The 21st-century curator is no longer confined to galleries. Today’s curators assist consumers bamboozled by myriad purchasing and experiential options to select their books, fashion, film and travel. Collagerie, the UK fashion e-commerce site, set up by ex-Vogue editors, describes its 50-odd cherry-picked selection of high-low products as the “ultimate curation of fashion, accessories, beauty and lifestyle”. Meanwhile, Tank magazine, the British quarterly devoted to culture and art, runs an online arthouse film-streaming service, Tank TV, promising a “curated approach” for £3 a month. Emulating a cinematic experience, each week it shows one film chosen from the Curzon/Artificial Eye catalogue. The first season was titled Beyond Varda, and featured a run of 10 films by women influenced by Agnes Varda’s legacy.
Thatcher Wine curates book collections to furnish the homes of clients, including Gwyneth Paltrow. A recent commission for Wine’s company, Juniper Books, saw him buy 3,000 volumes for a client’s house in Aspeden. He might curate a selection on a specific subject, or perhaps the best British authors of the 19th century, “the best 500 books ever written” or even (contentiously) those with dust jackets that go with a client’s wallpaper and soft furnishings.
What qualifies him to be a curator – a term that originated in the art world – is expertise, he says, the ability to make good purchases and assemble collections into a coherent narrative. “If you have unlimited amounts of time and money you could go online to find rare books, or talk to an independent bookstore,” he says. “But it takes a lot of work, and you can end up with books that you don’t like or don’t look how you want them to. My clients would love to go to bookstores. The issue is time.”
“We live in overwhelming times,” says Chiara Marañón, director of programming at MUBI (Mubi.com), the independent film-streaming service that offers 30 films at a time. “Curation is key to reduce the noise and the amount of content out there.”
This “video on demand” (VOD) model is rooted in the “paradox of choice”, a term coined in 2004 by the American psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book Why More is Less to describe the phenomenon whereby consumers overwhelmed by too many options become paralysed and incapable of making a decision. For the affluent time-poor, serving the perfect dose of culture is just as important as sourcing a bespoke luxury item. David Balzer, the author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, observes the ubiquity of curation as reflecting status anxiety about consumption. “It’s an anxiety about how we value ourselves.”
Anxious or not, curation proves the need for the human touch in the machine age. Despite algorithms used by Amazon and Netflix promising personalised recommendations, too often they are wide of the mark or too broad a choice. Spotify and Amazon now employ curators to create playlists to nudge customers to new music. As Paul Firth, director of Amazon Music Europe, puts it: “Music discovery is helped by human touch.”
Some, such as the editor-in-chief of Tank magazine, Masoud Golsorkhi, are uneasy. “I hate the term ‘curation’,” he says. “It serves a purpose but it’s a hideous term. We tried to think of a different way of describing curation [for Tank TV]. But we couldn’t think of one.”
He wanted to provide an alternative to Netflix, which Golsorkhi describes as akin to “locking a small child in a book warehouse and expecting them to come out a philosopher. It’s warehousing of ideas.” By contrast, the niche Tank offering is “unashamedly arty-farty. We love people talking about it. We want to encourage budding film reviewers and critics.” Rather than a wide reach, they hope to create a small, deeply-engaged audience, encouraging viewers to post reviews and discuss film choices.
“Curation is a needed service,” believes Michael Bhaskar, author of Curation: The Power of Selection In a World of Excess. While art and museum curators may balk at the linguistic hijacking of their profession, Bhaskar believes they should “embrace it and be on the front line of a shift”. At its best, curation – whether in a gallery or at home – “is about having a good understanding of a large set of things and being able to whittle it down to a story so that people aren’t overwhelmed. It’s about being an expert.”