You have a Netflix queue, which you maintain, nurture, cull and arrange just so.
Therefore you curate movies.
You have iTunes playlists on your computer, each of which probably tells a kind of story. Therefore you curate music.
I don't have a cascading Tumblr page or playful Pinterest collage to gather images plucked from the Internet, arranging and juxtaposing them until I have a sort of online art show about, oh, climate change or twerking.
But if I did — if I was thoughtfully assembling, considering, driving home a point of view — I would be curating.
True? False? Doesn't pass the smell test?
Or is there room for argument?
This is a story about the slipperiness and relevance of a word: "Curate." What curating means now. Who does it. Why they do it. How curated materials become the events you attend. But mostly, it's about why curation — until recently, a job rarely claimed outside the marble halls of museums — has become a ubiquitous, quintessentially 21st century act.
One of the roles of the professional curator is the thoughtful sorting of a few pieces from myriad options? Anyone with a Spotify account and almost limitless access to the history of recorded music would understand.
One of the roles of the professional curator is the obsessive, rigorous arranging of materials to tell a story?
Some call that Facebook.
On one hand, there's the persistent, traditional art-world definition: "A curator provides context, connoisseurship. A curator chooses, but not only chooses," said John Corbett, co-curator of the Wicker Park gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. Peter Taub, who curates performance art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, said: "Curating is more than a reflection of a person's interests. It is scholarship, framing ideas, telling stories — showing the edge that exists between the thing curated and the rest of us."
On the other hand, that title, "curator" — summoning images of gravitas, of somber, skilled art administrators and historians who have spent years with subjects, applying rigorous critiques, even nurturing artists' careers — has flown from its ivory tower and become democratized. Lately, it seems to connote: any thoughtful artisanal soul engaged in an activity that involves selecting, organizing and discernment.
Just like Kristin Cavallari!
At New York City's Fashion Week last month, the former reality TV star (and wife of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler) hosted a runway show of NFL-themed clothing from Junk Food Clothing, a vintage T-shirt designer. The title of the show was: "Junk Food Presents NFL/Elements Curated by Kristin Cavallari."
Red Bull now "curates" events with street artists (and the Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive). Restaurant guide Zagat "curates" its listings. Actress Blake Lively announced she is starting a lifestyle company to help people "curate" their lives. Two years ago the fundraising website Kickstarter began offering special pages of projects "curated" by municipalities (including the City of Chicago). Etsy has "guest curators." The other day I ate at a restaurant with a "curated" cheese course. In fact, it's hard to find a farmer's market or craft fair now that's not curated these days.
And that doesn't even skim the surface: Jay Z, rapper, prolific curator, not only curated the past two editions of Philadelphia's massive Labor Day musical festival, this winter he is curating a designer holiday collection for Barneys New York. According to the Pitchfork music site, Wilco "curates" its annual Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts. And, not to be outdone, Kanye West, who has never let a good trend pass quietly, once tweeted: "If I had to be defined at this point I'll take the title of an inventor or maybe a curator."
Depending on your dictionary, a curator can be "one who has the care of souls," a thoughtful preservationist, or simply that person who selects a few items out of many possibilities. And these days, that doesn't necessarily imply tangible objects: Sarah Best, a Chicago artist and occasional film curator, recently curated a dance-film series for the website Dances Made to Order. Then there's Heather Sperling, editor of online food publication Tasting Table and co-founder of Chicago's Dose and Fete artisanal food and design markets (as well as the upcoming Tasting Table market). She told me: "In a highly 'curated' market, curating means, to a certain extent, 'invitation only.' We only use those businesses we ask. I think of the word as close to 'editor.' It applies so well to what I do because it has connotations of quality, savvy, a critical hand. Curating suggests a trained professional is vouching for whatever it is that a curator is handling — though, maybe not always a trained professional."
If you have issues with any of this, understand: Some so-called curators do too.