A Companion to Curation

Art+ Book Extract


Australian editors Brad Buckley and John Conomos asked 22 curators, art historians, philosophers, computer scientists, writers, museologists, artists and art critics from around the world to examine contemporary art curating since the 1980s. The result is their expansive illustrated book, A Companion to Curation. In the extract from the introduction below, Buckley and Conomos touch on the current definitions and ancient beginnings of curating.

by Brad Buckley and John Conomos

Tellingly, today the very noun “curator” and verb “curate” have become viral outside the art world, and are used to cover most aspects of our lives. Even the historic New York department store Brooks Brothers now “curates” its latest collection of shirts and the once humble cookbook has now morphed into a collection of “curated” recipes. Even in sport, the cricket pitch is managed by a curator. We now curate playlists, fashion, events, food, film, and rock concerts, all of which clearly suggests that the curator’s practice has bled into all aspects of our culture. The Canadian critic and writer David Blazer deftly dissects the cultural, semiotic, and political dimensions of curating having become a cult thing in his book Curationism. He argues that curationism is the fashionable acceleration of the curatorial impulse, since the mid‐1990s, into “a dominant way of thinking and being” (Blazer 2014: 2). Blazer’s opening pages describe his encounter with curator Carolyn Christov‐Bakargiev and her explanation of why for documenta 13 she refused to call her team curators. Instead she referred to them as “agents” and claimed that curationism itself can be explained in terms of our overall sociological alienation, where rather than being perceived as individuals we see ourselves as an anonymous multitude, all becoming the same. Hence one of the basic objectives of A Companion to Curation is to demystify the ideological, cultural, historical, and professional aspects of curation’s intricate relationship with late capitalism or post‐Fordist society.

Although curating is considered a relatively new profession, it can in fact be traced back to ancient Rome. All of its distinct defining functions, such as preservation, selection, contribution to art history, and creating exhibitions for galleries and museums, are encapsulated in its Latin etymological root, curare, meaning “to take care of” (Obrist 2015: 15). These values are reflected in our popular understanding of curating as a direct expression, according to Blazer, of “taste, sensibility and connoisseurship” (Blazer 2014: 2). Essentially, in ancient Rome, curators were actually civil servants whose main responsibility was the caring and overseeing of public works, including the empire’s aqueducts, bathhouses, and sewers (Obrist 2015: 24–25). In medieval times, as Obrist points out, the emphasis shifted to a more metaphysical and religious aspect of human life, as the curatus (or curate in English) was a priest concerned with the caring of the souls of a particular parish. Significantly, by the eighteenth century, curators became more concerned with museums and their collections but importantly, as Obrist reminds us, different kinds of caretaking emerged over the centuries (Obrist 2015: 25). What quintessentially matters now is how the contemporary curator still remains connected to the concept of curare, in the sense of cultivating, growing, and pruning and trying to help citizens with their shared concerns (Obrist 2015).

A Companion to Curation is part of the Wiley Blackwell Companions to Art History series and is published by Wiley Blackwell.


Blazer, David. 2014. Curationism. London, Pluto Press.
Obrist, Hans‐Ulrich. 2015. Ways of Curating. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.