“The curator’s custodial or caretaking position becomes supplanted by that of the connoisseur; or, rather, custodianship becomes connoisseurship. Curators no longer tended ground, but secured, organized and landscaped it.”
Lately I have been thinking about how curating as a practice applies to libraries. Which drew me to this book – Curationism: How curating took over the art world and everything else by David Balzer (2015, Pluto Press) – due to its titular reference to ‘everything else’.
Balzer asserts early on that this is not intended to be an academic book – and in tone and style this is mostly true. However, he frequently quotes and refers to the work of others in such a way that I yearned for footnotes. However, this book serves as an excellent lay-person’s introduction to the profession.
In two uneven halves, Balzer discusses, first, the history of curation in the museum and gallery and, second, how this practice has leaked over into the modern world. Despite the ‘everything else’ of the title, the second half of this book is considerably shorter than the first. Many introductory pages of the book are given over to the personal histories of ‘star curators’ including Hans Ulrich Obrist, which serves to illustrate the current articulation of the profession, before Balzer discusses the history of curating.
Interestingly, Balzer twice compares curators to librarians when discussing this history, when typifying the initial role curator:
“Shortly after Waterloo, the British adopted a similar model with the British Museum. Exhibition halls were chronologically ordered but unlabelled and cluttered. In Schubert’s words, ‘the curator simply envisaged visitors in his own image.’ This image was not dynamic, but pedantic, conservative and bureaucratic; the curator was akin to a librarian or academic.”
“So it was that the curator, who for centuries in her incipient occupation was seen as a wan librarian type, cataloguing objects in backrooms, became the mouthpiece for institutions, artists and their ideas. The curator had apotheosized into an outreach connoisseur.”
A similar transmogrification has happened to the modern librarian, although stereotypes and resistance to change inevitably still tether the profession to the past. The modern librarian is gradually shedding its dusty image in the same manner, taking on a digital outreach an engagement role. As Belzer continues to describe the evolution of the curator’s role, the tale feels ever more familiar:
“In this crucial moment, the curator’s custodial or caretaking position becomes supplanted by that of the connoisseur; or, rather, custodianship becomes connoisseurship. Curators no longer tended ground, but secured, organized and landscaped it. This emerged out of a real need: the art world increasingly yearned for a figure to make sense of things, to act as advocate for an ever more obtuse, factionalist art scene. Too many artists, too many movements, too many works in too many shows, too much discussion: who would parse them? The curator’s new position entailed duties of ringleader, translator, mediator, diplomat, gatekeeper. It was a full-time job, and a completely new one.”
The similarities between a curator in a gallery and an academic librarian working with their collections is unmistakable. As information has shifted online, and the nature of publishing has evolved and transformed, librarians have come into greater prominence as the organisers and curators of information and literature. However, this section describes the roles of the Obrist-like curator, rather than those recent graduated and working. The second, shorter section of the book, which focuses on the ‘everything else’ of the title is also where the real role of the modern curator is discussed – including the admin and the detail involved with mounting exhibitions – as opposed to the blue-skies connoisseurship of the star curators, or the day-to-day selection and gathering that everyone brings into their own lives, from their Spotify playlists to the clothes they wear. This is where the professions seem to diverge and the differences emerge.
Chalk this one up for further research.
Balzer, D. (2015). Curationism: How curating took over the art world and everything else. London: Pluto Press.