According to Merriam-Webster, you can’t call yourself a “curator” just because you recently organized an art exhibition. In fact, the dictionary is more apt to permit you this title if you feed zebras than if you mount paintings and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. The definition reads: “One who has the care and superintendence of something; especially: one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.” Here, it’s the concern and attention to objects (or animals), not their particular arrangement, that matters.

It’s a nice thought at first—that curatorship equals care, and that specialized museum staffers are tending to artifacts that offer a narrative about human history and making. And it’s true that this is how many institutional curators think about their jobs, and how they operate. But in general, that conception of the word “curator” is woefully outdated in light of how we actually use the word today. Some of the most thoughtful contemporary exhibition organizers work outside the institutional context, offering new ideas about art through displaying objects that aren’t actually theirs for the caretaking. And they’re also challenging received notions about the very purpose of museums.

Yet progress always has its detractors. “Although barely 200 years old as an institution, the art museum until recently existed primarily to preserve and nurture a love of art,” Roger Kimball wrote in a recent editorial for the Wall Street Journal, complaining that today’s museums are about “entertainment…snobbery and money…and politics, politics, politics.” He overlooks the fact that art museums have always been political spaces, and that the curators who work there are always individuals with their own agendas—be it to promote art by vaunted white men, or not.

Merriam-Webster’s entry now seems quaint, nostalgic, and reliant on possession: It fetishizes art objects at the expense of considering the humans that make them and the community that engages with them. As it stands, the word doesn’t account for anyone at a Kunsthalle, or a non-collecting institution, which must relinquish works that have been loaned. The same goes for anyone who works with public art. The term, and our acceptance of who counts as a curator, is necessarily expanding.

And while that’s a good thing, for the most part, popular culture is simultaneously extending the moniker to people who definitely don’t deserve it. The longstanding broadening (or bastardization, depending on whom you ask) of the word “curator” reaches far beyond the art world. An app that allows users to make what are essentially on-screen mood boards calls itself “Curator.” The idea of “curating experiences” turns marketers into elite gurus. These days, even your home decor can be “curated,” which suggests that anyone with decent taste in end tables has an expertise that’s on par with art history Ph.D.’s. “On the commercial side,” artist Seth Cameron told me, “[curator] seems like a word that sounds nicer than ‘trendcaster.’” Right now, profit-seeking entities—both businesses and cash-hungry schools—often try to act as gatekeepers, asserting who can and can’t use the moniker.

It seems as though everyone wants to be a curator, and universities are more than happy to offer programs that offer (pricy) stamps of approval. Cameron, a member of the artist collective Bruce High Quality Foundation—which launched a free educational wing they cheekily called BHQF University from 2009–17—has a skeptical view of the “curatorial studies” masters degrees that have only been offered for around the past 30 years. He believes that the universities realized they could charge for a series of courses that would ultimately allow students to call themselves curators “without having to learn a second language or complete a full dissertation.” At the School of Visual Arts, you’ll pay around $34,000 per year for a masters in curatorial practice. Compare this to Ph.D. programs—while some do charge, many are fully funded.

John Patrick Leary goes so far as imply in his forthcoming book, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, that this definitional debasement of the word “curator” is about economics: “Like entrepreneurship and innovation, curating as a business practice presents profit-seeking activities as the pursuit of truth and beauty.” In his mind, if you’re misusing the word “curator” to describe your work in a commercial industry, you’re not just committing a linguistic faux pas—you’re perpetuating a rapacious system.

Without overextending the term in unfortunate ways, I think that we can also enlarge our ideas about thoughtful exhibition-making. Institutions shouldn’t demand that advanced degrees be a prerequisite for curating. In an ideal world, universities would receive more funding, and anyone could afford to attend art history graduate programs and courses. Student bodies would be more diverse. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Museum hired a white curator to lead its African art department, and opponents raged—why not hire someone of African descent? Expanding the pool of applicants for such positions would surely help. Until that happens, institutions would do well to frequently look for fresh curatorial outlooks, whether or not they come with advanced degrees.

“Anyone can be an artist; anyone can be a curator. A curator is really a facilitator,” Roya Sachs, curator of the Lever House Art Collection and art director of Spring Place, recently told me. “A curator is someone who connects people and ideas and creativity and finds a way to create a universal language between them.” Sachs has an undergraduate degree in history from New York University, but never went on to study for the advanced degrees that most institutions require their curators to possess. She has organized new commissions by contemporary artists Katherine Bernhardt, Peter Halley, Adam Pendleton, and more—with both an ostensibly larger budget and smaller amounts of bureaucratic hassle than anyone working at a New York museum. Of course, as major collectors, her employers Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabi are also more deeply tied to the art market than most art museum directors. Yet institutions, too, often cater to corporate interests and board members with their own collections and business affiliations.


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, Maurizio Cattelan 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 David Hammons curatorial credits for last winter’s “Charles WhiteLeonardo da Vinci” show; Julie Ault contributed and curated her own eclectic art collection into a two-part exhibition at Artists Space in 2013; the Whitney invited Robert Gober to curate an exhibition of paintings by Charles Burchfield 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.”

Yet the word’s allure, with its relatively new connotations of luxury and expertise, is apparently inescapable. Sicha is now the New York Times style editor. Since July, his section has published multiple articles with curation-happy headlines: “Kimberly Drew Is a Curator of Black Art and Experiences,” “Can You Curate a Town?” and “A Curator of the Montauk Summer Scene.”

“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 net art.

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.

Alina Cohen