How to Become a Curator

Traditionally, a curator is someone who collects and oversees pieces of art or historical artifacts for museums. Just like most jobs today, it is now an evolving profession that is multifaceted and complex. While there are still curators whose jobs reflect what we understand by the term in the traditional sense, there are others, such as digital and nature curators, who utilize technology as they are constantly seeing it integrated further into the profession.

For example, a familiar brand, Shutterstock, has a high-end imagery line. This is an example of a new type of curatorial need that has emerged.  In an interview, Karen Sachs, who curates the digital collection, shared with us what it’s like: “I spend time reviewing the work that our team of curators has selected for Offset, Shutterstock’s new brand of high-end imagery. I talk with artists about their portfolios and discuss what work we’d like to see from them as we continue to grow our collection. Offset has a great team of designers and we work together to curate collections that live on the website, select images for our email and advertising campaigns, and to share the stories within our collection.”

You will see from our interviews with other curators that no one job is same as another. It’s safe to say that every collection they curate differs from the other. For this reason, a curator must have in-depth knowledge of the subject they are creating a vision for. To become one, you must hold at least a Bachelor’s degree, while most get their Master’s and even Doctorate level education. Here is a glimpse into what type of curators are out there and what the industry looks like in the US.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Jolene Hanson

Photography Curator

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Company:
  • Type of Curator
  • Twitter
  • Jolene Hanson
  • Venice, CA
  • 11
  • G2 Gallery, Nature Photography
  • Photography
  • theg2gallery
I originally started out as a photographer. In the old days, to bid jobs, I would pull images, build a physical book with the prints, send it to potential clients via FedEx with a quote and pray they hired us. This is where I learned how to curate and how to build portfolios.

I went on to manage Frog Hollow, a Vermont-based art and craft gallery. Frog Hollow is a non-profit, which required me to take on almost every role. That experience was crucial in my ability to build G2 Gallery from the ground up with our owners Dan and Susan Gottlieb. We run the gallery similar to a nonprofit, as we donate all of our proceeds from the photography sales to environmental charities.

Every day is different, but I will say every day involves a lot of emailing. Other things I do: meet with upcoming artists, host portfolio reviews, chat with folks on our podcast, manage in-house and contract staff, invoicing, inventory, run errands, solve tech problems.

In all honesty, curating takes the least amount of “work”, but is really the greatest part. Putting the puzzle together of what shows we will have at any given time, working with the artists, determining how it will all lay out, etc.

In terms of education, I think that learning on the job is the best kind of learning. I could sit in classes for the rest of my life and not be prepared for the work I do today. I am a fan of internships, apprenticeships and starting at the bottom to climb to the top. That being said, I would love to get my masters. There are certain opportunities that I have been overlooked for simply because I do not have that piece of paper.

Advice

Understand the industry before you get in
Go work for a curator or someone who has the job you want. Work for them for free if you have to – it’s better than spending four years’ tuition to realize you studied the wrong thing. You may find that your idea of being a curator is very different than what it actually means. We take in interns in the gallery all the time and I let them see the reality of working for a gallery. You get yelled at by clients, you get yelled at by artists, you get to unclog toilets and babysit clients’ bratty children. People will come in and tell you they are better than the artists you represent. Colleagues will badmouth your choices. It’s not a glamorous job and it does not pay big money. There are still plenty of positives in the gallery world. For me, the rewards are worth the challenges, and I also love a challenge.

Take risks and fail
Get out of your comfort zone, take risks, and be willing to fail or to be told no. The most successful people I know (myself included) take risks. We have had shows that I really thought would rock, and they did not. This past summer we had two great shows that got very little reception. My staff and I discussed them and came up with a hypothesis as to why and we are going to address the exhibits next summer from a completely different angle. We may fail again, but we won’t know until we try.

Research
A common issue in today’s world of Wikipedia is that research does not mean what it used to. Anything you read on the internet needs to be backed up by a real human with real experience or knowledge. You may find some truth on the internet, but I recommend confirming it from an accredited source. We live in an opinion-based world; even the news should be questioned.

Matías Cuevas

Freelancer

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Company:
  • Type of Curator:
  • Matías Cuevas
  • New York City, NY
  • 12
  • Matías Cuevas Studios
  • Freelance
I am an artist-curator, like it used to be before the institutional figure of the curator emerged half way through the 20th century. I wake up early, drink coffee, read the newspapers, drink more coffee, do some emails and then I go to my studio until 6pm or so. So it is very normal, pretty much like any other job. Once or twice a week, I like to visit artist’s studios, and I love these: meeting with artists, getting to know them and their work. I enjoy listening to the stories behind the making of their work, what their creative process is like, how they connect the dots.

The journey that you go through when putting an exhibition project together is a one of a kind experience. Being an artist and having the chance to get out of your shell and work towards curating a show of other artists’ work – rather than yours – is a very inspiring and liberating experience.

I started curating shows in Mendoza, Argentina, my hometown. My friends and I wanted to showcase some students’ work, so we decided to rent an old Spanish house and turn it into a contemporary art gallery. It was quite the experience, since at the time, we didn’t have a clear idea of what curating nor contemporary art was. But we were very curious fine-arts students, with a lot of energy and many ideas, and eventually it all worked out.

I really enjoyed the fact that I learned out of “necessity” rather than out of professional ambition. Therefore, it is a romantic relationship that I have with the industry. And I really like the freedom that comes with that. On the other hand, I did get an intense classical fine arts training at my hometown university and later an MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So while I haven’t been academically trained as a curator, I have a deep and wide knowledge of fine arts and contemporary art.

Advice

Look around you
I suggest to go see as many exhibitions as you can. You should never rely on looking at art online like many people do these days. You have to see and experience the work in person.

Read everything
Read as much as you can, not only about art or curatorial practices particularly, but about everything else. A book that I find very interesting is Salon to Biennial – Exhibitions that Made History.

Be true to yourself Always follow your intuition and aim to forge some sort of vision – if the vision doesn’t come in the first place. Personally, I feel that the artists and curators who have transcended in time and who have been able to develop fully and sustain a career in the long term, it is because they had a vision.

Ana Sokoloff

Sokoloff & Associates, LLC

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Company:
  • Type of Curator:
  • Ana Sokoloff
  • Long Island City, NY
  • 25
  • Sokoloff & Associates, LLC
  • Curates Private Collections
I spend a lot of time traveling internationally and visiting clients, galleries, artist studios, and exhibitions. My days are shaped by the city that I am in. During a typical day in my New York office, our team focuses on the short- and long-term development of the collections that we work with. We divide our time between research and administrative tasks, and each week we also devote time to seeing artwork.

I like to think in terms of how I can further grow. Currently, many of the private collections that we work with are ready to think about their legacies. We can assist and guide this strategic planning, which is exciting.

To be a curator, education is key. I studied Law at the Los Andes University in Bogota, Colombia and then I came to the US to do my graduate studies at Columbia University in Art History and Theory of Art. What I value most are the tools that one acquires in school to better maneuver the challenges ahead. As an individual, as a professional, as an employee or boss, one is constantly presented with situations that require creative thinking. Being comfortable thinking outside the box is what leads to individual success.

Advice

Be yourself
Dare to be different, be true to your beliefs, be well structured in your ideas and follow them through.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Curator?


Unlike many art professions, to become a curator, education is nearly mandatory. In fact, for many positions out there you will not only need a Bachelor’s degree but also a Masters.

The difference, however, from professions such as law, engineering, or medicine, is that you don’t need to study in a program specifically directed at becoming a curator. It is more important to have a focus on the industry you’d like to curate for. As we mentioned before, there are many things you can curate. The first that comes to mind is a museum or a gallery, but zoos and science exhibits are also the type of establishments that need a curator.

So while you may know early on that you’d like to be a curator and go directly into curatorial programs offered across the world, there is nothing wrong with taking art history or biology courses and then taking a step into exploring a new and different career.

Karen Sachs, the web curator for Shutterstock’s high-end imagery line “Offset” told us in her interview:

My education is in photography, the arts and communication. All of my classes helped me to train and inform my eye, which enables me to better select imagery and tell visual stories…Study everything you can from the visual arts to art history to business, writing and communication. The more you learn about the world, the more you will make well-informed decisions when curating. It’s not just about the visual imagery in front of you, it’s about what influenced and inspired those visuals.

If you follow the path of our experts not a single one studied to become a curator specifically; however, they did focus their studies on fine arts.  They also worked hard to develop an eye for the way pieces of art flow together and how to express a vision through demonstrating art-work. Something else they all have in common is passion for art and creative expression. Like most art careers, being a curator is probably not a 9-5 job, it’s a lifestyle.

The profession has become more and more popular over the last few decades, and while in the past, few schools offered degrees for curators, today the program is spreading throughout different universities and colleges.

You do have the option of complementing your arts education with training or an apprenticeship as well. Many curators say it is not possible to teach someone how to have a vision; it is more of a talent, which is then complemented and trained through knowledge and practice.

WHAT IF I WANT A CURATOR’S DEGREE?

If you are set on becoming a curator, there are a few great options to choose from, both in the US, but also on the international level. Here are a few of the best recognized schools that offer curatorial degrees and courses. Many programs are designed to complement previously obtained Bachelor’s level degrees or focus on Master’s level studies.

  • Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College Located about an hour outside of New York, CCS Bard offers a Master’s level program with a theoretical component in the first year followed by a more practical second year of study. Tuition is currently $37,284 per year.
  • Columbia University – MA in Modern Art: Critical & Curatorial Studies (MODA) A Master’s level degree with a more theoretical approach which involves extensive study of history and artistic concepts as well as a final thesis component. Located in NYC, students also have an option of an inter-disciplinary degree with the Sorbonne University in France. Tuition is $23,467 per semester.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art – Independent Study Program This NYC based institution, was the first to introduce a curatorial program, which continues today. Every year, 4 students are selected to participate in a practical program, where they work as a team to create an exhibition. Candidates can be current students or curators. The tuition fee is $1,800 per year.
  • Royal College of Arts – Curating Contemporary Art Program Located in London, England, RCA’s curatorial program is one of the first ones in the world. It’s a 2-year Master’s level degree. The first year combines theoretical and practical aspects, while the second year is dedicated to putting together an exhibition. Tuition fees are quite high at 27,900 pounds per year for international students.
  • Ecole du Magasin – International Curatorial Training Program This 9 month program in Grenoble, France requires a Master’s degree or equivalent experience and is a prestigious training program for curators who are already practicing in the field. It involves a 3 month theoretical component and a 6 month implementation period. The program is free and is conducted in English, although knowledge of French is required.
  • De Appel Curatorial Programme This may be one of the most prestigious curatorial programs in the world, taking only 6 students per year, who face a very high level of competition during the selection process. It is entirely practice based and takes place in Amsterdam. The total cost of the program is 7,000 euros.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

So how is it that you actually get a job? Well, it’s not so different from other industries, especially art-related ones, out there. You need experience. Whether it is an internship, an apprenticeship, or an independent project, that’s besides the point. You need to show your skills at creating a vision and putting pieces of art (or other pieces) together in such a way that you create an experience. A good way to start is by getting a curatorial assistant position or working for the type of institution you’d like to curate for in an entry-level position.

At the same time, you need to know people. Many of them. Grow your network. Go to industry related parties, dinners, and shows. Use your LinkedIn account and Facebook page.  Create a Twitter account that others want to follow and tweet on related subjects. This will all make it easier to make it in the long-run and to keep your job or your business running.