As an avid reader of fashion magazines and blogs, I’ve noticed a curious trend over the past few years. Upscale boutiques are described as “curated,” selling “discerning” and “careful” collections of items. Are they just borrowing the language of museums or is something else at work when the worlds of retail and curation collide?
While I’d scribble a critical comment in the margins of any student paper that began this way, the Oxford English Dictionary defines curate (v) as both “to act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc.)” and “to look after and preserve.” This scanty definition raises two key issues. To “look after and preserve” suggests that there are certain objects that have been accorded value, either individually or, more likely, culturally, while the first half of the definition invokes a person whose job it is to preserve such objects (in a museum, for example), and also to arrange them, as in an exhibit. Such arranging suggests something further, which is that the arranged objects will have more meaning because of the process of exhibition and the knowledge of the curator.
Both of these aspects are clearly at work in a curated boutique, such as Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a store that sells the work, especially jewelry, clothing and home accessories, of a group of Philadelphia area artists. Its name, of course, is that of a famous essay by Walter Benjamin on the impact of mass production on the meaning of objects. Art in the Age is not coy about their retail philosophy:
“Rather than exist at a distance in the white cube of the gallery space, we weave our offerings into the collective surface of myriad personal contexts. In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital.”
Curation, in this instance, is a counterpoint to a retail environment defined by dollar stores and Targets, where items are produced and sold in huge quantities as cheaply as possible. Art in the Age displays its wares as if in a museum, with lighting, for example, to emphasize its unique qualities. They are usually accompanied by information about provenance: Where is it from? Who made it? What is it made of? Older techniques and materials, symbols of a bygone age of hand or small batch production, are highlighted. While the art gallery is the most obvious reference point, the history museum and archive, as storehouses of forgotten and potentially fascinating trifles, is playfully hinted at too. Indeed, any distance between the museum and the store is collapsed in a set of stationery with Civil War images from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
However, unlike the gallery or museum, the shopper is encouraged to touch, wear or imbibe (at least in the case of the liquors made by the store) the objects. Rather than hold the distanced but appreciative viewer as an ideal, the curated boutique creates a shopper who is knowledgeable but emotionally invested. The most important overlap between the curated boutique and the gallery or museum is in their role in the lives of the people who frequent them. Visiting a gallery or museum is a performance of cultural capital. Invested with the power to confer significance on objects, the museum becomes a space where knowledge about taste is transmitted. Similarly, the objects in the curated boutique require knowledge to “get.” The curator in each instance is the guide--or to use a term of Pierre Bourdieu’s, the “cultural intermediary”--whose touch inscribes an aura on the newly fetishized objects of the age of mechanical reproduction.
~ Mary Rizzo
(All photographs by Whitney Strub)