What’s a Curator? | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


I want to come clean with
you guys about something. Ever since “The Art
Assignment” started, I’ve been calling
myself a curator. But it’s a self given title. When I worked at an art museum,
I had that official title. But now I’m taking a bit
of liberty with the term. So let’s talk about
what a curator actually is and whether or not I have
any right to call myself one. These days you hear the word
curator all over the place. I curate my Tumblr. He curates a collection
of vintage sneakers. She curated our music
selection this evening. And some people
get their panties in a bunch over this
use of the term. I don’t really have
a problem with it, but I do want to
think about what it means in the
traditional sense and how the term
may have evolved. So the word curator comes
from the Latin curo, curare, which for our application
means to care for, to see to, to worry about. So a curator is a person
who cares for something or a collection of something. And you can care
for a lot of things. I used to care for contemporary
art as a curator at a museum. And now I care for
contemporary art as the producer
behind this show. But it’s more
complicated than that. Being a curator for a
collection– whether it’s art, taxidermied
animals, rare coins, widgets– usually
means you were hired to care for that collection
or part of the collection by a museum or other institution
that owns those things. And you were are hired because
you have some special knowledge or experience in that area. So you’re either a specialist
or on the road to becoming a specialist, and there’s
a reason why you’re better suited to steward the
collection than a random person off the street. And you have to know that
collection in and out. You study it, you sort
it, you write about it, you talk about it with
other specialists, and continually try to
expand your own education on the subject. Figure out what needs
conservation and think about what’s missing
from the collection. Then you agitate and fund
raise to fill the gaps through acquisitions,
commissioning, exhibitions, or programming. Then comes the part
where you are arrange the collection in rooms. OK, it’s not really that simple. Let’s call this step instead
presenting the collection to a public. This is done by making
exhibitions, writing books, essays, blog posts, labels,
giving tours and lectures, training tour guides,
writing press releases, and talking to the press. It’s the curator’s
job to bridge the gap between the material
they’re presenting and the people they’re
presenting it to. Some things are more
self evident than others, and it’s the job of
the curator to provide as much or as little
interpretation as the material needs. When you’re dealing
with contemporary art, the curator’s job
is to best represent that art and the
artist who made it, while also
understanding the needs and knowledge of the audience. Maybe the artist doesn’t
want any explanation of the artwork in the room with
the art, but you, the curator, strongly believe
your audience needs some tiny morsel of information
to effectively engage with the work. So you try to make the artist
see your point of view. And if that fails,
you make compromises like posting information
in a nearby gallery or in a pamphlet or book
or audio guide or online. Basically, you’re the
middleman or the midwife or the mediator between the
material and the audience. You’ve got to try to
know your audience and have empathy for them. You need to provide
your audience with the tools they need to have
the best experience possible with that material. But you have to weigh
what’s too little and what’s too much, what’s
too academic and art speaky, and what’s pandering,
or overly simplified. And it’s important
to remember that you can have a really diverse
audience with vastly different needs. It is the curator’s
obligation to try to address those
needs responsibly and to the best
of their ability. Maybe you create labels
or guides specifically for kids, or an
audio guide or tours for those with special needs. OK, so what happens
when you’re a specialist but you don’t work
for an institution and you don’t have a given
collection to steward? You’re an independent curator. And you initiate
your own projects or are hired by others to
present material for them on a temporary basis. And this is where the
term starts to loosen up. I am no longer
affiliated with a museum or a particular collection,
so I’m technically a specialist in
contemporary art and art of the 20th and 21st century
who is applying that knowledge to this new project. I’m still caring for
contemporary art, and I’m doing that by
presenting the artwork and ideas of a wide range
of artists working today. I’m commissioning artists to
create assignments for you and then I’m commissioning
you to make art based on those assignments. Instead of a museum, I have the
platform of this video series. And I think about the
series holistically. I consider which artists
to make episodes with, in what order to
show them, how best to introduce their work
to you, what to ask them, and how to contextualize the
assignments historically. I try to think about what
you guys want to see, or what you might not
know you want to see, but that you’ll like
when you see it. I work with the
artists we present to think through assignments
that are feasible for you, but also challenging. If you’re watching these videos
and doing the assignments, I’m hoping that you’re
becoming more and more familiar with the
recent history of art and the ways of thinking that
you might be exposed to when you see art out in the world. So I think I have a legitimate
claim upon the title curator, and I’m going to keep using it. I think if you’re a
specialist in vintage sneakers and know that world
upside and down and you’ve done your research
and you’ve carefully considered your platform for presenting
said sneakers, as well as your potential sneaker
appreciating audience, I think that makes you
a legitimate curator of vintage sneakers. And I want to take a
look at your collection and hear from you about why
I should be interested in it. What do you think? What’s a curator to you? Tell us in the comments. [MUSIC PLAYING]

100 thoughts on “What’s a Curator? | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. A curator to me is someone who looks after art on a large scale. It doesn't have to be too large but large enough to be noticeable. This series would count for sure. As well as someone who has at least a room full of art to care for.
    Also, cute haircut Sarah. 🙂

  2. YAYYY! I'm a curator! Well, based on your ending statement. I think. 

    The reason I call myself a curator for http://youtube.com/OneTimeStories in the first place is because I am consistently taking different stories and showcasing them in a broader context so an arc is formed. Your job function as a curator on this show overlaps with some of my work (scheduling personalities that fit together, planning rhythm of episodes, project management work, etc) so I'm assured in calling myself a curator in that aspect. But you didn't really touch on if it's a curator's job to string works of art together, at least I took your take as a one-on-one process.

    What are your thoughts on a curator's role, if it is, to demonstrate larger messages with different works?

  3. This is a really interesting question because I think of a curator as dealing with physical objects like art, but what about writing or poetry? Is the editor of an anthology a curator? Moving even further from art, what about the editor of an academic journal, are they a curator? 

  4. I will be sharing this video with anyone who ever asks me what I do as a curator, you summed it up perfectly, thank you! I curate the collection at the Wharton Esherick Museum, a super cool art museum/artist's studio check it out! http://whartonesherickmuseum.org/

  5. Perhaps a curator is like a conductor of an orchestra — you may not have written the music, but you are in charge of the expression of that music. And then the audience charges the stage and starts making wildly improvisational jazz/techtronic sound-art on stolen instruments, playing to an empty theatre, but the street outside is full of onlookers.   🙂

  6. So, if the art created for The Art Assignment is part of a collection, how are you planning on expanding it? Are there any themes that might run through this series? Or is it more like a smorgasbord of items, an artistic buffet with a wild variety that anyone can grab from?

  7. Among the people I work with as a docent there are curators and also sometimes "interpretive planners" and "exhibition designers". I often am not sure what the difference is between them – or if there even is one. I'm wondering if you can shed some light on how a curator's role differs from interpretive planners and exhibition designers. Or if there's really no real boundary and the responsibilities of these roles vastly depend on the institution.

  8. I absolutely love this video series! I didn't really think about the legitimacy – even the plausibility – of art being made now by real live people before this series, and it's been really amazing. I've learned so much!!

  9. I've thought a lot about being a museum curator as a career. Although I am focused now more on history instead of art this video was wonderful. Thanks for this information!

  10. I loved getting a peek at what you do behind the camera, Sarah! I also love that you used the phrase "panties in a bunch." What a Midwestern saying. Thanks for all your hard work on this fabulous series!

  11. I'm so glad somebody finally made an easy to understand video about what a curator is!  I'm studying art history and media at school and there are so many people who have a hard time just understanding why what people like us do is a thing.  This will be such a useful tool for me.  Thanks!

  12. so the initial meaning of curator basically was nerd? And given the more active meaning of "caring about" in this case, it's closer to being a nerdfighter rather than being "just" nerd.
    So essentially, your job is to be art-nerdfighter. 🙂

  13. I don't believe I am a curator of a collection of vintage sneakers because in reality I just refuse to throw my old worn out shoes away.

  14. Is a dramaturg a curator of theatre?  Or would that only be true if dramaturgs had full season planning power?  All of the stuff about contextualizing and bridging the gap to the audience rang true, but I'm currently in a position where I'm given a series of works in a pre-determined order, and only have the power to do the other stuff.

  15. You explained why, occupationally speaking, you still see yourself as a curator. But I would argue that your occupation doesn't have to necessarily be the reason why you are or are not a curator. For example, I am an Environmental Educator at a community college. That is my job title, so that is what I am. But, I have a degree in zoology and studied stream ecology in grad school. So I am also an ecologist, biologist, zoologist, stream ecologist, aquatic ecologist, etc. I could be unemployed all together and I don't see why I would suddenly become something else. I would still be a biologist or what have you, because my education says I am, and that's how I choice to identify. When talking with people in the education world, I may identify myself as an educator. I worked as a cashier for a couple of months while I was waiting on my educator job. I wasn't in school anymore, and not yet employed, but I was never not a biologist. I guess what I am saying is it's not your job that defines you anyway. It's your education, your experiences, and most importantly, your passion and how you choose to identify yourself.

  16. Do you think that would also apply then to libraries? If you consider books to be art, that is. Or is someone who works in a bookstore a curator? Because they know a lot about the types of books, have done the readings, and know how to present them (like on their little promotion tables.. etc). Just a random question that popped into my head. lol 

  17. i think the difference here is in the broader vs technical term. for example, i have a music blog dedicated to a certain kind (not genre!) of music and mixes, and i'd say i curate that blog, because i take care specifically for what i post there and, as the admin, i'd argue that i'm the authority on what to post, because i know what i want to be on there. but curate here is used in the broader sense, so i think you have to be careful with how you use the word and what you mean by it.

  18. I'm a music teacher – the first thing that came to mind for me was a conductor – they have to know their repertoire inside and out, they select what repertoire to present to an audience, they (often) help educate their audience about the works and why they deserve your attention and they are an active participant in the process of interpreting the score and helping the musicians to recreate that work for an audience.

  19. I like the highlights video and that blog The Critique Assignment, because they both curate art assignment responses and make me see them as a whole / in new light.  I noticed your white board though… are we running out of Art Assignments?? I hope that if it's what YOU want, you find funding, support, and personal emotional energy for more seasons after this one. I really love these videos and I love contributing 🙂 

  20. Ah thank you for this! Curation is something I've been interested in for a while, but it's a little tricky to get a handle on what the job entails, since all the curators I've seen do all sorts of different things. The main commonality seems to be "find a theme, figure out who belongs in it, gather the work together, provide context" – but the way this happens can differ widely.

    How would you recommend someone get work as an independent curator? I saw that you answered about being a museum curator, but I'm curious to learn from people who do this independently (or I suppose more freelance-y).

  21. I could be a curator. I'd be great at curating, I'd be "The Great Curator." I could retire and do that. I could retire and be the curator of this place.

  22. And to think Ms. Sarah Green and her amazing content was only existent in myths (the yeti) or not existent at all (the Art Assignment) until about 2 years ago.

  23. Great episode! I like the closer-in framing. Not having the desk adds a lot of warmth. (Nice seeing you on P4A today too!)

  24. Sarah, you are so great.

    I definitely feel like curation is the bridge between expert and audience. The curator is the person who is deeply in whatever but is also thinking about how to engage other people with that whatever. I mean, it's not just that, because that doesn't include the collection aspect, but it's an important piece.

  25. I really enjoyed watching this video and I respect the work of 21st century internet-esque curators like Maria Popova (of Brainpickings) and Chris Anderson (of TED). I also like the Curator's Code site http://www.curatorscode.org/ I have observed that the verb 'curate' is used more liberally now and I am glad that you are discussing this topic and thank you for sharing your definition!

  26. Guys, this is kind of weird, but bear with me here. Isn't Google a curator? Tumblr? Maybe the internet is full of programs that are really just custom auto-curators. I could be wrong about this, but here are some examples:

    Google gathers everything on the internet and sorts it, logs it, and makes it easier to comb through. Isn't that curation? Google logs information about websites, and it also sorts collections of websites in a visual way. Just as a librarian might be a curator of books, Google is a curator of websites.

    Tumblr is a massive network of curators and their content. Tumblr bloggers create and sort through media relating to a certain topic (or just anything they/their followers find interesting), and collect the best of it on their blogs. Blog curators share and trade with other curators, create and organize content on their own blogs, and view it on other blogs. Tumblr is a crazy network of curators that Tumblr itself sorts through and presents to it's users.. the curators. In a way, Tumblr is curating curators.

    Facebook collaborates with it's users individually to curate their social lives and their own public images. It helps it's users along as they decide what friends they want to see what posts from, and the users can curate their own public image on their profile pages.

    Stumbleupon also collaborates with it's users, in an effort to basically curate the entire internet. You give the program parameters that help sort what you're interested in seeing, and Stumbleupon sorts the internet and shows you what it thinks you'll be most interested in. As you browse content, you tell Stumbleupon whether or not you're enjoying seeing what you're seeing, and based on that it sorts the internet further.

    These are just a few examples of curation on the internet. Or maybe these programs are just information sorters. What do you guys think? Are these programs curators or something else?

  27. I have no problem with the definition of curator that you presented and your justification for how it applies to atypical collections. However, I think bringing up wat you said at thte begenning of the video is important: Why do people call themselves curators? I find that maybe some people who "curate" atypical collections call themselves curators as a way of making what they do seem more official or important. A curator is considered an expert, so calling yourself a curator legitimizes your work. Whether or not it is deserved isn't really the question, but it's more about how our culture interacts with people we deem curators as cultural gatekeepers. Maybe, then, it's inappropriate to label oneself a curator but it's something that is applied to you by others that recognize your expertise. It's a bit arbitrary to be the person who recognizes your own expertise, and that's why I think most curators have advanced degrees or work for an institution: there are other experts that can verify this person's expertise.

  28. Why are you putting music in every YouTube video?, it makes it hard to focus on the person that is talking, it becomes just noise, music is effective with short messages, not with a long speech like this one :/

  29. I think that this is a great definition/explanation of what a curator is. Next time I get a blank look after saying that I'm going to school to be a curator, I'll show them this!

  30. I was once called "curator" by some online service, but I certainly didn't know my material inside and out. What I did was more like maintain a phone book, but with hyperlinks instead of phone numbers and house addresses.

  31. I smiled when I saw Herb and Dorothy Vogel. I'd love to be able to amass a collection like theirs one day albeit in a larger apartment. I'm also hoping to have a few of my own works in well known collections, preferably when I'm alive, but we shall see.

  32. This sounds like such a fun thing to do, even as a pastime! To work as a professional curator in a museum, is there any specific requirements, like a degree?

  33. To be perfectly honest I never had an idea what the word curator meant due to my being German. I just thought they were people who like… Had a gallery or presented art somehow by what I heard (which as this video has taught me isn't entirely false)
    It's really nice to actually know what a curator is by Sarah Urist Greens definition though.
    Seeing as you're the only curator I have ever had the great pleasure if kinda-sorta knowing

  34. Question 1: People in the blogging and publishing world hate on the word curator because they don't think someone has "earned it" unless they've been paid by a museum like you have. What do you think of independent publishers/bloggers with an audience  that curate things around a subject they're an expert in?  When does one go from "random person on Tumblr" to "curator," if at all.

    Question 2: Are all magazine editors "curators"?

  35. Augh, this is a really great video. I started up a database of online educational resources so that anyone with an internet connection can find a way to learn stuff they care about, and I (hesitantly but proudly admit that I) call myself this database's curator (as well as the curator of my channel, which is filled with interviews of people who make those resources). The way you talk about curatorial duties in this video got me introspective about my usage of the term, and ultimately reaffirmed that I'm using the right terminology… But it also highlighted some things that I can/need to do to make sure the title is rightfully earned, and also maintained. 

  36. I'm confused. Are these in between episodes for the art assignment as we await a new season or has the art assignment disposed of their assignment-esque format? Love the show either way

  37. Sarah, do you have a complementary bibliography on this subject? I know that this isn't a lecture or a graduate's class, but some of the concepts about curatorship in this video were really interesting, and i'd like to research further if possible. Thanks a lot for the amazing effort.

  38. Woah there's a lot of things that are included in your definition of a curator. My main language is french, and we don't really have a word equivalent to curator… the closest would be "conservateur" (which I'm trying to become). But, your definition of an independent curator, for example would be referred to as a "commissaire d'exposition" where I live. Usually, in museums here curators are really focused on the collections, and the rest is handled by other people. I suppose that the situation is really different from a country to another… even from a museum to another!

  39. If I can call myself an artist when I produce art for no one but myself these days, then you, with all your skills, are certainly a curator…and an educator. 

  40. I have just found your channel on youtube. I think your work is amazing. There should really be spanish subtitles, so in that way I could share it with people in Chile. Loved your Rothko video too.
    Thanks again for your amazing work!

  41. I loved this podcast! I never knew so much thought and intentionality was behind curating. I appreciate all the museums and galleries I have been to so much more now!

  42. I loved this video and I'm really interested in working in the art industry and art galleries. I keep being told that i should become an art critic (I'm only 16 and not there yet) but I don't actually know what being an art critic actually involves and I really love how u explain art and the art world so i would really value an episode of the art assignment about what an art critic does because similarly to benign a curator it seems to be a very vague and misused term

  43. Hello! Please I need your help, I'm from Spain and I can ask for a scholarship but the rules says I need to have a confirmation on paper from the Center or Museum that I'm going to be but I don't know how to do it? Should I ask the director of the Museum or Center or What should I do? Can somebody help me pleasee! Love your videos, you are very talented.

  44. Hi, Sarah! I found this channel about a year ago and have loved following along. I came back to re-watch this particular post and, because of fairly recent changes in my life, I had new and different thoughts about your definition of "curator."

    I recently finished my MA in Art Museum Education and was lucky enough to be hired full-time as a museum educator several months ago. It is a fantastic job, and I love that I am tasked with finding ways to facilitate connections between my museum and the community it serves. Before I worked in an institution alongside curators, I thought that the role of the curator was very different than that of the educator, and so I saw some of what was said in this video as an encroachment on what I perceived as "my territory." What I appreciate now that I work in this space is that my job as an educator dovetails so wonderfully with the job of the curator. We each bring different layers of expertise to the table so that our visitors have every opportunity to make real connections with the art and with one another.

    It is interesting to me that so many museums (mine included) maintain separate "curatorial" and "education" departments despite the fact that our jobs and goals almost demand that we work symbiotically. I've seen a growing number of museums turn to "interpretation" departments instead, combining the two, to reflect that similarity.

    I know this is an old video, but I wanted to comment nonetheless because I find this topic, and finding a place for my role as an educator within the museum world, to be so relevant to me right now.

    Love from Texas!

  45. Hi! I'm currently studying graphic design in a accademy of fine arts. This year I discovered the role of the curator, which I did't know the existance before. So now I'd really like to become one. Here were I live to become a curator you need to go to a secondary university, so tecnically I could study for it. But also I found out that it would be better to study history of art at univesity. So, do you think it is possible to become a curator only studying at the secondary university or not? Thank You (excuse my english)

  46. A curator is someone that can scramble an redifine a serious of items or collections.. and proyect your vision , or your spiritual insanity to make something genuine .. in my case: multiple collections of art in an art gallery in San Diego.

  47. Great explanation for what a curator is! I think a curator could be a person who collects something special to them.

  48. I like how she said that being a curator is similar to being the "middle man" in between the artist and their audience. It certainly puts in perspective what a curator, independent or not, actually does and how much work goes into how they present the art to the audience. That is what a curator is to me, someone who has knowledge about the work or pieces enough to talk about it and explain it to an outside person.

  49. You think about conservation, and what's missing from the collection, but do you consider what needs to be removed? That is important as well, perhaps more important, depending on the context. Where is the line between curating and editing drawn?

  50. how is law study (as provided by some Universities as Master's program in curating including Art, Management, and law) related to curating?

  51. Hello Sarah
    I am glad that I stumbled upon your series … and have been ardently watching every capsule you make … it's really very informative engaging and I must say very positive…i am a television professional from Mumbai.. I also am a self taught and exhibited artist in my late forties …
    Let me cut to the chase …
    I will be honoured if you to curate my art .. I will send you my links if you agree
    Awaiting your reply
    Regards
    Shubho

  52. I love these videos, they have really opened my eyes to a lot of art I hadn't seen before. Thanks for the effort you put into this channel!

  53. This video gives someone a wider range on what the term curator means, which I am sure for this class will be somewhat important. Much like the women in the video, I believe a curator is someone who has knowledge of what they are caring for. A person that has knowledge and experience in art, music, shoes or even novelty hot wheel cars should be able to give themselves the name of a curator whether they work for a known institution or not. This institution, such as a museum simply gives the curator more of a claim or believability in their background. It makes a curator easier to believe, even if they had the same knowledge whether they worked for the said institution or not.

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