Irritating Curating

‘Curator’ used to be a dusty, cobwebby word; curating wasn’t an activity that people boasted about… But there’s been a cultural shift.

First it was a friend doing some ‘freelance curating’… well fair enough… she’s an artist; then I heard Sandie Shaw telling Radio 4 that Wayne Hemingway had invited her to ‘curate a live show’ for the Vintage Festival… what? And Sandie’s not the only one… everybody’s at it now…

Curating is the new DJing: a seemingly straight-forward act of ‘choosing’, elevated into a specialist and elitist activity. And I always thought Wayne Hemingway was a man of the people.

Here’s Dave Haslam talking about his contribution to the Manchester International Festival:

“…I’m curating True Faith, which is six events in The Pavillion Theatre on Albert Square in the heart of Manchester.”

(More information about Manchester International Festival can be found at

In the past, this series of events, which includes live performance and interviews, would have been advertised using a catch-all message about the events themselves… the organiser’s name would have appeared in small print, if at all. But now the curator has become the prime mover, both behind the scenes and front-of-house.

I hate the new popularity of this word/role ‘curator’ because it emphasizes the gulf between ordinary people and arty people… those ‘in-the-know’. No ordinary person would ever claim to curate anything… well not at present, but who knows what horrors lie ahead. Perhaps we will soon be watching adverts inviting us to curate the contents of our own homes?

Digital publishing and advertising gurus seem to be driving the over-use of the word, through their esoteric debates about internet content and strategy.

The way the word ‘curating’ is being used within the artworld seems childishly literal by comparison, but never-the-less the word has acquired a new shininess through its popularity with the digital cogniscenti.

It’s like the kids heard the grown-ups talking in the other room… they didn’t really understand the discussion but certain words sounded familiar…

Plus the concept of ‘curating’ is a useful vehicle for ‘bigging up’ the role of particular individuals, implying expert status and presumably attracting funding in the process.

It is hard to keep up with the pace of digital media development… we’re all in constant danger of being bamboozled. Digital media gurus speak an almost indecipherable language… alot of it American buzzwordy fake nonsense. But what do they actually do? Mostly they appear to generate money without making anything tangible. Not great role models for the art world then… well I hope not, anyway.

The trouble with the word ‘curating’ is that it sounds so specialised, implying that we require a guide to help us navigate successfully through our own culture. But in the case of Pop Culture this is a scam: Pop Culture is already ours… it belongs to everybody, by definition. We don’t need superstar curators anymore than we needed superstar DJs.

(No offense was intended to Dave Haslam… I was thinking of the globe-trotting, mainly house, DJs when I wrote that.)

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  1. liznaylor

    Really like this. Manchester’s musical history has essentially been ‘curated’ by a whole generation of the mildly talented still eeking a living from music related nostalgia. Get a job.

  2. Hi Dave – Thanks for your comment. A friend gave me a ticket for the Barry Adamson event and I’m looking forward to attending it. The gigs look interesting too. As you can see from this site, I love rediscovering the past… and the internet provides a fantastic tool to enable this… I just don’t always recognise other people’s versions of things, which is why I thought I’d do some writing myself.
    I’ve been irritated by the whole ‘curating’ thing for months… I don’t deny that someone needs to do it and there has to be a name for the activity… but the word makes me cringe never-the-less – so I decided to use the cringe as a starting point for a piece of writing! Your interview just happens to be a good example of the trend; the fact that you’re also describing an up-and-coming event in Manchester is also useful to this site. No personal offence is intended.
    Best wishes, Urs

  3. I’m happy to discuss these things and as long as things don’t get personal or insulting it’s all good and no offence is taken!! Glad you’re coming to Barry Adamson, I’m really intrigued by his story and to be honest if it wasn’t for having the sway and financial help of MIF and ‘True Faith’ I don’t think the Barry thing would be happening.

    As you know from the personal correspondence we’ve had, I like your investigations and celebrations of things happening and that have happened in Manchester. Perhaps I’ll see if I can authorise some footage of the Barry Adamson event to be made available to you?

    That interview with me is odd – it’s like all the rambling and silly bits have been taken out, it’s been edited a lot it seems. It’s one of them; people point a camera and ask me to talk about something and I just drone on.

    • The interview’s fine… I used it because it provides a good example of the new use of the word. I couldn’t find the example I was looking for at first (from the Chorlton Arts Festival programme) so I looked for something else instead.
      I now realise the DJ parallel may have seemed personal but it wasn’t intended to be… I was trying to make a general point about how ‘being the Selecter’ gives a person power. Giving that Selector extra power by elevating the importance of their role is not good because it makes the gulf between the Selecter and the ordinary people bigger, which isn’t ultimately good for art or music… I suppose that was the point I was trying to make. Thanks for getting involved in the discussion… it’s much more fun than writing in a vacuum.

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