curate (v.)

As early as the mid-18th century the noun “curator” had expanded from its original meaning of taking care of persons or things, sanctified by ancient Roman law, to encompass caring for art objects. Almost from the beginning the British Museum had curators on staff to care for the growing collections. These keepers, sometimes called curators, might even worry about how to display works of art as well as preserve them, although these activities were and are occasionally at odds with each other. Although architecture proved recalcitrant in entering the space of the museum, ultimately its forms of representation, from models and drawings to photographs, began in the 19th century to join the corpus of a keeper’s charge. By 1932 the Museum of Modern Art in New York appointed a curator of architecture, even though the main goal was the diffusion of information and influence rather than the formation of a collection. My old copy of the Oxford English Dictionary had yet to admit the verb “curate” to describe the activity of such persons, perhaps because one does not need to be a curator to curate. In recent years not only exhibitions at all scales from a corridor to a biennale over multiple acres are curated, but also books, web “content” (another word that needs some taming), curricula, restaurant menus, wardrobes, and so on.

With his or her move from the hierarchy of the church, where a curate was subordinate to a priest, the curator in the art and architecture worlds has risen rapidly in recent years to rival or even surpass the artist or architect. In the recent Venice Biennale, curated by architect Rem Koolhaas, scarcely a living architect was on display, but the work of the curator and his many curatorial delegates provided the mise-en-scène of a veritable avalanche of material, largely in the form of scans, representing 20th-century architecture. Curating doesn’t always imply that less is more, even though it seems that a new thesaurus would list it simply as a synonym for “choosing.” And to curate has been set free from its original obligations of caring for persons or things with a heavy legal burden and a view to eternity. Rather, the freer one is of institutional obligations, the freer one is to curate! At its best, today’s curator uses his or her newly curated status to promote the work of architects or artists not yet well known, seeking to be recessive after the selection is made and the installation plan decided. But increasingly the selection and the installation is itself what is on view. And the curator, or even star curator, might well be what is discussed rather than the architecture on display, much of it created to be displayed, perhaps, rather than built, or chosen to prove a thesis of the curator rather than of the creator. Curating today is decidedly about the provisional brilliantly animating the conversation – a conversation at its best, perhaps, when “curated” by what used to be called a moderator. One wonders only what happens to the architecture that is in the real world, curated by forces outside the closed circuit of biennials and pop-up display spaces, now that curating even architecture is often unmoored from the concerns of the daily environment. When curating and criticism are conflated, all distance between production and reception runs the risk of collapsing, leaving us to curate the bytes that we would like to care for and try to preserve, to stem the terrible feedback of “URL not found.”