In 1993, British band Radiohead released a single called Anyone Can Play Guitar prior to the release of their debut album Pablo Honey. It was never a smash hit like their other songs such as Creep or Fake Plastic Tree, but the somewhat sarcastic lyrics backed by that raw electric guitar sound keep this song lingering in my head after all these years:
"Grow my hair, grow my hair I am Jim Morrison
Grow my hair, I want to be want to be want to be Jim Morrison"
A conversation with some museum curators I met at the Venice Biennale reminds me of this song. We were discussing the role of curators in today's art world, and how their status has been elevated to such a level that they are the ones who can literally control which artists can "make it" or not -- Curator has become the latest hip job that many are after. Curators are the stars, says New York Times writer Alice Pfeiffer.
And then, one mid-career commented: "Today, everyone who's anyone calls himself a curator."
I almost burst out laughing. That's probably true - particularly in Hong Kong. I turn my head around and all of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by many who have reinvented themselves as "curators". And here in Hong Kong, curator apparently has a much broader definition than the traditional "keeper or overseer at an arts and cultural institution such as gallery, museum, foundation, archive, etc."
Under the impact of job title inflation, the co-ordinator of any exhibition of any scale is now a curator, a marketing event has a curator, a programme of whatever sort has a curator, a party has a curator, and very soon instead of calling themselves wedding planners, there will be a new breed of creatures called wedding curators! Curating has taken a leap into a world beyond arts and culture.
Curator, or curating, has a long history in the West and other culturally advanced countries. It is a well-respected profession, which requires professional training and years of study and practice. Pfeiffer's story highlights this growing desire to become curators and hence, more and more museum and curatorial studies degree programmes emerge to meet such demand. Another factor for the ever increasing popularity for these programmes is that because the act of curating is getting cheap - "in an era where personal Web sites and blogs mean almost anyone can 'curate' a public display, these increasingly specialised degrees are becoming essential for those who wish to pursue a career in curating".
Curator has become more commonly known in Hong Kong only in recent years. Despite curators have been these long living creatures at the government run museums for decades (the Hong Kong Museum of Art was founded more than 50 years ago), no one seemed to have paid attention to them in the past. After many - including those ignorant and biased lawmakers living on taxpayers' money -- complained about West Kowloon for hiring overseas talents to helm the project, in particular the contemporary visual culture museum M+, people began to pay attention to curators. Some have asked in the Legislative Council over and over again: "Does Hong Kong really have no curators good enough for the job?"
If these country bumpkins have ever been bothered to try to understand how this world functions, they should realise that it is not so simple to be a curator. In Pfeiffer's story, according to Maude Bass-Krueger, a PhD student in decorative arts, design and material culture at New York's Bard Graduate Centre, "a curator needs to be able to contextualise the work within its historical and socioeconomic framework".
But of course, this concept is far too complicated for the villagers in this Asia's World Village. "Curator" has become an equivalent to "Jim Morrison" in the local art scene, and everyone wants to be one.