Everyone’s a curator, or so it seems: you can curate a Pinterest, Tumblr, and if you’re feeling really old-fashioned, you can curate an art exhibition. With the rapid rise of the curator as the most popular profession on the Internet, we’ve realized nobody has a great definition for what a curator does nowadays. A curator is like a DJ, movie producer, or hair stylist, to name just a few common metaphors about that wily thing. All these “curating is like” statements have made the curator’s job seem a bit nonsensical—it’s like a cure-all for any type of creative thing someone wants to do. Some comment wars and plenty of behind-the-scenes harangues have been spurred by this confusion, but we’re adults here, so let’s behave, but set some things straight. Curating is more complicated than exhibition-making, the definition preferred by mega-curator Jens Hoffmann, but what it’s become, well, nobody really knows but it’s still alive and well, and completely necessary. Here’s a few “curating is like _____” examples that show just how silly all these metaphors have become, and maybe, it’ll get people to re-evaluate what it means to curate.
1. Curating is like running a modeling agency.
Nope, this one isn’t a joke. I came across this definition of a new curator in Modelling Agency, a catalog for an exhibition curated by Janus Høm and Martyn Reynolds. Actually, I’m fond of this metaphor, liking the chutzpah behind what Martyn Reynolds refers to as “the schizophrenic or ego-maniacal curator, who really just wants to see their own vision expressed and to make this concrete.”
2. Curating is like styling hair.
I can’t imagine rising through the ranks of the glamorous art world with the pinnacle of critical practice imagined as someone working at a hair salon. As played out in Meg Cranston’s essay “Do It With Style,” the hair stylist metaphor becomes overwrought since, at it’s heart, it’s pretty flimsy. The essay’s last paragraph sums up the metaphor, which treats curating as a pretty shallow profession:
To that end, curators should have a profound understanding of appearances and a real flair for the superficial. They must be keenly aware of current trends and brazenly obsessed with façade. To be effective, curators must work intuitively, and be flattering, snobbish, precise, and imaginative. Their insights must elevate the work to an overall lyric manifestation of grandeur and pertinence. And fashion. How else can an artwork ever find love.
Ugh. We like to think Cranston’s definition hasn’t caught on.
3. Curating is like DJing.
This metaphor became popularized over a decade ago by Nicolas Bourriaud, who became well-known for coining the term “relational aesthetics.” I’m not totally against this metaphor, either—or the lesser known addition to Bourriaud’s argument about how curators are part of remix culture, that also, curators are like programmers. And now you know.
4. Curating is like “shopping with a vision.”
Thanks to New York’s own Ruben Natal-San Miguel, I wasted ten minutes of my life trying to figure out what the heck “curating is like shopping with a vision” means. I think he’s saying curating is like collecting, but, um, curating is not buying art. Pinterest, might be like shopping with a vision, without the actual buying part, but that’s still more like building up a hope chest than curating.
5. Curating is like alchemy.
Leave it to Jerry Saltz to come up with a punchy explanation of what the best curators do: “The alchemy of good curating amounts to this: sometimes placing one work of art near another makes one and one equal three.” There’s room for magic, and maybe a little bit of poetry, here in the role of curator as someone who transforms the world. That’s something I’ve never seen happen on Pinterest.