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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: PBS Digital Studio's The Art Assignment asks what the title "curator" really means, both traditionally and as it is used today. Can you be a curator of vintage sneakers? Let's talk about it in the comments.
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 cÅ«rō cÅ«rāre, 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 somethings. 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 are hired to care for that collection or part of the collection by a museum or other institution that owns those things. And you 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. You 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 arrange the collection in rooms. Okay, 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 middle-man, 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 weight 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's 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.   Okay, 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 centuries who is applying that knowledge to this new project. I am 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 assignment 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. Through 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.