Monday, August 16, 2010

The Curated Boutique

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)


  1. Posted on behalf of Seth Bruggeman:

    Hey Mary:

    Love your post, especially since--as you know--I like to explore Philly's remarkable world of things with my students.

    You've got me thinking hard about three issues. First is the strange career of the word "curate." There's been a lot of blog buzz about this lately. The optimist in me wants to believe that its new currency is a good thing. Perhaps it reveals a growing awareness among us prols that cultural mediation doesn't have to be a one-way street. On the other hand, I worry that this new tendency to reduce curation to a simple exercise of choice and filtration (e.g. Apple's "curated computing") threatens to obscure the importance of method, collaboration, and accountability in the work of museum professionals.

    Second, despite our desperate flee away from it during the late 90s, I think those of us who study museums and stuff may still have something to gain from post-structuralism. Your post has me desperately wanting to open a store at 115 North 3rd that sells nothing but copies of stuff people buy in "Art in the Age." I'll call mine "Simulations" and I'll sell more stuff because, according to our retail philosophy, "the real is no longer what it used to be." Although my students hate me for it, I dwell on Baudrillard et al. since, for no other reason, the persistent blurring of museum and retail spaces since the late nineteenth century (I'm thinking of Benjamin's arcades and accounts in Tony Bennett and Neil Harris) means that curators still play an important role in conversations about authenticity and power. Getting lazy on this front invites Benjamin's nightmare equation: politics + aesthetics = fascism.

    This is not to say that I oppose the blurring of exhibit spaces. On the contrary, if Benjamin, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, and all the other Bs of the cultural turn teach us anything, it's that binary oppositions don't hold water. My biggest concern, though, is how to equip consumers (of stuff, knowledge, memory, etc.) with the intellectual tools they need to avoid getting lost in the precession of simulacra. I think this is where historians and curators can make a real difference. By recalling the untidy pasts of the things we consume, museums encourage us to think hard about what we buy and why. They may even help us see that combating "industrial commoditization" with "products of real cultural capital," as alluring as it may sound, just doesn't make any sense.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Seth Bruggeman

  2. Seth: I hope your post means that you'll be taking your public history students on a class trip to Art in the Age in the near future! You could walk up from Independence Hall and have an interesting discussion about the intersections between consumerism and museums. Indeed, I only found out about Art in the Age because it was listed as a nearby shopping attraction in a program that accompanied the Darwin exhibit at the American Philosophical Society..

    Your response raises so many interesting questions, that I hope others more qualified than me see fit to respond, but I wanted to address your first and last points. Sadly, I'm not the optimist you are and to me it seems that while "curate" is getting used more often, it's getting used in the same way--to stamp the object, website, blog, magazine, &c, with cultural authority that is usually, but not always, related to a particular individual. Cultural diffusion is top down, in this case.

    I agree wholeheartedly, though, that equipping consumers with intellectual tools to understand these issues is central to our enterprise as public historians, as it is a fantasy vision of the past as more authentic than the present that is often central to projects like Art in the Age...

  3. I've been ruminating over this post, and Seth's commentary, for the past week or so. Mary has raised some important issues, but something wasn't sitting right with me.

    Art in the Age sounds like a fascinating store, an idea I've seen replicated in Montréal and Manhattan, though what makes Art in the Age unique is that it is artists selling their wares, as opposed to fashion designers. I think we have this idea in our world that artists are supposed to be above selling their wares, to be creating art for art's sake. However, artists have always created art as commodity, from musicians to the likes of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, both of whom spent their time going from court to court in Europe according to the power, prestige, and, indeed, money available. Here in Canada, our iconic Group of 7, a conglomeration of painters in the early 20th century who represented our landscape back to us, worked as commercial artists for an advertising agency in Toronto before making it big. So, ultimately, even the fashion designers with their “curated” stores are creating art for public consumption. The lines have always necessarily been blurred.

    The jewellery and other items on sale at Art in the Age are, indeed, art, created by artists, and displayed as art for the discerning consumer. While a creative idea, I see it more as a statement about reclaiming commodity items as art.

    Seth raises an interesting point with his proposed store, Simulation. Of course he will sell more product, his knock offs of the goods at Art in the Age will come cheaper, be mass-produced, and therefore, easier to procure. We live in a culture where knock-off Versace bags are sold for 5$ on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. People like their knock offs, in part because of the cultural cachet the name "Versace" (or any other such designer) carries. And partly, they like them because they're cheaper.

    So this brings me to my next point: educating the consumer. I find myself uncomfortable with this language, as to me it implies that the average North American consumer just blithely laps up what is produced. I don't think it works that way. Certainly, there is over-consumption in our culture, and certainly we all follow trends in our consumption. But my discomfort here comes from having grown up in a working-class community, the type of community that is usually the target of academics and the state when it comes to "education."

    Consumers *are* discerning, I'd venture that most people do not blithely consume whatever products are put before them at Walmart. Thought goes into purchases, meanings of consumer goods are implicitly embedded in the minds of anyone who lives in this culture.

    The past is seen as more authentic because it is viewed with nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym reminded us. This means that "heritage" sells. I just purchased a "vintage" Vancouver Canucks t-shirt. The British clothing line Boden has started marketing "vintage" and "heritage" clothing. What makes them that? Nothing I can see with my naked eye. Maybe they're made of vintage materials. Either way, Montréal is currently full of clothing designers who "remix" "vintage" clothing, to create something new out of that lame "Hawaii 80" t-shirt you wore in the 80s. Or to re-create a lush sweater out of those horrible shaker knits from the 80s.

    In that sense, I agree with Mary. Maybe we, as public historians, or even just historians, can offer some guidance, or some advice, or whatever you want to call it, about what it is that makes us see the past as more "authentic" than the present.

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