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Why being a ‘curator’ is a lame choice for reputation-building

Gähnender Mann

In a moment I’d like to tear into the Curatorial Myth that collecting links to other people’s work like a trainspotter with an iPhone is somehow valuable work.

But first, I’d like you to take this short, ten-question quiz. And make a prediction.

The prediction is that you will do very badly in the first half and extremely well in the second.

OK. Let’s begin, shall we?

Part One

1 Can you name the current Chief Curator And Deputy Director For Programs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York?

2 Who was Paul Durand-Ruel?

3 Who is Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs at the Art Gallery of South Australia?

4 What position did Achim Borchardt-Hume, Head of Exhibitions, Tate Modern, hold between 2004 and 2009?

5 Who is your favourite curator?

Part Two

6 Who created the theory of General Relativity?

7 Who was Pablo Picasso?

8 What is Damien Hirst’s job?

9 Can you name the author of To Kill A Mockingbird?

10 Who is your favourite writer of all time?

So, you’re, what, nought for five, then five for five?

Why I want to explode the Curatorial Myth

I’m sick of ‘curators’. Partly because I hate jargon, especially when it’s self-serving.

Partly because I am sick and tired of people with no experience of anything telling the rest of us what we “must” do to make it in ‘the modern world in which we’re living in today’.

And partly because I think there are better ways to raise one’s profile.

The role of soi disant curator (SDC) is the unholy bastard child of social media and content marketing.

Both these communications channels/publicity avenues are fun, valuable even, possibly, useful. But ‘curator’? No.

Five reasons to mistrust SDCs. Even if they tell you not to

1 Real curators earn relevant curatorial qualifications at recognised educational establishments, from universities to art schools. This means someone has taught them what to look for, how to select, arrange and promote. SDCs are just cruising the web cutting and pasting URLs.

2 Real curators get paid for curating. Their anonymity beyond the narrow confines of their job is of no consequence to them. Their rewards are contractual and directly remunerative. SDCs are using their activities in the hopes of winning business for some other service. At worst, they’re clickbait merchants.

3 Real curators present the best. It’s what they’re trained to do. They reject the dross so you don’t have to. SDCs are too busy creating ‘content’ to worry overmuch about quality.

4 Real curators are subject to commercial disciplines. If they put together too many lousy shows, they get fired. The pressure keeps them on their toes. Nobody supervises the output of SDCs.

5 Real curators do not boast about being ‘leading’ curators. Nor do they invent spurious CVs that puff their own competence. SDCs shout louder and do less. Go figure.

And what to do instead

What really pisses me off about the Curatorial Myth and its proponents is that it replaces an activity in these people’s lives that would genuinely bring something valuable into the world.

Fresh thinking.

Instead of nicking pictures from somebody’s Instagram page and ‘curating’ them with other pictures from Tumblr and Pinterest, why not go out into the world with your own camera and take some pictures that nobody has ever seen before?

Rather than compiling a list of other people’s blog posts about copywriting, why not sit down with a sharp pencil and a pad of paper and write something of your own?

Forget about interviewing experts about their field and publishing the videos on your YouTube channel: come up with something interesting of your own to say and film yourself.

Why does this matter?

This matters for two reasons. One ontological, one commercial. Ontological first.

Your time on Earth between birth and death is really, really short. Are you going to spend your last breath declaring, “I curated” or “I created”?

Now commercial.

As far as I can discern, people call themselves curators (not real ones, the SDCs) because they hope to manufacture such nebulous qualities as influence, reach or impact. Having acquired these qualities, they will somehow parlay them into paying work.

But there are better ways to earn a reputation. Harder, certainly, but better? Definitely.

Five ways to build a reputation you can be proud of

For a start, cultivate a point of view. The inimitable Grayson Perry said recently at Advertising Week Europe that “eclecticism” is a fig-leaf for a lack of taste. So come out in favour of something. Then research it and either write, paint, sculpt, or in some other way bring it to life.

Second, be provocative. Don’t be a crowd-pleaser. Two free-thinkers I admire, Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners and Dave “needs no introduction” Trott, have both said in the last 12 months that if nobody’s against you, nobody’s for you either.

Third, work. Hard. ‘Curating’, or as I like to call it, ‘dicking around on the Internet’ is easy, effortless. Barely qualifying as work at all. Instead, you may need to study. You may need to work late. Or all night. You may weep bitters tears of frustration. But when you do, finally, come up with something, people will love it. And you. Or not, See above point.

Fourth, put yourself out there. Not on the web, silly. There! You know, IRL. I’d suggest that if you want to build a reputation the first thing you need to do is get some public speaking gigs. Or attend conferences. Or write a book. And again, no, I don’t mean an e-book. They’re ten-a-penny and nobody takes them seriously any more.

Fifth, produce some outstanding work. In your field. That you get paid for. Your clients will talk about you to other people. Who will hire you. Now you have a reputation for doing work, not merely anthologising the work of others.

They did it. So what, exactly, is stopping you?

The history of human culture is the history of creators, not curators. The Neolithic artists who adorned cave walls with ochre, blood and charcoal were painting pictures of the hunt, not lists of other people’s paintings.

As a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office, the young Albert Einstein burnt the midnight oil writing his Theory of Special Relativity, not a directory of famous European mathematicians and their ideas.

Oscar Peterson, the jazz piano genius, studied piano for years. He got gigs. Probably shitty ones early on. But he played for people. He did not, to my knowledge, write a free e-book called “101 Jazz Piano Licks. Most people faint when they play #37”.

When they talk about you in years to come what are they going to say?

“Truly, one of the world’s great curators”?

“I remember the first time I read one of her lists of headline formulae. It blew my mind”?

“His 2015 compilation of infographics defined curatorial ambition for me”?

Jeez, I hope not.

Let others curate if they want to. Get out there and create!

Categories: Content marketing, Freelance life, and Social media.

2 Responses to Why being a ‘curator’ is a lame choice for reputation-building

  • David Dickens
    April 14, 2015

    Your post was reshared by a friend of mine on Google plus and I left a comment there that he suggested would be worth reposting on your blog. I hope to don’t mind me stepping in with a sort of good natured counter-rant of a sort:

    I love the rant, but I’ve got a problem. I’ve always seen creation as more of an act of editing than making (if you get my meaning). So here’s my counter-rant.

    The line between curating and making is ambiguous at best. If I take a photo I’m editing out everything else I see and focusing on something particular. I see the act not so much as “creating” a photo, but “cropping” the visual world around me.

    A reporter is an editor. They chose what stories to write, what quotes to include, which viewpoints are valid to acknowledge, and how many words to spend on the article. It is all so much more useful to think of this as editing than making.

    Curating, is just that. It is editing. It is the great sorting process. Someone found the Beatles out of all the other bands at the time and selected them. They edited out of the music scene and focused on the Beatles. It was a “creative” act every bit as much as what the Beatles did. The greatest pop-song in history would have no value if it were buried in obscurity, if it were never curated into the public consciousness.

    What would Michelangelo have done without a rich patron to pay him to be brilliant, or the hundreds who have spent their lives curating his work through the centuries? So what if you invent cold fusion in your basement, if no one ever finds out about it, what’s the point?

    Online is a cacophony of ambiguous input. Without editors, curators, seeing patterns, editing out the noise, bringing meaning and value to the mess, it would be chaos.

    If I tell you in that hill over there are some diamonds, that is of little value compared to me curating all the dirt and debris away and handing you the precious stones themselves. In fact, those stones are only valuable because curators have said they are.

    This guy is essentially writing an article telling us how to CURATE curators! What makes him an expert in experts? Nothing other than the credibility we give him. It is all very meta to have someone talking about how critics should be critiqued.

    I’m a real curator without a certification, without a profession, without compensation, subject to nothing but my own “creative” eye. I’m not ‘dicking around the internet’ and what I’m doing isn’t ‘easy’ (perhaps for the mindless link-bait machine it is, but that’s not what I’m doing). I’m participating in the conversation that makes up the very fabric of civic life. Curation is the foundation of civilization.

    If I were to “get with it and do something really valuable like creating stuff” I would just be adding to the noise instead of going about the thankless work of making order from chaos.

  • LuLu
    April 20, 2015

    Spot on.

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