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BY Emma Watermann| Arts Hub


A curator used to be a caretaker of objects. But now curators work with words, images and ideas often in the virtual world.

No longer confined to museums and galleries, 'curator' is now a word that is entering the mainstream to describe anybody who sorts and organises information - which is practically everybody in the digital age.  The traditional role of the curator with an expertise in a genre or period,  a set of white gloves and mastery of taxonomyis being squeezed by new claimants on the title. Everyone ‘curates’ their Pinterest page just as they build their own newspaper from their Twitter feed.

So where does that leave the professional curator? Has an expertise been hijacked by a bunch of amateurs who no longer ‘take care’ of objects or ideas, the telling etymological root of the term ‘curator’? Or is there a new kind of professional whose engagements with information will render them more valuable in the digital age?

Susan Cairns,  museumgeek blogger and website coordinator at Newcastle Art Gallery, says a curator in the 21st century must adapt to the evolving needs of the institution and audience, whatever these may be.‘What we are just seeing now is the need for, and emergence of, new kinds of curatorial roles; curators whose focus is the digital world,’ she said.

 Cairns sees curators as remaining specialists but moving their specialty from just a knowledge of subject to a better understanding of process. ‘Just as there are specialist curators, whose domain knowledge might be Australian Art of a particular era, the curator of the digital world will similarly have domain knowledge of the world of art online. They will know where the most interesting conversations are taking place, and be able to connect and contextualise those discussions,’ Cairns said.

 ‘This isn’t an either/or proposition. We still need expert curators, specialists who have deep knowledge of art history, or those who understand how to tell interesting stories with art. We need those with a discerning eye. But we also need curators whose expertise is to connect that which exists within the museum with the broader conversations and information external to it,’ she said.

 Writer, critic and curator, Anne-Marie Schleiner, envisages a new branch of curators, known as ‘filter feeders’.  In nature, filter feeders feed by straining suspended matter and food particles from water, playing an important role in clarifying the water as well as sustaining themselves. Similarly the filter feeder curator picks out the good bits from the Internet, saving the audience trawling time and delivering usable and consolidated information: the form of the information (video, sound, picture, word, game) is not the dividing factor, just the way it assists with the exploration of the subject.

 Schleiner does not reserve the term curator for professionals. ‘Most web sites contain hyperlinks to other sites, distributed throughout the site or in a favourites section. Each of these favourite links sections serves as a kind of gallery, remapping other web sites as its own contents. Every web site owner is thus a curator and a cultural critic, creating chains of meaning through association, comparison and juxtaposition. Site maintainers become operational filter feeders, feeding of other filter feeders sites and filtering others’ sites,’  she said.

Another development is the Post Curator (not post as in post-modern but post as in website post). Artist Man Bartlett refers to artists working online in blog spaces as Post Artists. Cairns believes we are witnessing the emergence of a Post Curator, whose work is considered, after, traditional interpretations of the curator. ‘A Post Curator - in the digital age is a curator whose work takes the form of posts, whose body of exploration is built up cumulatively in the form of logs, and whose work is akin to a kind of curation-after-curation,’ she said.

 For curators in training the bad news is that that in the 21st Century a degree in art history will not necessarily put you ahead of the game like it used to. The good news is, the time you spend on social media may be preparing you better than your assignments.  Beryl Graham, Professor of New Media Art at University of Sunderland and co-editor of CRUMB:  ‘There are lots of curatorial skills, that are not taught in traditional courses. What actually helps, is if curators use new media in everyday life.’

 But in this saturating superabundance of information, are curators able manage the plethora of data they’re bombarded with? As Cairns wrote on artsHub recently computers with algorithmic narrative power are able to do some of the roles previously reserved for human curators. But Cairns is sceptical, whether computers will ever be able to fill the shoes of humans entirely. ‘Machines don’t take the kinds of risks that humans might, or have the same personal tastes in judgements.’

 Graham agrees, noting software cannot be relied upon to discover new things. ‘Computers only present you with more of what you’ve had, or more of what you already like, rather than art that challenges your pre-existing ideals.’

 Nor do the professionals feel threatened by the use of ‘curate’ to describe anyone who organises anything from sneakers to wine selections.  Cairns doesn’t believe the curators’ migration from the white cube gallery, is cause for distress.‘I don’t think the word curate loses relevance beyond art or museum (or lawn maintenance) circles when other people use it; if anything, by bringing it into public awareness in new ways, there is the potential that it can be strengthened.’

But she understands not all uses of the word are equal.‘When we use the word curator inside the museum, there are assumptions- about training, specialisation and expertise - that are not found when (say) a digital list-maker uses the term.’

Back in the museum, Graham predicts collective curating will gain relevance in the curatorial canon in years to come.  Cutting across art form boundaries, new media art draws on expert knowledge from diverse groups of people, encouraging curators to foster new working relationships. ‘Traditionally curating has ingrained a sense of ownership as the curator stamps their identity and style upon the forehead of the artist. New media art affords to be less traditional. In the future the most dynamic and successful curators will be hybrid, flexible and open to collaborative endeavours.’

The challenge is not within the museum, nor outside it but between the two. To remain relevant in the digital age, curators must connect the work they do inside the museum with the broader conversations on and offline that exist outside their esteemed walls.‘It is only curators who themselves understand the different possibilities that digital technologies enable that will really be able to explore and exploit the possibilities, so all curators should now be thinking about how they can actively participate in the digital environment’, Cairns concludes.

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