Who's Curating The Curator?
Florida - It would seem that everyone's a "curator" these days. No longer just the purview and title of those who work for museums and galleries as protectors of cultural heritage - curators can now apparently be found everywhere - from Esty to Goodwill stores, thrift shops, and all points in between. If you've got something used to sell, you'll likely see it being offered up as part of a carefully crafted "curated collection." But how did this fanciful moniker, once reserved for the those in the upper-echelons of the decorative arts and museum staff, become so pervasive in regard to the sale of today's used, vintage, and retro items?
For some, the term came about as a matter of economy and distinction, at least according to Tara Johnson, a long-term vintage store operator on Etsy, who thinks that it was simply a way to elevate one's inventory, or one's own professional status, when comparing themselves to other dealers. "We're all selling on the same platform," says Johnson, "So trying to differentiate yourself from the competition can be difficult when the layout of your virtual store is pretty much the same as your neighbor." While Johnson continues to use the term on both her website and Esty shop, she does acknowledge that the descriptor is perhaps getting a little long in the tooth. "I've seen signs at grocery stores where apples are being curated," she said, "that seems a bit ridiculous."
For others in the industry, it would appear to be somewhat of a shared sentiment. Allison Tanner, a retired auctioneer and antique store owner, who volunteers part time at a large charity shop in the greater metro Atlanta area, says the whole expression is a bit bewildering. "We just have general goods and chattels coming in mostly," says Tanner, "However, we're told to group items together (in no particular order), and then to sell them as part of a curated collection." Tanner thinks the whole idea is sort of crazy, "I get that you want to increase sales by indicating that you have something special, but hanging a sign over used garden furniture from Walmart that reads, Today's Curated Collection, seems a bit absurd."
On the flip side, a number of dealers point to the fact that unlike true antiques, many vintage items can't really stand on their own without a bit of creative curatorship, since they don't have the same kind of history backing them up as more traditional antiques often do. "I suppose it's a bit of literary license and salesmanship all rolled into one," says Doug Plath, a vintage dealer who operates multiple online stores on both Etsy and EBTH (Everything But The House). "What I'm trying to get across with the curated title is that my items are unique and original, even though some of them may have been mass produced." For many, this runs contrary to the antique ethos of rare and unusual. "Antique dealers don't really have to spice things up too much," says Plath, "the pieces often speak for themselves, whereas vintage and retro items can sometimes benefit from a little descriptive bump."
While this may be the rule rather than the exception for many vintage dealers now, a number of store owners on Etsy have reportedly decided to take a more light-hearted approach to institutionalized curatorship, by offering a few prize-winning customers a chance to "curate" their stores favorite collections. One venue even went so far as to headline the event as a chance to "Curate the curator..."
There is clearly no final answer here as to "curate" or "not to curate" - but one thing is certain - sometimes expression-fatigue can suddenly set in, and when it does, it's often a good indicator that it's time to move on. Whether or not that time has come for this expression remains to be seen, but when a famous university in northern Michigan places curator, curated and 'to curate' on its list of banished words, it might just be worth the effort to start considering an exit-strategy...
- A.I.A. Staff Writer's
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