Curators in Context Response            Curator                  Andrew James Paterson



It’s a bright and sunny Sunday morning and after performing my morning exercises I am going to undertake another little exercise. I am going to posit the word “curator” to my thesaurus and see what synonyms pop up. Synonyms are always useful in the ongoing process of defining words.


Curator:  custodian warden keeper steward superintendent supervisor guardian


What about conservator? That appears to be a missing synonym.


All these nouns refer to an original definition of the word “curator” as being one specializing in the maintenance of a collection, or an estate, or a property. These nouns reference confinement, prisons, maintenance. Perhaps “steward” and “supervisor” suggest at least some authority. Perhaps “guardian” suggests someone in charge of something or someone that cannot yet be trusted with agency.


None of these nouns appear to have much to do with what in international art systems has become defined as “curator”. But then, the word has never truly been defined. Does it mean programmer, selector, promoter, educator, initiator, facilitator, or performer? All of the above, or none of the above?


The synonyms for “curator” resulting from my thesaurus check exercise are interior words, introverted and secretive. They are closeted words. They describe men and women who are not performers, who are not expected to face or engage with the public  or audiences, who are expected to be accountable to their employer-institution and  nobody else. The collections for which they are responsible are to be cared for and exhibited carefully,  but never touched by anybody except the curator who must always be careful to leave behind neither fingerprints nor suggestions of authorship.


My thesaurus recognizes the word “curator”. It would seem that that noun would spawn a slew of related nouns and verbs. With that in mind, I concentrate on the word “curate”, which I have always considered a verb. Curators …what do they do? Well, curators curate.


Curate? Sorry, out of luck here. But I think of the noun “curate“. A curate is a clerical noun. The Reverend Smith or Jones (or Hussein?) is a curate, a keeper of the church responsible to the ultimate Keeper of the Church. The Lord is my shepherd; the minister is the local shepherd keeping the local flock. Not leading the flock, but keeping or maintaining it. Clive Robertson quotes Jennifer Fisher in “Naming a Practice“ , from the eponymous Banff curatorial conference in 1996, on the etymology of the word “curator” and its action verb “curate”. The noun and verb care comes to the fore. “Curate” is familiar in terms of taking care of, and caring suggests “ the connotations of an ethic, a series of ethics. And care, indicating what matters, and that in which curators can invest both themselves and their cultural capital” (Jennifer Fisher, “Naming a Practice, Banff, 1996, quoted by Clive Robertson, The Artist-Curator: Struggles Over What Matters and For Whom it Matters, AGYU, 2005). The roots of “curation” (Is that a word? Well, not according to my thesaurus.) and “curate” lie in questions concerning ethics and the curator’s ethical or unethical investment of their cultural capital.  Is the curate a caretaker or a caregiver? What about “curators“? Are they givers or takers?  Giving care here could refer to the gift of art for audiences and consumers to enjoy. It could refer to medicine, to healing, and also to mind-expanding substances. Do curators take audiences on trips? Well, often they do. That is often exactly why audiences come to exhibitions.


While reading through Clive Robertsons paper on (self) curation, I notice that he remarks that someone he leaves nameless has declared that there is no such word as curation. I am of course perplexed by this. Curation seems to me to have always been one of the major activities taking place in art galleries, and even with regards to artistic events outside of art galleries. There have always been curators (more prominently in the public galleries than in the artist-run centres, although that does seem to be changing); therefore, there would seem to have always been the act or acts of curation.


And yet, curation. Well, I mean, that word also flunked the thesaurus test on my computer. Helpful suggestions included the following words: culvert, cumbersome, cumbersomeness, cumulative, cunning, cunningly, and cup. As in my cup runneth over with disbelief? When I enter spell-check mode (with all my glorious typos!), I encounter different suggestions: duration, curat ion (what?), curtain, carnation, juration, and creation. Duration is indeed at least somewhat synonymous with what I have known as curation,  referring to process and deadline and length of endeavour and even to performativity. Curat ion- is that scientific? Quest-ce que cest curat?  Ions are also not in my PCs thesaurus, but I know that they are scientific units of some sort _ I believe they are rather molecular or atomic or something combustible. (Ion” is in the thesaurus — is there only one of them?) Curtain has a meaning referring to finality, as in game over or partys over. Does the current omnipresence of curators signify the end of some sort of autonomy or paradise or whatever ─ discipline as opposed to unadulterated free reign? I mean, what year are we in? And then creation. Well, here we’re getting warmer. Curation and creation are not so distant cousins. Making things, inventing things, forms making sense of ideas, putting on a show for some entity called the public” — yes, curation is a cousin of creation. At least I suppose it is.


With apologies to my thesaurus, curation is so a word — after all universities now offer courses in it. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and one might wonder how exactly a student could be taught to be a curator. Art, despite its definition being long problematized, usually does involve the learning of specific techniques— one can be taught to be an artist, but a curator? Do curatorial courses use different approaches to curation as course material? Yes, I would think the better courses at least would be examining curatorial histories —  looking at case studies as well as practicalities. Art periodicals publish essays debating whether or not curators need to go to curator school or whether curation is something that can only be learned on the job or in a social context. (See Gabrielle Moser, “Do Curators Need University Curatorial Programs, C Magazine Issue 100, Winter 2008 — also, see Rosemary Donegans address to the AGYU conjunct of “Curators in Context“.)  Donegan wonders about the teaching of curator methodology, asking how many practicing curators operate according to any personal working methodology. Curate may have begun as a noun, but surely become a verb and along with the  participle curating, has spawned the noun curation. So many tion nouns refer to practices — imagination, execution, masturbation, et cetera. Practicing became practice (or praxis?). Curation is a profession, for crying out loud. What has become of your son or your daughter? Why, they have gone into curation! And they are doing quite well —  sometimes they even get to travel the world and get their names on marquees.


And here we are at a conference called “Curators in Context. Here are many of the usual suspects, and some newer recruits to boot.


Melanie OBrian (of Vancouvers Artspeak) connects the changing nature of what constitutes art practices and art objects to the shifting definitions or vocabularies around the word curator. The term was originally custodial — the keeper or preserver of a collection of art works or objects. Now curators need not be working with objects at

all.  Now a curator instead engages with cultural meaning and production, often from a position of development that is shared with the artist.  (Melanie OBrian, abstract “Art Speaking: Towards an Understanding of the Language of Curating“). “Development” is a verbal cousin of “research” and “laboratory”. Here, boundaries between artist and curator are already becoming blurry. Here, the noun “curator begs the verb “curate and the verbal noun “curationas his/her process is now a tall part of the order — the process of installation and even selection is as much a visible component of the exhibition as the work(s) itself. Curation has become a public, rather than secretive, discipline.


OBrian notes that the shifting roles and definitions of curator and the genesis of the noun curation result from shifting perceptions of what exactly constitutes art practice, art objects, and who indeed is an artist. The rise of relatively new artistic disciplines (video, performance, installation, and even new genre public art and relational aesthetics) has for some time displaced traditional notions of what might seem to be obvious talent or excellence or rigour or others of those complimentary nouns. The prevalence of these relatively young disciplines would therefore seem to require new specialists — interpreters, critics and, of course, curators. And when curators themselves move away from dumbed-down explanations of the selected work to a presumably uninformed audience, their language changes, as do the positions of audience(s).


I think of the word “curator” and find myself thinking of two words I consider synonyms — tastemaker and gatekeeper.


Career Bureaucrats A and B decide to excuse themselves from the main auditorium and refresh themselves. Perhaps one smokes and the other doesn’t. Perhaps they both drink but this morning they need orange juice. Perhaps they are both male, both female, one male and one female, or possibly one or both trans. Whatever. Bureaucrats A and B are veterans of both artist-run centres and governmental funding systems for “the arts”. They keep to themselves during the conference, but they certainly do converse with each other.



A: Do you know what two words have kept reoccurring to me, B?


B: No, A. Do tell me.


A: I think of curators as both tastemakers and gatekeepers.


B: Really? You think curators create taste, or merely reflect it. Help circulate this or that taste, that flavour, this or that particular artist.


A: Well…I guess that depends on their own roles within their employer-institutions.


B: Do you mean they’re supposed to programme certain touring exhibitions or certain breaking artists? I don’t think that’s curating, A. I think that’s programming.


A: Yes, in some cases you’re right, B. But I think a curator can be a tastemaker — by mixing up particular artists and creating highly effective and stimulating exhibitions. I also think a smart inventive curator can select and focus on a prominent rising artist and creatively present a body of that artist’s work to an intelligent variety of audiences.


B: And what about group shows?


A: Of course group shows, B. The good curator likes to stir things up.


B: So a curator is not unlike a chef?


A: Or a scientist. If a gallery is akin to a laboratory, then the curator is an alchemist of sorts.


B: Double double toil and trouble.


A: Very good, B. But “laboratory” is another one of those words that people just keep using in relation to exhibitions and exhibition formats.


B: Because laboratories can draw conclusions — they can arrive at patented discoveries, or they can be function as sites of endless process. Or a performative art that may or may not contain objects.


A: Most likely it won’t contain object-art. Most likely it’s all post-disciplinary.


B: You mean we’re talking about artists who may use certain established disciplines in passing but not for their own sakes. An artist like, say, Peter Land, may deploy video documentation of a self-action, but makes no pretence to being any sort of video artist.


A: Yes. And so on. Post-specific disciplinary artists seem to be the ones being curated on the international circuit.


B: Hmmmm. Well…Nicolas Bourriaud was quite clever in arriving at a name for an art practice and for artists who have become very prominent indeed.


A: Relational artists practicing relational aesthetics. Yes, B, Bourriaud’s manifesto was on all the tables at the Curators in Context conferences.


B: Well, B, there’s a tradition of naming movements, and then positioning oneself as the person who was smart enough to name the movement and thus becoming guru or auteur of that movement.


A: It’s how one becomes an ur-curator and not just a curator.


B: Yes, you could say that. A tastemaker as opposed to just a taste-programmer. Or a gatekeeper.


A: Yes. I’m hoping to distinguish curators who are seriously creative…they imagine radical juxtapositions of artists most people would not think of juxtaposing…or who have a radically fresh take on one or more well-known artists and then can convince audiences that their take is valid…I’m trying to contrast those curators from those who curate names irrespective of content


B: Or who jump on bandwagons and claim to be responding to populist demands or internationalist standards when actually they wouldn’t know an original idea if it bit them in the ass and so they programme or “curate” this artist or these artists and do a piss-poor job of contextualizing their choices.


A: I mean, the word “didactic” needn’t refer to preachy and obtrusive curatorial presence. It can refer to useful or helpful educational materials for art and non-art audiences alike.


B: Hmm. Yes and no. Your choice of the word “gatekeeper” is also confusing to me, A. I mean, all curators select. Therefore, how can they not be gatekeepers?


A: Technically you’re probably right. B. But I like to distinguish between those curators who curate by creative association of assemblage and those who curate by negation.


B: By including the usual suspects they exclude other interesting possibilities?


A: Uh huh.


B: But curators are supposed to make decisions as to this exhibition and not that one — this artist and not that one. I think “director” and “editor” are more likely contemporary synonyms for “curator“.


A: Yes? Directed by This or That Auteur. Curated by This or That Recognizable Name?


B: Well, that’s promotional language. It can bring the crowds in and there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. I think editing might be closer to the mark than directing. Editing trusts the selected artists and performers to create or initiate content and context, but the editor collaborates with the artists or stars to shape that content and contextualize it all further.


A: Yes…Melanie O’Brian uses the editor analogy. She seems to be referring to text- editing or prose-editing more than film-editing.


B: Or music-producing. I think they’re all quite appropriate. 



Taste itself has contradictory and complimentary meanings. It can refer to aesthetics- to good or bad taste, and of course the sense of taste. A tastemaker also implies a cook, or a brewmeister, an alchemist, or a professional working in a laboratory. Tastemakers are all about influence and being influential. They have their finger on the correct pulses — they can make this or that event happen with a click of the mouse or whatever the appropriate technology. Tastemakers are all about connection, several connections. Not just name- dropping and schmoozing, but knowledge and information. They are editors and matchmakers, and they make selective decisions — this goes with that while this most certainly does not.


Here the tastemaker does become a gatekeeper, which implies St. Peter and indeed the curator in the old-fashioned meaning of the noun. This belongs in the collection and this does not. Gatekeepers and curators make these decisions. But good curation is not merely about good or bad taste. Good curation presents an exhibition, a blend or brew, that combines elements adding up to coherent entities that work on a level far beyond who got in and who didn’t. Bad or sloppy — or inarticulate — curation of course begs these questions, and thus leaves a residue of not only disgruntled artists but confused and even angry customers.


Both tastemaking and gatekeeping of course are all about power. There is the power of selection and being visible as an agent of selection. Power has its auras. Power begets power, and so on and so on. However, power is not always a means in itself. Power can be a vehicle or a vessel or some other manifestation of constructive transmission.


Curators are perceived of as powerful and not always accountable. But I don’t believe this perception is completely accurate. If power can be used, then this begs questions of how and where can it be used. What indeed can curators do with their cultural capital? Where can such capital be invested? Parallel to questions regarding economic investments, there are ethical issues and options available to curators and others wielding cultural capital. Do they work inside institutions and attempt to make those institutions viable and responsive  to artists and audiences? Do they feel they have any room to subvert the transparently false neutrality of white-walled institutions, or do they elect to work outside those walls if not all institutions? Do they choose to share that power with artists and audiences and others, undertaking curatorial exhibitions and projects as if they were learning curves as much as demonstrations of knowledge and authority?


Curators are arguably now perceived as not having the glow and the aura that they once did. Their positions have been undermined by artists practicing “intuitional critique” and artists who effectively serve as their own curators. At the CIC conferences, there was considerable suggestion and debate that the “artist-curator” has effectively challenged and usurped the celebrity star-curator, who is the true artist with regards to exhibition practices (artists being props of convenience, etc.) But curators still do exist — sometimes in places where they largely didn’t before such as artist-run centres. Curators who are also artists must prioritize their activities — they can only wear so many hats simultaneously. Curators exist and work in variously different situations and institutional contract arrangements and are granted relative autonomy within those institutions and power structures. They are employed to take care of various businesses- selection, execution, promotion, contextualization, and more. The more they know, the more they can do. But there are always priorities of scale and timing. If curating is about caring what matters, then they constantly have to be making decisions about what matters and how it matters.


A glossary of words persistently recurs throughout the Curators in Conference papers and dissertations. The glossary includes: artist-curator, artist-run, audience, curate, curator, didactic, exhibition, institution, practice, and site-specific. I now intend to work site-specifically with all of these recurring words or terms in the glossary. Doubtlessly, more words and terms and even observations will emerge.