A trip to the art museum is often a staple vacation activity. New York, the so-called arts capital of North America; Rome, where all roads lead to; St. Petersburg, the early imperial Russian capital later named after the revolutionary leader Lenin – wherever you might be in the world, museums offer peculiar perspectives into the culture and history for all visitors and locals alike. A trip down the 1st-floor Northern ward of The Met is not only an exhibition to look at, but also an encapsulating cultural experience for every visitor.
It goes without saying that nothing is arbitrary in art – even arbitrary creative works are ironically driven by a certain, paradoxical purpose of arbitrariness. The cultural experience of an exhibition is no exception. Museums, galleries, exhibitions all create specific experiences that the organizers pay attention to every single detail to present a coherent cultural narrative. Now, these organizers are the curators, and the process in which an exhibition is put together as a whole is curation.
Curation is simply selection, arrangement, and ultimately, creation of a larger narrative out of smaller pieces. The word is not exclusively specific to any cultural context, or exhibitions, but it is virtually impossible today to come across this term without any cultural reference: there has to be some art involved somewhere.
Research is a substantial part of the job here. A curator is responsible for pinpointing, locating, and acquiring all artworks (or artifacts, if we’re talking about a history museum, for instance) as well as creating and planning out a larger narrative structure in which different pieces of work come together to make a coherent whole. In a way, it is cooking: first, you have to get the ingredients.
Contemporary art takes curation one step further with particular attention to the holistic experience of multidisciplinary narratives. The overlap between stand-out artworks and the structural spatio-temporality of the exhibition space gains extra significance in the contemporary context, and curators often establish narrative fluidity at the intersection of a variety of creative media, various objects and artifacts, as well as light and sound. Some exhibition spaces dedicate their curation to exploring the intersection of architectural qualities of the exhibition space, and the art exhibited: The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri is worth looking into if this sounds interesting to you. Another direction that artists and curators alike have taken has recently culminated in a music festival in Houston, Texas under the name Day For Night, which “combine[s] headlining musicians with immersive art installations, [and] transforms live music production by introducing new sensory experiences to the festival landscape,” according to its official website.
In the museum context, curators also function as a certain type of managerial entity with responsibilities regarding budgeting, development, and even staff management, but at the end of the day, curation is a methodological framework to push the language further.