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Curation Once Again

John Fanning

Words that have always been around can suddenly acquire pandemic status and start to appear with increasing frequency in unlikely places. “Curation” is a good example. It is currently enjoying cult status as leading art galleries and museums compete on a global scale with so-called blockbuster exhibitions ‑ but it is also used to describe millennials “curating” their profiles on Facebook.

The most celebrated of the new curator super-stars is Hans Ulrich Obrist, whose recent book Ways of Curating was a surprise bestseller last year. Obrist, or HUO to his friends, is a fascinating character. His interest in curation began at age three when he was captivated by a library in his native Switzerland. In his teens he travelled obsessively by rail all over Europe, visiting every museum he could and cold-calling on artists, visiting those who responded, interviewing them at length and recording their conversations. He curated his first exhibition in a room in his apartment at the age of twenty-one and continued travelling, recording and curating. His base for the last six years has been the Serpentine gallery in London, where he is joint director. Obrist believes that curation is the art of connecting cultures, not to homogenise them but to explore new things which might emerge. It is being used in more contexts than ever before because of the increasing proliferation and reproduction of ideas, images, raw data, disciplinary knowledge and material products. Curation tries to make sense of the muddle; given that we have too many options it helps us sort through the glut and come to some kind of meaning.

The more widespread contemporary use of the term is aptly summarised in David Balzer’s How Curation is Taking Over the Art World and Everything Else. The word itself derives from the Latin, curare, to care or take care of, and the history of curation is closely aligned with the birth of the museum some three hundred years ago. Balzer informs us that the public museum grew out of private collections of different materials by wealthy and learned individuals. For example the British Museum was based on the private collection of Sir Hans Sloane, a doctor from Co Down who gave his name to Sloane Square in London.

Balzer claims that the current vogue for the term dates from the 1960s, and arose in tandem with the conceptual art movement, where the idea or concept of art took precedence over the traditional aesthetic, but accelerated in the 1990s when the boundaries between big art, big business and big data began to erode. The new art world was memorably castigated recently by Simon Schama; blockbuster openings, gallerista-fashionistas eyeing each other, theory-clotted higher drivel struggling to attach critical ballast to the lightweight and the forgettable, auction porn, vanity architecture, art appreciation as an instrument of investment rather than understanding. Balzer is not as critical but does accept that art exhibitions have become like high-end fashion shows and concedes that this coincides with “the close alliance of curating and capitalism and its cultures”, an alliance that has given the curator more power, creating an amalgam of academic mandarin, hyper-professional agent, business consultant and midwife to the avant garde.

Making connections is at the heart of curation. Like Obrist, Balzer believes that we inhabit a world where overproduction rather than scarcity is the problem so we need curation to make sense of the superfluity and ideally to make connections that lead to new insights. Balzer quotes Steve Jobs’s observation that “creativity is just connecting things”.

A key theme of Balzer’s book is the migration of the curation concept from the art world to the business world and finally to the everyday world. There has always been a close connection between wealth and the art world. Many of the great European masterpieces over the centuries were originally commissioned by the one per cent wealth elite of the time and these prominent business people were often depicted in group scenes. Their names are long forgotten but the paintings live on. This is less likely to happen now but today’s one per cent, whether they are Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, American hedge fund owners or newly wealthy Chinese billionaires are increasingly attracted to the art world. Even the most philistine recognise that money alone is not enough: image has to be curated  through the possession of what economists call positional goods. Premiership football clubs are one category that provide excitement and glamour but art gives more cachet and prestige.

It was the success of the Guggenheim Museum in transforming the economic fortunes of Bilbao in the late 1990s that really sealed the modern union of art and mammon. As the concept of place branding became more familiar other cities around the world stopped being envious and started to emulate the Spanish city’s success. Manchester has recently announced the launch of “The Factory”, a new art space costing a cool £87m which is designed as “a cultural anchor for the next phase of economic and cultural regeneration in Manchester”. A new “luxury shopping mall-cum-art space” has just opened in war-weary Beirut and the Medellin Museum of Modern Art signals a hoped for transformation for the Colombian city formerly dominated by civil war and drugs trafficking to a beacon of urban renewal. Museums and high profile artwork have thus become weapons of choice in the increasingly aggressive competition between cities for investment and tourism. It is difficult to see how we in Dublin can compete with the blockbuster gallerista-fashionista market but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make greater efforts in an area where we do have genuine international credentials, particularly in literature. The new Joyce Centre in Newman House will be opening soon but a major venue celebrating Irish poetry is long overdue.

The increasing “curation” of individual lives is a separate issue, mainly arising from the digital revolution. People have always wanted to make a good impression, to put their best foot forward to achieve their personal, social or business goals, but the advent of digital channels and the phenomenon of being “always on” means that more effort goes into the curation of your personal brand image.

The most extreme manifestation of this is in the job market, which relates to the increasingly uncertain future of employment. For some of the most sought after graduate trainee jobs a well-written application is no longer sufficient; it must be accompanied by a video featuring the applicant in heroic mode competing in “Ironman” events, engaging in charitable work in underdeveloped countries and giving a mini-TED talk expounding their philosophy of life, all of which involves a considerable amount of curation. But this is in an age when young people are being advised that their grandparents probably had one job in their lives, their parents might have had six but they may have to have six at the same time to cater for the new reality of the so-called “gig” economy.

This increases the pressure to curate your personal brand image by discovering your inner Kardashian and inevitably there is now a range of books advising on self-curation with predictable titles like Brand You. They follow the self-help formula; relentlessly sincere, admirably well-meaning but full of earnest cliches and high-minded pieties: “You have two ears and one mouth because listening to people is good.” The odd thing about the burgeoning literature in this area is that there is no reference to Erving Goffman’s seminal sociological thesis The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, first published in 1959. Taking his cue from Shakespeare, Goffman believed that people had always acted as if they were on a stage, constantly presenting themselves in the best possible light and adjusting “performance” to suit different audiences. Goffman uses the theatrical performance as an explanatory mechanism, considering the way in which an individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him and the kind of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. He went on to develop the idea of a front stage, where we perform a carefully crafted representation of the self to others, and a back stage, where we can relax and be ourselves.

People have always tried to control how others see them and long before the emergence of the modern nation state cities have competed for power and influence, but the combined forces of globalisation and digitalisation have intensified the competition. In a digital world there’s no back stage space any more where people can relax and in a world of perpetual and unending competition cities must continually manage their brand image. Whether we like it or not we are all curators now but we should heed the advice tendered long before Goffman, by Michel de Montaigne: “We must reserve a back shop, all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principle retreat and solitude.”

Books referred to in this article:
Obrist, HU. Ways of Curating. Penguin. 2014
Balzer, D. Curationism: How Curation took over the Art World and Everywhere Else. Pluto Press. 2015.
Goffman, E. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Penguin 1959.


John Fanning is a former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising.



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