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Curator's Cue

March of the tastemakers


If there's one thing that shapes the viewer's response to an art work, it's the curator. He or she may not be privy to the decision-making - why this work was added and that one left out and why this picture hangs next to that installation - but that doesn't take away from the influence wielded by the invisible hand of the curator. Some curators are so powerful that the mere inclusion of one work in a show can do wonders for the price and standing of an artist.
But curation, once a rarefied and highly specialised skill, has undergone a rapid transformation in the past decade. It - both the word and the activity it refers to - has stopped being a term that is uttered only inside a museum, art gallery, exhibition or any space that celebrates the visually esoteric. Suddenly, curating is associated with any activity that involves culling and selection based on a particular aesthetic.

Today, concerts are curated. Conferences are curated. Facebook profiles and blogs are curated. Online retailers offer clothing, accessories and lifestyle products that are curated by people who put the stamp of their own taste on them. Ideas and people and people with ideas are curated - take a look at the stupendously popular TED talks, which have made it acceptable to feel a sense of achievement in putting together a roomful of really smart people.

You can look at how curation has evolved in the past decade from several angles - and all the views can seem correct depending on who you're talking to. For some, the appropriation of the term 'curate' by those who have nothing to do with serious research and academic work is a democratic upheaval - a storming of the academic expert's territory because almost everyone can claim expertise in their chosen field, however arcane or ordinary it may be. Others find it problematic that the term 'to curate' is being used as a replacement for everything from 'impresario' to 'event organiser' to 'enthusiastic networker'. Scott Simon, a well-known radio host on America's National Public Radio, defines the verb 'curate' as "[ to] choose, present and preserve items of value". He does so in a blog post largely dedicated to deriding the apparent ubiquity of the activity;in the West, at least, curation seems to have become an epidemic of such proportions that purists have been driven to speak out against its mainstreamisation and to point out that to put together appealing pictures of technicolour cupcakes or expensive handmade shoes does not equal curation.

Other experts are more measured. "I'm not displeased with how the word curator is being used today, though I would advise against it being used too casually. It's a word that carries with it a certain weight, and when it is used in a commercial context, it must be kept in mind that the buyer is possibly paying a premium for the curator's approval, which, therefore, should not be given carelessly, " says Pramod Kumar KG, managing director of Eka Cultural Resources and Research, a museum consulting company in New Delhi which helps other organisations in archiving and showcasing their content. "To me, the essence of curating is rigour, " says Pramod. "It is knowing what you are talking about, which comes from years of handling similar material and developing an informed eye. I'm also more in favour of the kind of curated work into which the curator has put an essence of his own heart and soul and intellect, which carries a stamp of personal conviction and tells a story. "

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