At a private salon event at the Museum of Modern Art this past Monday night, Paola Antonelli, a famed design curator and MoMA’s newly named director of research and development, convened an interdisciplinary panel to discuss the present and future of that much-debated term in the art world and beyond, “curator.”
Antonelli’s panel featured a wide array of creative intellectuals, a diversity that helped bring the “curating” conversation out of the insider muddle that it’s been mired in. MoMA chief curator Ann Temkin exemplified the example of the traditional curator while Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova (herself a proponent of the democratization of curating) represented the internet’s ability to deliver us an array of “curated” content. Media professor Jeff Jarvis contributed a perspective on how journalists curate the news, and, perhaps most provocatively, Tor Erik Hermansen, one-half of the mega-pop songwriting duo Stargate, spoke on how DJ culture could be seen as a form of curation.
Everything in this event was curated, in a sense — the panel guests were carefully selected; the invited audience was chosen for their individual perspectives and roles; the breadsticks at the reception were probably even picked for their particular crunch. But can all of these things really be curated, in the same way that a blockbuster Museum of Modern Art retrospective of, say, Willem de Kooning is by a curatorial majordomo like John Elderfield?
Ann Temkin spoke first, outlining the four responsibilities of a classical curator and noting that she has a responsibility not just to a contemporary audience but to historical legacy. The first duty is to collect: “Acquiring works and getting rid of bad ones … has the greatest to do with the legacy we’ll leave,” she explained. The second is to regulate the gallery displays in the museum, what she called one of the “greatest privileges of all time.” The third responsibility is creating special exhibitions, and the fourth, the least visible for visual art curators, is writing. “As always, words and images go together,” she said.
Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY’s graduate school of journalism, blogging pioneer, accessible scholarly type, and prolific tweeter, pointed out that members of the media now prefer to think of themselves as curators of information rather than “gatekeepers,” the elitist metaphor of the past. Jarvis elevated the public’s participation in the information discourse — “content people think they’re the only content people,” he noted, but said that the privileged position of the journalist has become a little devalued. With the rise of aggregate knowledge, “there’s no need for us mediators now,” he argued.
While introducing blogger Maria Popova, Antonelli made what was probably the least debatable and most poignant point of the entire evening: “Curators have a need to communicate.” It’s a fundamental yet little-acknowledged truth that what motivates the selection process is starting a dialogue with an audience, whatever your chosen medium. Popova, a wholehearted proponent of curation as the new dominant form of creativity, communicates more than most, reaching her 244,690 Twitter followers dozens of times daily. Pointing out the importance of curation to dredge up unknown artifacts and information, Popova said that “we are a search culture, not a browsing culture.” For the blogger, the traditional idea of original content isn’t as important as it once might have been, since curation is another form of “intellectual authorship.”
Musician and producer Tor Erik Hermansen, responsible for Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” among others, provided a welcome breath of fresh air to the discussion. As a creator of pop music, Hermansen is a populist. He emphasized that music today is an act of collaboration that approaches the curatorial; he selects beats, instruments, and singers to put together a song much as a museum curator would choose works for an exhibition. But the end result is much different — Hermansen’s creativity is directed toward a much wider audience. In one of the more unassumingly powerful lines of the panel, he simply stated, “My taste has become the taste of millions.”
Antonelli’s panel drew no conclusions about what exactly the definition of “curating” should be, but then it wasn’t supposed to. What it did provide was a fascinating look at the sheer range of practices that can be called curatorial. The panelists didn’t speak much on the devaluation of the term in its application to Facebook pages or Instagram feeds, but they did provoke a consideration of the positive side of the dissemination of “curating.” It would be easy to argue that the significance and power of the museum curator has been undermined by the overuse of the word, but in reality it’s more true that the application of “curating” to other disciplines has encouraged everyone to be more mindful of just what material they choose to pass on to their audiences, whatever the size or sector.