Curation Goes Viral

Tumbling down the drain

by by Ana Alvarez

illustration by by Allison Grosso



In its list of “The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2012 Edition,” alternative art blog Hyperallergic asserted that trained curators are losing their stance within the art world hierarchy. As the editors of Hyperallergic wrote, “everyone’s a curator (which means no one actually is, but nevermind), so maybe you should all be asking for a refund from Bard College or wherever you learned to do what everyone is doing on Tumblr ‘naturally.’” Curatorial practice isn’t necessarily obsolete, but identifying as a curator seems to be. The shift is not in what curation can do, but who can do it. As Hyperallergic suggests, if anyone can curate within her web browser, the distinction of a “trained curator” becomes superfluous.


This past August, Elias Altman, associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly and self-described non-curator, raised a similar question during a panel held at Má Pêche in New York City. The panel of art world professionals convened to discuss the so-called identity crisis of curatorial practice. In his opening statements, Altman lamented the liberal use of the term. When applied to a personal blog, “curation” loses its status as a title worthy of the educated elite, and is now tarnished by the fingertips of anyone with a keyboard. He asked, “Is the new definition of curation, like, ‘I assemble things on my Tumblr and then I put them up for the world?’ Is that why we don’t want to be called curators?” To him, the viral spreading of ‘curating’ made calling yourself a curator undesirable.

Some go even further. Choire Sicha, co-editor of The Awl, wrote a scathing rebuke to bloggers who refer to themselves as curators: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blogs and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation. Call it what you like: aggregating? Blogging? Choosing? Copyright-infringing? But it’s not actually curation, or anything like it.” Sicha makes it clear: curation is a higher calling than blogging. While ‘actual’ curators work with ‘actual’ art, bloggers are meant to peddle the dregs of the web.

It may be tempting at first to dismiss these discussions as meaningless art world semantics. Yet, with over 77 million users scrolling down a seemingly endless dashboard of posts, and reblogging and liking away, the lexical highbrow of curation may be dwindling, but its practice is continually spreading.


What separates Tumblr from early platforms like Xanga or LiveJournal is the ‘reblog’ button.” Reblogging shifts the focus from personal presentation and creation to instant appropriation. Of course, there are Tumblrs that primarily produce original content. Others focus on gif-making, producing animated or still content with a critical or comedic edge from appropriated pop culture videos and images that saturate the Tumblr dashboard. But the most pervasive type of Tumblrs are those that accumulate content through appropriation via reblogging. This ability to instantly reblog feeds into a current cultural nostalgia, where users amass pop culture relics onto their Tumblr scroll. A good Tumblr isn’t demarcated by who is producing the most intriguing or creative content, but who has the best-curated vestiges of vintage images. Their uniqueness comes not from originality, but from a particular aesthetic lens and a visual knowledge of pop culture past.

This is perhaps the first hint at the distinction between what “curators” in the art-world do and what goes into curating a Tumblr. At the Má Pêche panel, an audience member asked what were the division between curating within the art world and curating within the Tumblr sphere—in other words, what separates curating from aggregation. Maria Popova, editor of the blog Brain Pickings, responded that curation has a more critical lens, one that focuses on editing and subtracting in order to best present “a point of view,” while Tumblr aggregation was mainly driven by passive pleasure and interest. A commentator on Sicha’s polemic against bloggers expressed a similar view: “My Tumblr isn’t so much curated space as it is a symptom of deeper pathologies made manifest.”

As this user suggests, Tumbling is not an exercise in critical curation and more cryptic expression of inner feelings and nostalgic, aesthetic yearnings. For one thing, Tumblr users normally aren’t interested in the source of their image. The source of content is irrelevant; images are reblogged and passed through hundreds of Tumblrs to the point were the ‘creator’ of a post is irrelevant. Trained curators who mount exhibitions, on the other hand, tend to have a hypersensitivity to where the objects within an exhibition came from. These projects are less of a nostalgic Internet pastime and more of a critical interrogation on how the context of artworks, both within a physical and institutional setting of a museum or gallery, and more distinctly, within the history of their making and their makers, creates a critical discourse.


The anonymity within Tumblr extends to the blog curator himself. Someone can curate a Tumblr without ever disclosing their identity; some Tumblrs can be personal and revelatory but there is equal opportunity to be completely anonymous. For a trained curator, anonymity within their curatorial project seems impractical.


The distinction of curating a space within a web browser and within a physical space is difficult to make. Trained curators need to have a particular sensibility to physical space, but there is an arguably similar spatial restriction within the browser. Especially with well-established blogs, even though the web is malleable unlike a physical room, the ability to change a Tumblr’s interface is not immediately accessible. So both Tumblr users and trained curators need to have a degree of spatial sensibility. But even though both the web and physical space are in a sense rigid, most aggregating on Tumblr is done without ‘physical’ considerations. Because Tumblr themes are for the most part built with a self-aggregating interface that molds itself based on the constantly evolving content, Tumblr users don’t experience the need to ‘place’ an image within a space the same way trained curators do on gallery walls. But perhaps the most important distinction is less how curators apply this sensibility to their curatorial selections and more on how both are experienced. At least for Tumblr, most of your interaction with other blogs is through your Dashboard, where the content of all the blogs you follow is presented in an infinite scroll. This means that you don’t need to visit the actual Tumblr page to view what is on other Tumblrs. And since authorship is rendered meaningless within Tumblr, who you reblog from is a minimal consideration. In other words, as a Tumblr user you do not experience other Tumblrs within the digital space they “curate;” you experience them through your uniform Dashboard. In exhibitions, on the other hand, the only way you can access the curatorial project is by going to its physical location. At least from the perspective of the viewer, space is a stronger consideration for real-life curatorial projects.

Within the frame of the Internet, timing is another salient distinction. Trained curators can sometimes propose an exhibition years before its conception; they must find approval from institutions, they must apply for grants, they must organize and coordinate with artists. If someone is on Tumblr, they can add 20 images onto their blog in a couple minutes. Also, little discourse or explanation, if any at all, is expected from Tumblr users. One can glean a certain curatorial leaning from a Tumblr, but nowhere in the blog, except perhaps in the title, does the curator need to reveal his or her intentions in reapproriating the images chosen besides them being things that they “like.” On the other hand, trained curators are expected, perhaps even demanded, to present a thoroughly nuanced reasoning behind an exhibition. One that relies simply on aesthetic pleasure is deemed too self-indulgent and uncritical to be taken seriously. Yet this self-indulgence is exactly what is prized in Tumblr, and perhaps what keeps users endlessly scrolling through their dashboard.

Of course, this isn’t true for all Tumblrs, even those that work primarily through appropriation. There are Tumblrs that curate images of artworks, contemporary or nor. They do so within a certain critical frame, although this frame serves more as a lens of selection and less as a tool with which to raise questions from the content presented on the blog. These curated endeavors do, however, appear more in line with what trained curators do within gallery walls.

But according to Tumblr user data compiled by, the blog platform is most popular with teenagers and college-age users. Half of Tumblr’s visitors are under 25. This proves nothing except that we can probably expect that at least half of Tumblr’s base uses the service much like they use other social networking and blogging sites—as a pastime, as an enjoyable escapism that asks you for nothing more than to select things that appeal to you. That self-indulgence and nostalgic leaning of Tumblr makes it alluring; perhaps more importantly, it makes curating approachable and accessible. As Altman later added in the panel discussion, “the Internet has obviously democratized the ability to be your own curator.” Tumblr presents curating as a method of digesting and organizing the overwhelming and endless backlog of cultural information. Even more interestingly, it presents curating as a form of cultural digestion that has potential as an enjoyable and engaging form of personal expression.

There are many things a trained curator does that have nothing to do with clicking the reblog button. Tumbling down your dashboard and mounting an exhibition are inherently distinct forms of curating. But that doesn’t mean they have to be placed within a hierarchy. They are both creative pursuits, just within distinct spheres.


ANA ALVAREZ B’13 amasses pop culture relics.