Death of the curator. Long live the curator.

For a long time now, I’ve been pushing hard the idea of journalist-as-curator. It appears that curators are looking at journalists and worrying about their loss of control, as evidenced by this post about the death of the curator, inspired by journalists – the Guardian – and curators – the Saatchi Gallery – enabling the great unwashed to help curate a show:

Museum curators and print journalists have a lot in common, in that it is their skills that turn an amount of information into something worth giving a damn about. There are plenty of other places to find out about the DefCon of journalism, especially the ever increasing problem of how to get paid. At this current moment in time, the museum curator is “safe”, got nothing to worry about. “It will all blow over”. The fact that there is a gallery in London who are going to offer thousands of people, many without art history degrees, the ability to choose what goes on the wall. The first step new media did to try to kill old media was to make the skills unimportant under the banner of “democratising”. “Everybody can get involved!” also means “It doesn’t matter what you know!”. Suddenly, your art history or archaeology degree isn’t looking so important, your museum post-grad may not be enough and your years of experience don’t mean much in the world of facemuseumtube when your job can be done by a thousand unpaid contributors. Curators may be safe now, but they would do well to look over their shoulders to their destitute journalist buddies.

Every priesthood, it seems, is having a fit over loss of its centralized control: How dare people pick what they like without history degrees or share what they know without journalism degrees! The nerve!

Except the irony in this comparison is that journalists need to learn better curatorial skills. Yes, in a sense, they’ve always curated information, collecting it, selecting it, giving it context in their stories. But now they have to do that across a much vaster universe: the internet. I hear all the time about the supposed problem of too much information online. Wherever you see a problem, I advise, seek the opportunity in it. There is a need to curate the best of that information (and even the people who gather it). We have many automated means to aggregate news (including Daylife, where I’m a partner). Curation is a step above that, human selection. It’s a way to add value.

I think that curators have things to teach journalists and that’s why I’m planning a symposium on curation at CUNY, bringing together museum curators, event curators, possibly even sommeliers to share their views of the value they add to collections of things, people, information – or wine. Note that one of the suggestions I make in What Would Google Do? is to capture the data of dining room – which wines went well with which dishes, according to diners – to crowdsource the job of the sommelier. Yes, every priesthood is vulnerable to the crowd.

[via Das Kulturemanagement blog]

  • barbara

    A symposium on curation: yes! Bring it on.

  • Doug

    Quoting John Steinbeck:

    “Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

    And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man…. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.”

    • Elizabeth Moritz

      Obvously Steinbeck never met Gilbert&Sullivan, EltonJohn/BernieTaupin, Rogers&Hammerstein, Lerner&Lowe, etc. etc. Perhaps it is only in Music that we can collaborate?

  • jason

    I am a Sommelier and would love an opportunity to defend my job. I can’t count how many times I have approached a table and been shooed away by someone looking up wines on their iphone. I think some people think of us as simply a walking wine wikipedia when in fact, there are so many other factors involved in choosing a wine.

    • Kevin Richardson

      Jason: Defend your job? Is that the right thing to do when the public view is that it’s not a valuable service? Why not reinvent your job? Why not create your own platform…a place for people to connect and for you to share your thoughts and beliefs on the subject of wine stewardship. Sommelier 2.0. Defending the current state simply devalues it further. Let go of what is and imagine what can be. Then explain that to me.

      • Jeff Jarvis

        couldn’t have said it better myself!

      • Alexander Missal

        Sorry, but this is the craziest thing I have ever heard. Jason, please don’t feel discouraged. I do not want to look at my iphone in a restaurant (I mean, how dopey can you get? Do these people also ask their twitter followers for advice while they’re in bed with their partner?). I enjoy conversing with a sommelier and being guided by his advice. I enjoy the experience. Jeff, I agree with your general argument regarding journalists. The star of the profession is the reporter (or, alas, the blogger) but the curator may be or become just as important.

        • Jeff Jarvis

          We agree to this extent: Where there is confusion, the curator adds value. But that doesn’t mean the curator should be deaf to the desires of the public. It can be more of a conversation. If the curator could hear the curiosities and questions her audience is left with, wouldn’t she do a better job collecting and adding context?

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  • Bob P.

    The PRIESTHOOD! Yes, my god, just look at their noses, all scabbed from scraping the ceiling. Look at those elitists, with their Columbia J-degrees, presuming to know what the PEOPLE might want to know. OFF with their HEADS!

    Oh, please.

    Look, I don’t see why we have to appropriate a new word (“curating”) for something that editors have been doing for centuries (ya know, editing) — except that if you wanna be hired as a consultant and bill 200 bucks an hour plus expenses, I suppose it pays to find new words to describe the same old work. Otherwise, you’d just sound like you’re stating the obvious. We’ll IMPRESS them by taking a term from another field and using if freshly in a new context! They will SWOON!

    OK, sorry, you think editing should be more collaborative, should allow user participation — some kind of wiki-news judgment. That’s fine. I’m sure this will be a good thing. But I get tired of this snarky pseudo-populist sarcasm (“priesthood” “great unwashed”).

    Mostly reporters and editors are just normal people doing their jobs, trying for the most part to do the best they can. And yes, actually, there are skills involved in their jobs, skills that are learned with experience and through mentors — as in any line of work. I hope you’re not suggesting the skill someone develops by spending years in their line of work is unimportant, irrelevant, useless?

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  • Jason Dojc

    The curator spends more time on his or her subject than laypeople, so laypeople look to the curator for advice…unless the cost of looking up stuff yourself is smaller than the costs of asking the expert.

    This is where web 2.0 has changed the economic calculation. Expertise in many areas has become commodified because it’s easier to look things up yourself rather than consult the expert.

    But expert curators still have value. Take the news for example. I don’t need a journalist to tell me what’s happened but I do look to a great op-ed journalist who makes sense of what’s happening. I may prefer to look up a wine choice on my iPhone but I might want a sommelier to explain to me why this wine tastes right and why it goes with this food. I don’t need an art curator to tell me what’s “good art” but I like to hear the story behind a piece of work (whether in person or through my iPod).

    Curators who simply tell you what you should like are a dying breed. Those who shine a light on why you might like something, who enhance your appreciation of a subject, they’re going to still be in high demand.

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  • Kerrie


    Your last statement says a lot about changing with the times, and offers a refreshing perspective. Does information we research about a particular artist and/or their work have to remain static for a cultural institution to function?

    I think the more fluidity a curator can bring to light about and artist, and/or a body of work_ where their interactions with the public are included, the more a work continues to live and the artist’s life converses, even interacts with the present!

    The function of the work is to have its own life out in the world; every good artist understands this when they let it go.

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