Take Philip von Zweck. He curates a flag pole. Sort of.
In 2005, the artist, occasional curator and academic manager of the art and design department at Columbia College erected a 25-foot flagpole outside Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He decided that he would fly anything from it that anyone brought him. Since then he's flown customized American flags and Canadian flags, Jewel supermarket bags and underwear. "If curation is thoughtful selection, then this is not that," he said. "Yet it's amazing how many people call me as the 'curator' of that pole — I suppose I think of curation in a more conservative way than others do now."
Similarly, Mike Reed, the Chicago-based jazz musician, producer and programmer of the Pitchfork Music Festival (among many jobs), is often referred to as a music curator. Understandably so: The acts at his Constellation venue on Western Avenue are so idiosyncratic, it's easy to assume a discriminating eye is involved. But Reed himself protests the title: "I have never called myself a curator. In my context, what I do, (that word is) too precious. I book bands, I program and sometimes I promote. To use 'curate' would be so self-aggrandizing — everyone thinks now that having a knack for putting together things makes them special."
That said, don't think all the serious-minded curatorial types out there crinkle their noses at the democratization of the curator. I recently attended a class on curating at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The professor was Mary Jane Jacob, distinguished curator and executive director of the school's Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies program. Early in the class, she asked what everyone thought about the proliferation of people outside of the art world calling themselves curators. "Honestly, I'm fine with it," said graduate student Brett Swinney, explaining that there are those with professional curatorial training and those without, "and this broadening forces those with curatorial skill sets to differentiate themselves from the rest."
Nathan Boese, his classmate, nodded. "But I also think there is something to why people use it," he said. "Someone writing a poem or a play: They are selecting, organizing and sequencing, too. That might be a form of curating? I would call it that. A band that sequences the songs on a record, they bring a meaning to that order — maybe it's lower-case curating?"
To be honest, I tend to roll my eyes at careless, liberal interpretations of curating. The more the word has been thrown about, the more meaningless it seems. Erin McKean, the formerly Chicago-based founder of the popular website Wordnik, said: "It's a result of the linguistic inflation that goes on when people want to make what they are doing sound important." Shannon Stratton, founder of Chicago's threewalls gallery, said: "What I find bothersome is all the self-appointing." Or simply appropriating? When I spoke with architect Marshall Brown — who co-founded the New Projects gallery in Bronzeville with Smart Museum of Art curator Stephanie Smith — I asked what kind of architect he was. He chuckled: "Funny you ask. Though I'm not obsessed with disciplinary boundaries, there's a lot of mission creep going on these days."
And probably a healthy dose of branding, marketing: On The Daily Beast, former editor Tina Brown once wrote that the website was not another news aggregator; instead, she explained, "It sifts, sorts and curates."
Perhaps, though, in a world of too much of everything, it's natural to long for the tidy alchemy of curation.
"What I love about everyone using this word," Jacob said, "is that a decade ago I doubt many people even knew what curation was about. It was very abstract to people. So I don't think the aesthetic-minded should get their professional noses out of whack. At the very least, thoughtful assembling is a lesson in curation."
And a helpful — if self-flattering — approach to making sense of visual and informational cacophony.
"If you told people 15 years ago you were curating a cheese plate, you'd get laughed at," said Lane Relyea, chairman of the art theory and practice department at Northwestern University. "But 15 years ago, the supermarket cheese aisle had white cheese, yellow cheese and that's about it. It's not so passive being a consumer, or observer, of anything anymore. I don't know if it's a good thing, but this rise of the curator as an everyday figure — whereas once we all just nodded at things — it feels like a historical thing."
Depending who you ask, the roots of curation's ubiquity come out of different sources. Robert Storr, a famed critic and curator and current dean of the Yale University School of Art, said: "For a long time being a curator was not a big deal. It was a craft based in understanding. But in the 1990s the role of the curator changed. Curators wanted to acquire the mystique of artists. Which I've always taken to be a sign of weakness actually — why couldn't curators have enough self respect to feel they needed mystique?"
Nevertheless, the job — famously tweedy, scholarly and thick with anonymous, studious art historians — went global as the art market itself soared in the past decade. The Superstar Curator became an art world archetype — and at roughly the same time as the rise of the artisan food and craft movement, which was a response to the big-box-storing of American consumer culture. Not coincidentally, during this time university-based museum and curatorial studies took off. Sarah Higgins, the graduate program coordinator for curatorial studies at Bard College in New York, told me its programs "started very art-object driven, but as the range of curatorial practices have became more discursive, every class sees students who are interested in testing the parameters of what is curatorial."
Relyea thinks of curating's contemporary ubiquity as part of a broader cultural shift, existing alongside the mash-up, the DJ, the remix, electronic music, hacker culture and aggregation: "At some point in the '90s, there was a drift from live music and people started moving more and more into these programmed spaces, and yet, instead of young people feeling there was less authenticity in spaces like that, there was more authenticity. Back in the day, students argued about the authenticity of painters and bands, and nothing is dorkier to them now. Nobody starts bands. They organize, program stuff, share computer files of things. Which I think is the same impulse that leads someone who is merely sorting to claim they're curating. People see authorship in organizing information now. And can you say that selecting, arranging, structuring, paying attention to patterns and meanings in material — which is also what a DJ does — is not creating?"
Indeed, while I was working on this story, a Chicago artist who curates online casually told me the idea that one needs to create original work to be creating something "is a very 20th century way of seeing the world now."
In a different era, teenagers — and editors, to spur fresh ideas from their staff — would clip images from magazines, arranging the shards into elaborate pastiches, also known as mood boards. Today, a Tumblr or Pinterest account accomplishes something similar, asking users to draw from the vast imagery on the Internet and gather thoughtfully considered meaningfulness out of other people's work. Fittingly, Tumblr and Pinterest are awash in references to curation, curatorial tools, even jibes at the idea of digital curation — the "Curate Meme" Tumblr page is basically a series of pop images with curation jokes scrawled on inventively, from a "Watchmen" panel amended with "I curated it all 35 minutes ago" to a TV talking head who intones:
"I don't know, therefore cursation."
Perhaps it was telling then that, at the end of Mary Jane Jacob's SAIC class, when she asked where her students pictured themselves curating someday, the only ones who responded did not mention museums.
Not that professional curators — the old-school kind, in lofty institutional perches — are too concerned about their place, or the ubiquity of their job. If anything, they're bemused. "It's kind of cool, to be honest. It makes us seem a lot less 'ivory tower,'" said Michael Darling, the MCA's chief curator. "The separating factor will simply be the level of expertise between the serious and the lightweights." Even Everett Katigbak, brand manager for Pinterest and a former exhibitions designer for Los Angeles' Getty Museum, said "curating to me implies an audience, and online, on Pinterest, what is happening is still something of a personal experience."
Several weeks ago I visited Gloria Groom at the Art Institute of Chicago. Last summer, after four decades here, Groom, who handles the museum's collection of 19th century European paintings, was named its first senior curator. Elegant and serious — seated in her long, thin office lined with art catalogs — she cast the classic venerated image of a discerning, slightly stuffy curator. But when asked if she was offended by the broad adoption, the cultural leveling, of her title, by sports drink manufacturers and cheesemongers alike, her eyes lit up.
In a steady voice, feigning shock, she replied:
"It doesn't bother me. But if they are curators, what am I? It reminds me of when everyone at your local bank suddenly became a 'vice president.' Or that list of 'producers' in a movie's credits. If everyone claims to be a curator now, what is a curator these days? Maybe we need to get more specific now. 'Senior legit curator'?"