On The Curatorial Role

An interesting word has shown up more frequently of late. At least, I’ve noticed it more.

It’s not a new word, by any stretch. In fact it’s an old — and seemingly old-fashioned — word. One that implies stuffiness, to an extent, but also curiosity. It connotes bringing together a jumble of otherwise uninspired objects, and making of them a sense and sensibility that a story starts to emerge. A story that speaks of creating meaning. The word? ‘Curator’.

The origins are straightforward enough. Originally from the latin ‘curare’ (and with a literal definition of ‘take care’) it generally references a manager or overseer. The most common use of the term was in reference to someone in a museum, gallery or library who was responsible for the selection and keeping of a collection of works (generally artistic) related to a particular subject or them.

More recently, though, I have seen the term used in relationship to managing assemblages of ideas on the internet. In particular, the idea of pointing to other articles, blogs, or tweeting of references, have been referred to as being curatorial in nature. It’s an interesting idea, and a useful one, because – to me, at least – it neatly delineates the idea of assembly and sharing from that of actual creation. And while both are important, they are each very distinct.

There are, of course, many other roles in life that are curatorial in nature. The artistic director of a theatre company in essence ‘curates’ its season, choosing the plays that will be performed, and therefore shared with its audience. A store owner determines what products it will sell, combining and synthesizing a sense of what will sell with a belief of what will interest their customers. In particular, the owner of a bookstore (especially a small one) determines what titles they will carry, and which they will not.

The latter example, in particular, is one that has both resonance and value to me. While the big-box book megastore may be better positioned to store one of everything, or at least several of many things, the small, local bookstore has the constraints both of size (and therefore shelfspace) and clientele. They are as much a reader of the clientele, however, as the clientele are subscribers to the bookstore. A small bookstore has only so many shelves, and can carry only so many books; so they pick and choose the titles that resonate, that are relevant and that they believe their customers will respond to. In return, their customers come to know the tastes of the book store owners, and in time come to trust and value their judgement.

One such example is a bookstore very near to where I now live. Simply known as ‘Type’, they occupy a space that can’t be much larger than several hundred square feet, in a small neighbourhood west of the downtown in Toronto. They are one of may favourite places to visit and browse, although I can seldom limit myself to actual browsing. While I can visit a large-scale bookstore and theoretically leave with nothing, doing so at Type is much harder. While their selection is much smaller, their tastes are a known quantity, meaning that I have a much greater likelihood of finding something (well, really, several things) that I am bound to enjoy.

That to me is the value of a great curator, and why I am enjoying the resurgence of the term. They are someone that becomes a known and trusted quantity, who is able to select from a myriad of possible sources and, in making their choices, identify preferences that I am in turn likely to value. It is not an act of creation, it is an act of editing. But it is editing with purpose. And that has a whole lot of value.

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