“Curator” R.I.P.

rip“Behold our fall collection,” trumpets the mail order catalog of Restoration Hardware, the home interiors chain. “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.” And so another of our words bites the dust. The word “curator” is becoming overused to the point of losing its meaning.

A curator once had to be assigned to specific collection—the word is rooted in the notion of caring for someone (etymology links curators to insane asylums). In recent years, however, “curation” has been de-linked from any fixed array of things. A curator is no longer a warden of precious objects but a kind of freelance aesthetic concierge. The task now simply involves a clever way of putting works together to follow a purported theme. Independent curators are hired by museums on installation hit-and-run missions. The independent curator has migrated into the realm of commercial galleries. And as the New York Times announced last week, private dealer Phillipe Ségalot is putting together an auction at Phillips “like a guest curator at a museum.”

It was perhaps inevitable that “curation” would jump over the artworld fence, to be embraced by commercial marketers eager to elevate ordinary goods into the realm of Olympian taste. Glossy magazines write breathlessly about beautifully curated retail emporia. One reads about well-curated lifestyles, cheese trays, and sock drawers. Our daily information diet comes to us from curators of the news. I’ve heard people say they curate their schedules and dinner parties.

Through adoption into the lexicon of commercial marketing and quotidian speech, “curator” and “curate” have entered the graveyard of words that have become terminally diluted in their meaning even while—or precisely because—they are issuing from more and more lips. A case of linguistic atrophy and opportunism? Or an apt reflection of the messy but exciting amalgamation of everything in today’s culture?

2 thoughts on ““Curator” R.I.P.”

  1. Yesterday’s post on the plight of the word “curator” elicited several responses. One friend of the blog reminded that despite the growing popularity of the term, spellcheck in Microsoft Word still doesn’t recognize “curate” and “curation” as valid usage. Another pointed to a recent CNN article on curators, a job that pays badly and causes high stress.

    The most detailed comment came in The Economist, which, in its Johnson blog (so named after dictionary maker Samuel Johnson), diagnosed what’s happening to “curator” as “a common phenomenon sometimes called semantic inflation.”

    As the magazine explained: “A ‘lady’ and a ‘gentleman’ used to have to be well-born; now those words apply to every adult human. (The same is true across Europe: Dame and Herr, señor and señora, take your pick.) ‘Awesome’ used to inspire awe and ‘terrible’, actual terror. No longer.”

    The prognosis of the Economist writer: “The good news is that a shift here usually causes a shift there, as gaps need filling. We now say ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘horrifying’ to take ‘awesome’ and ‘terrible”s old places … In other words, it’s likely that real art curators will be calling themselves something different in the near future, when every blogger or interior decorator fancies himself a “curator”.

    Read the whole Economist post here.

  2. When exactly did the c-word became the f-world of the art world?

    Just in case anyone is interested: I am safe as I can always fall back on ‘exhibition maker,’ which anyway describes what I do much better anyway. But I wonder about these ever so smart curators telling me exhibitions ‘are soooo over’ and who do not want to organize exhibitions anymore but schools, conferences and curated books. What will they call themselves?

    I am glad we are cleaning up the place!

    Jens Hoffmann

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