Increasingly open ways of participating in the selection and display of content are blossoming. Harnessing the ubiquity of internet access, the Brooklyn Museum are able to produce Click!, a “crowd-curated” photography exhibition. Weblogs, like FFFFOUND!, allow invited internet users to select pictures worthy of scrutiny from the tonnage of imagery available on the web. Taking the semi-randomness of allowing web users to filter content as a model, the Kemper Museum in Kansas City recently permitted museum visitors to choose items from the collection to be displayed in an exhibition entitled “Putting the U in Curator”.

In each of these situations, the word curating is used to describe actions taken by members of the public who would not normally self-define as curators. This situation is similar to the one described by Clay Shirky in his recent book, Here Comes Everybody, about the definition of a journalist: “So long as publishing was expensive, journalists were rare.” (p. 71) So long as there were relatively few museums and galleries, art curators were rare. On the surface, it appears that this rarity is eroding, not because of an explosion in curatorial jobs and projects, but because there is an explosion in the way the term is being used. “Curating” is increasingly being used to describe an expanding body of activity in terms of new platforms and materials, but remains focused on the act of the curator as editor or selector. This movement towards the application of the term curator to bloggers choosing images for their blogs, and to museum visitors who are invited to move a painting from the vault to the gallery wall, and to the person who votes on images in a web browser, expands the notion of a curator at the same time that it contracts it.

There are two distinct types of activity happening in this expanded area of definition. One is a singular act of temporary deputisation as a curator. This type of singular activity fits with the example of the Kemper Museum show, where one random museum visitor was selected to choose one piece from the collection, and then this same activity was repeated with a different museum visitor, until the walls were full. The other type of activity is a crowd-generated model, wherein group choices are tallied and a final result evolves from popularity of particular items, as in the Brooklyn Museum example. Both of these cases highlight the selection and editing processes that are part of a curatorial role.

Language is living and the meaning of words and expressions evolve over time and with use. There is no doubt that there is value to opening up and demystifying the editing and selection processes most typically known to be domain of the art curator. If this strategy is properly applied, it is possible to encourage anyone who is interested to develop a deeper aesthetic sense, to feel more closely linked to culture and heritage institutions, and to develop stronger ideas of what culture means to them. But if this is how the common use of the word curator is evolving, what is lost?

To speak very broadly, when looking at any collection of items, one can ask: “For what and for whom?” Why select, edit, and group things together? Collections and curated exhibitions are about creating links, developing narratives, and composing responses to perennial questions and ideas. These collections and groupings are then presented in ways so that they will effectively reach audiences. Often erroneously perceived as the skulduggery of the marketer, it is the work of curators and all cultural workers to perform extensive research on who is or could be the audience for a particular exhibit or collection, and what would constitute an effective display for this audience. Just as a priest isn’t simply someone who says Mass and a doctor isn’t simply someone who taps your knee with a hammer, a curator isn’t just someone who selects images. The larger role of the curator encompasses the creation of links to other creative dialogues, writing and contextualising work, developing the physical (or virtual) exhibition sequencing and flow, and perhaps most important of all, nurturing a relationship with the practitioners who make the work and understanding the narrative inherent in their career trajectory. (Or, in the case of those who work with historical collections, having a scholarly background on the movements/time periods/artists represented in these collections). What can and will be lost in the reduction of the term curator to mean one who clicks on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon is that sense of for what and for whom.

Is it possible to build a notion of for what and for whom into the singular model and the crowd model, and is that an appropriate aim? Or do these models serve the very specific purpose of magnifying the intricacies of these selection processes? I would argue that building larger cultural narratives, and developing clear intentions towards an audience are functions too important to ignore. Behind each of these very important additional tasks of the curator is an understanding of intentions and a burden of responsibility towards the public, artists, and colleagues.

Perhaps the intentions of those working with either old models or new are too divergent to reconcile. In interviews about the Brooklyn Museum crowd-curated exhibition Click! on artinfo.com, a photoblogger describes traditional modes of curating as about “judgment and exclusion” and that it allows “only a certain group of people to have their work seen”, whilst a professional curator working in an institution characterises the crowd mode of curating as allowing people to act “less as curators and more as participants” and another curator described how the the exhibition might undermine the educational aspect of a museum’s mandate.

In a very direct statement on the matter, blogger Jason Kottke says of his FFFFOUND! project: “I would argue that these sites showcase a new form of art curating. The pace is faster, you don’t need a physical gallery or museum, and you don’t need to worry about crossing arbitrary boundaries of style or media. Nor do you need to concern yourself with questions like “is this person an artist or an outsider artist?” If a particular piece is good or compelling or noteworthy, in it goes.” Were these thoughts to be developed a little further, Kottke might have found that the terms “good”, “compelling”, and “noteworthy” are problematic, and the use of those terms in a cavalier way indicates a lack of consideration for who both the audience and the users are, or could be. In “Here Comes Everybody” Shirky also notes that: “As with the printing press, the loss of professional control will be bad for many of society’s core institutions, but it’s happening anyway. The comparison with the printing press doesn’t suggest we are entering a bright new future – for a hundred years after it started, the printing press broke more things than it fixed, plunging Europe into a period of intellectual and political chaos that ended only in the 1600s.” (p. 73). Will the notion of flexibility espoused by evangelists such as Kottke break more things than it fixes? It will certainly stretch, if not completely break, the definitions of noteworthy, good, and compelling, as well as curating.

In these open forums for participation, the very arbitrariness and randomness that is held up a virtue also ensures that there will never be a common vision or consensus on direction and intention. While this doesn’t undermine the value of online or offline filtering by the public as an educational or research vehicle, it is erroneous to imagine it could take the place of a specialist waking up every day and asking “for what and for whom?” (before putting the “u” in curator). Rather than muddying our terms, the way forward is to identify and clarify what the purpose of singular or collaborative methods of filtering are, and refine how to make these methods more useful and meaningful to the participants.

Reference links:
(1) Brooklyn Museum, Click! http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/click (Further information: http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/28147/power-to-the-people)
(2) FFFFOUND! Commentary:
http://www.kottke.org/07/10/ffffound-art-curating-for-the-masses
http://www.artfagcity.com/2007/10/29/art-curating-on-the-internet-meets-mediocrity/
(3) Kemper exhibition, Putting the U in Curator: http://www.kemperart.org/exhibits/UinCurator.asp
(4) Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: http://www.shirky.com/herecomeseverybody

This essay was included in the latest issue of Vague Terrain, guest edited by the fine folks at CONT3XT.NET.

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