Curators of the Cultural Commons


I had promised myself (and I’m sure some of you had hoped) that I was finished for a while with posts about mission in the arts. However, I’m working on a book about the “how’s” of engagement (that’s the first time I’ve acknowledged that here, I believe). Consideration of fundamental mission is critical to effective engagement and in the thinking I stumbled on a concept that may be of value.

In a post from a year ago (What Is the Arts Business?) I began playing with metaphors for the work of the arts industry: reliquary, pilgrimage/hajj, and commons. (To review, both the reliquary and pilgrimage/hajj roles have art as the central responsibility, with the experience of the faithful or the pilgrim being secondary. In contrast, the whole point of the commons is the good that the public gets out of using/experiencing it.)  In going back to those ideas, I realized that an interesting description of an arts organization’s role could be Curator of the Cultural Commons.

Unlike truly insightful ideas, this one needs explanation. (You know, if you have to explain a joke . . . .) According to dictionaries, a curator is responsible for the acquisition, care, and “superintendence” of things.  Recently, there has been much discussion of content curation, especially in the realm of sorting through mounds of information–digital or otherwise–and selecting that which should be presented.

Curators in the museum world serve both an acquisitions and a content curation role. They select the work to be presented in an exhibition. (In organizations without registrars, they also provide care.) Performing arts presenters are “content selecters,” choosing from the available touring productions. Artistic directors of producing organizations serve a similar function in selecting work to be presented from the extant (or newly commissioned) repertoire.

“Curator of the Cultural Commons” implies responsibility for acquisition/care and for content curation. However, the commons aspect of the description also demands that the curation be intended and successfully executed for the good of all (or at least the many). It is not enough simply to “put it out there” and hope for the best. This is especially true if the curator has no real connection with or knowledge of the community being served. Cultural expressions of significance to the entire community are the universe from which to select, which probably means that no one person is sufficiently expert to make all choices. There are too many cultures and categories from which to choose for any single individual to make effective choices. This, then, is an institutional responsibility. There should also be some responsibility for results, for ensuring that the commons is enjoyed by significant percentages of the population. (Yes, “significant” is a matter of interpretation, but in most universes it would need to mean more than 2% or even 5%.) If the commons is not being utilized by the community, it is, arguably, not a commons but a private benefit for a few.



Commons Photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jack W. Pearce

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  1. Jerry Yoshitomi says

    I frequently describe marketing directors as ‘stewards of the customer asset’ for their organizations.

    I like that you’ve repurposed the word curator and added responsibility for the commons.