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That’s not a curator, this is a curator

Many of you may be familiar with the pop culture reference of “that’s not a knife, that’s a knife”, from the 1986 film, Crocodile Dundee.


And, many of you familiar with that famous film line may also be familiar with The Simpsons parody to that scene.

All pop culture references aside, if you’re a professional curator, your position is likely to be leaning toward Crocodile Dundee’s when it comes to arguing the definition of ‘curator’. The big knife representing professional curators, and more to the point, the “real curators”. Moreover, a professional curator for a gallery or museum might see social media users as being the man holding a spoon and calling it a knife. The spoon representing the new meaning of ‘curator’ and the knife representing the real meaning.

The meaning of ‘curator’ according to Google search results is pictured below.

Google Search Result - Curator

In this post, I will be placing an emphasis on the words ‘or other collection’ as social media starts to use the word and become part of the ‘other collection’ you can create. Social media platforms such as Instagram, and Pinterest, being more specifically the ‘other collection’ within the meaning of the word ‘curator’. For the purposes of this post, I will be referring exclusively to Instagram as the platform best suited to carry the discussion.

During high school, there were times where my eyes glazed over in the classroom, they shone with dreams of becoming a curator at an art gallery or museum of some sort. One that, most importantly, had art from all over the globe.

I never did make it to that gallery or museum. However, throughout this Social Media course, and more accurately while creating a social media strategy, it has become apparent that though I am not part of a highbrow gallery that only stocks contemporary African art, I am a curator. I am a curator for Alexandra Guzman’s Instagram, and for the purposes of this course I also became a temporary curator for Kintsugi Magazine – the faux publication designed to inspire young women.

Content curation has emerged as a new way of positing how we gather and distribute content throughout social media, especially through platforms such as Instagram (and even Pinterest or Tumblr). This new perspective explains that everyone using social media is a curator (Buck 2013). However, given this rise of social media curators, there has been a backlash from the community of professional curators.

Mel Buchanan from the Hermitage Museum in the United States wrote a blog post titled: An open letter to everyone using the word ‘curate’ incorrectly on the internet (Buchanan 2011). Buchanan expresses dismay about the newly adopted term for people on the internet and states:

Assembling a group of tangentially related things and publishing them online does not make you a curator. So what does it make you? A blogger? A list-maker? An arbiter of taste? Sure, I’ll take any one of those. Just stop calling yourself a curator. (Buchanan 2011)

Buchanan’s thoughts are further explained in a New York Times post titled: On the tip of creative tongues: Curate (Williams 2009). New York Times writer, Alex Williams, argues that the word ‘curate’ is now used too loosely and is used extraneously to describe acts irrelevant to its real meaning. His article notes that the word ‘curate’ is merely a trend used ‘among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting’ (Williams 2009). He continues his argument and specifies that ‘designers, disc jockeys, club promoters, bloggers and thrift-store owners’ use the word to tell the world they have a ‘discerning eye and great taste’ as a means to belong (Williams 2009).

If we are to consider the argument that to be a curator, you must be trained and educated as one before earning the title, then it can also be applied to other professions. For instance, journalism is an industry that has arguably fallen under the blurred lines of social network sites (SNSs). The ‘rise of the citizen journalist’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013, p.55) can be likened to the rise of the average citizen being a curator. Hinton and Hjorth bring our attention to the following point:

‘Perhaps most significantly for journalists, social media is throwing up challenges to the privileged position of journalists and the news media as the sole arbiters of reportage. As participative forms of media like blogs and SNSs become more mainstream, we are seeing the rise of the citizen journalist.’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013 p.80)

In this case, the privileged position of traditional gallery curators are being challenged by the privileges granted by social media. Using Hinton and Hjorth’s understanding of the role of galleries, SNSs like Instagram are mainstream invite the general public to filter, choose a subset of works and present them to anyone visiting their profile to make claims about their own, personal values (Hinton and Hjorth 2013, p.81). Indeed by engaging in and using social media I chose what formed part of the Instagram profile, and Twitter as well as Facebook feeds. As the social media manager for Kintsugi Magazine, the social media presence of Kintsugi was a lesson in curating to express cultural values, tone, style and brand.

‘Public institutions such as museums and galleries have long been the arbiters of taste, defining what is and what is not culturally significant, and now these institutions are having to respond to a more interactive public and be more demonstrably accountable for them thanks in part to social media. As social media provides new ways for artists to connect with people to sell their work’. (Hinton and Hjorth 2013, p.80)

Hinton and Hjorth explain how museums and galleries are having to evolve to keep up with the audiences following them on social media as well as in person. If you focus on the last line in their explanation, one can take the concept quite literally with the recent Frieze Art Fair uproar. Controversial artist, Richard Price, took the notion of capitalising on social media quite literally when his body of work was exhibited at the Frieze Art Fair in renowned Gagosian Gallery, New York City. His exhibit was titled “New Portraits” and featured photographs that he had taken from Instagram and added a comment to. One of the portraits in the exhibit reportedly sold for USD$90,000.

Using Richard Price’s work as an example, Gagosian Gallery tipped the traditional curator model on its head. The Instagram images were essentially part of a curated group of images, taken from social media to be part of a curated exhibition. This lends to notion that ‘while creativity is often seen as the exclusive domain of trained elites like artists or design professionals, creativity has always been an activity that everybody engages in, even if the past it was not always visible’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013). Using this concept, we can see that Richard Price is making the creativity that everybody on social media engages in, visible to the trained elites. Furthermore, the Price exhibit supports Castells’ perspective raised by Flew about how reality is increasingly documented in a virtual setting where appearances go further than the screen and translate to reality and experience for some (Flew 2008). This is also the premise of Instagram. To document what you have lived, and share the moments you feel are worth sharing, is the premise of Instagram. Hinton and Hjorth unknowingly describe Instagram when they state:

‘Scrapbooking, writing of short stories, and family histories, home crafts and decoration are all examples of vernacular creativity that are no less creative just because they are not produced by professionals or widely accessible in the public domain.’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013 p.61)

Let us digress back to Alex Williams arguing that people engage in social media and call themselves curators, much like the spoon that is trying to pass as a knife in “knifey-spoony”. If we focus on Hinton and Hjorth’s note on Burgess’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013 p.61) thoughts, and relate them back to the idea that we are all social media consumers, therefore we are curators. Burgess notes:

‘[T]he production of creative works acts as a way of asserting and defining one’s citizenship which is ‘practised as much through everyday life, leisure, critical consumptions and popular entertainment as it is through debate and engagement with capital “P” politics.’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013 p.61)

In conclusion, we are all curators. Despite traditional curators being upset with the adoption of the term for new purposes and uses they must consider that not all curation is the same. However, when artists decide to capitalise quite literally on social media usage, it begins to open up the discussion to ideas of the inevitable convergence between media and reality. Once more, there is also an aspect of the curator discussion that seems to be missed by both arguments. The average person using social media is similar to the citizen journalist, and the privileges journalists have with their title and experience can be likened to the circumstances curators feel they are facing at the moment. Both industries had to defend their significance in the face of an increasingly social, online society. If journalism, as a profession, can be distinguished from citizen journalism, so to can curation of a gallery be distinguished from an Instagram feed curation.

We are all knives, some are just bigger than others.

References

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