Why being a ‘curator’ is a lame choice for reputation-buildingApril 13, 2015
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?
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?
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.
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”?
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!