Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else
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Katy Barrett
“How much curating did you do today?” is the question posed by David Balzer in his provocative book Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else.

Consider what “curating” means today – how much and how little curating we are all involved in on a daily basis. Balzer’s analysis might surprise.

The author takes a sociological approach to the idea of curating as it has developed through history from museums, and particularly modern art galleries.

The term “curationism” has been carefully chosen as a hybrid of the original noun “curator” to evoke the “cultish fervour and... adherence to divine authorship and grand narratives” of creationism, and to poke fun at the elaborate artspeak of the contemporary art world.

Balzer’s book asks why the concept of curatorial practice has seeped into popular culture, especially consumerist and digital culture. Today, we can curate our lives on Facebook and Instagram, or have a curated experience while out clothes shopping, at a festival or in the supermarket.

The history of the art world provides Balzer with the answer. He argues that the curator’s role has become one that imparts taste and value to a capitalist society where experience has become ubiquitous. We all now have the same technology and interact through the same social media so we curate these environments to give them personal value.

Balzer sees the emphasis on value and aesthetic judgment as coming particularly from the star curators of the contemporary art world. He starts by interviewing Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of Documenta 13 in Kassel (2012), and then introduces Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London.

For Balzer, they are the culmination of the evolution of curating as a caretaking profession – from the ancient Roman bureaucrats responsible for public works and via medieval reliquaries where priests cared for treasures, the 17th-century instrument repositories of scientific institutions and the birth of 18th-century universalist public collections, to the 19th-century avant-garde rejection of those institutions, where artists curated their
own shows.

Balzer argues that between the 19th and 20th centuries artists and audiences came to rely on the curator to assign value to art and arrange it in the right institutional
context – museum or biennial. The contemporary art curator is the ultimate statement of self- curation, charged with presenting an institution impeccably.

Balzer adds layers of complexity to the curatorial role, discussing the need to consider gallery architecture, artists, dealers, audiences and corporate entities.

This leads perfectly to the second part of the book, which considers the work that goes into the profession. He analyses the wealth of curatorial training courses available and sets their ideological focuses against the reality of curatorial life in a bureaucratic art institution.

Equally, he argues that the dissemination of the idea of curating has led to the devaluing of the role. We can now curate for free, creating endless data for large companies as we share our likes and dislikes, and the reality of curatorial life has become removed from the aspiration to be Obrist.

To some extent he concludes what professionals know to be true: that the aesthetic glamour attached to star curators is far removed from the daily grind in most museums.
This is a consciously ideological and polemical book. The reader might be forgiven for thinking that Balzer falls into the trap of the artspeak that his title ridicules, but we live in a complex age and this book comes as an apt reminder.

It is inarguable that university courses are producing more qualified candidates than there are jobs; that museum work often requires a considerable donation of voluntary time; and that so much in cultural heritage runs on goodwill.

Balzer’s observation that the “do what you love” ambition of modern times brings with it an assumption of free work for the enjoyment of taking part is shrewd. Perhaps as a curator I should be flattered that anyone can call themselves one; that the words associated with caring for objects has become an idea that many people engage with daily.

But Balzer highlights how that may have dangerous results and that curationism may become the buzzword for doing more with less.

Katy Barrett is a curator at Royal Museums Greenwich

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