The verb “curate” has become such an overworked—and distorted—marketing buzzword, it’s now in need of curation itself. Writing about designer Tom Ford’s new cosmetics line in September’s Vogue, Plum Sykes didn’t simply say Ford “selected” the colours in his four-colour eye shadow compacts. No, each compact offers “a complete look curated by Ford,” befitting its US$78 price tag. Even processed foods are treated as objets d’art in the Louvre: Loblaw Companies’ cookbook, The Epicurean’s Companion, part of the launch of their new high-end black label line, boasts “recipes inspired by the thoughtfully curated President’s Choice black label collection.”
“Curation,” from the Latin “to care for,” morphed beyond galleries over a decade ago—from indie music festivals “curated” by Matt Groening, Sonic Youth and the like, to high-end Paris boutique Colette, feted for pioneering the retailer-as-curator concept. Technology, too, paved the way to the “curated” identity on Facebook, iPod playlists and Flickr. It also created the market for “curated consumption,” the term coined by trendwatching.com in 2004 for the growing role style and cultural arbiters have in influencing buying decisions. In the recently published Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers are Creators, Steven Rosenbaum argues that huge opportunities exist for businesses able to cull the digital deluge to offer unique “curated” goods, services and experiences for customers. The result is a consumer universe in which credit card companies can be “curators”: Tourism Toronto’s recent “Toronto getaway” promotion, for example, was “curated by The Platinum Card for American Express.” Shopping itself can be an act of curation, Toronto jewellery designer Jane Apor recently told the Toronto Star: “Anyone can wear an Hermès bracelet, but layering it with leather bracelets and a mix of other pieces I’ve picked up on my travels, I’ve curated my own wrist.”
Mass-market retailers are all over the concept, evident in Restoration Hardware’s fall 2010 catalogue: “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer,” the home-furnishing retailer boasted. But who can blame them for the highfalutin claim? “Curate,” with its scholarly pedigree, is more prestigious—and thus deserving of a high price—than “selected,” “organized” or (shudder) “picked.”
Curate’s migration from museum to mall— and now wrists— inflames and amuses those in the art world. A blogger on British arts journal newcurator.com railed: “Anyone calling themselves a ‘curator’ when it is clear that they are dealing in merchandise should have their thumbs removed.” Kelvin Browne, vice-president, exhibitions and marketing at the Royal Ontario Museum, finds the conflation of curation with shopping silly: “The concept of ‘curating’ your life is just an excuse for high-end consumption,” he says. “It’s pretending that buying stuff and putting it together is meaningful, but it’s not.” There’s “genius” in a well-curated exhibit, he says: “The sum of the parts is far more than the individual pieces.” The “self-curated” life is the “antithesis” of that, Browne says: “There’s seldom anything new realized when people are ‘curating’ their Facebook page.”
Elizabeth Smith, executive director of curatorial affairs at the Art Gallery of Ontario, believes few people understand the rigour or training or processes that go into the art of curating in an institutional context. “Traditional curators were custodians of collections, charged with keeping things in good order, and building on them—which requires considerable research and scholarship,” she says. But curation is evolving away from objects to exhibition-making, says Smith, noting that the current issue of curator journal The Exhibitionist points to the next phase of “paracuratorial” practice, activities traditionally supplementary to the exhibition proper—lectures, interviews, screenings, readings, performances. “It’s very concept driven,” says Smith. And the goal? Paradoxically, to create the sort of big-ticket spectacle to draw audiences away from their self-curated lives.