1

Getting Started in Art Curation

A love of art and its history is a must for anyone with a desire to become an art curator. They are the "face" of the museum or gallery, and people will expect the curator to have the knowledge to answer questions about the various art pieces on display, whether a painting, sculpture, modern or ancient piece of art. Skills specific to art curation include the ability to examine and analyze the authenticity of works, the preservation, and protection of works of art, as well as the knowledge to assess their value, both culturally and monetarily. Art curators hold the bulk of the responsibility for acquiring pieces to display, whether through purchase or loan from another institution or private collector. 

Curators are also the driving force behind exhibition themes and designs, which are often pulled from existing collections or through the purchase of additional works. Often, other museums, galleries or collectors will loan or exchange pieces for use in a related exhibition. Once the elements of an exhibition are acquired, the curator must create a display that is engaging to the public and expresses the theme or story behind the exhibition. 

Much of a curator's job, depending on the size of the company, organization, or gallery, includes more mundane tasks, including budgeting, inventory, marketing, staffing, and research. Travel may be required and curators who work independently, but they must still possess the ability to collaborate with others on certain tasks. While almost all curator positions require a college degree, smaller galleries may only ask for a Bachelor's Degree in Art or Art History, while larger organizations will require a Master's or Doctorate in Art or Art History. Coursework varies, but will often focus on art history, covering a wide range of periods and styles of art and architecture, including Medieval art, 19th or 20th century art, Greek art, Baroque and Italian art, graphic design and art and gender. 

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Learn Essential Business Skills

A Combination of Business, Analytical, Technology & Organizational Skills Are Vital

Essential business skills an art curator must possess include negotiating for the best price or trade terms, working within a budget, managing staff, colleagues, and benefactors, as well as some marketing and grant-writing knowledge. Although art and business often seem like conflicting concepts, to successfully curate an art collection, you will work with finances, the public, staff, volunteers, and possibly a board of directors. In smaller organizations, the curator may also write grant requests that allow the gallery or museum to acquire and care for works of art. Any gallery or museum must have an audience to be successful. Therefore, marketing exhibits and collections is a vital part of an art curators job. 

Although common in most careers, computers are also an integral part of a curator's work. Not only are inventories kept in databases, but research and design are often done electronically. A curator may be responsible for updating the organization's website when exhibits are changed, or new pieces are acquired. An Occupational Information Network (O*NET) survey of art curators found that 100% of respondents said they used electronic mail to communicate for work "every day." O*NET also lists calendar and presentation software, graphic design and desktop publishing programs, and web-based and word processing platforms as essential tools for a curator.  Art curators also must have a frim handle on Adobe InDesign, Adobe Freehand and Photoshop, project management software such as The Museum System, MINT, Gallery Systems' PastPerfect, and Vernon Systems Limited's Vernon CMS. 

Analytical skills are also essential to an art curator’s career and are often used to determine the authenticity of a piece. Combined with the historical knowledge gained through study, curators use their own observations of art to determine its characteristics, age, materials, and other factors to confirm its authenticity and relation to a specific era, artist, or style. 

In addition, organizational skills are key. Curators must keep track of their own collections, as well as any pieces on loan. Planning exhibits requires foresight, attention to detail and the coordination with other departments within the institution. You must be able to retrieve information quickly from requests by the public, your board or other museums and galleries. Customer service and the ability to communicate well comes into play with exhibits, tours, educational lectures, and sales or loans of items to other organizations. You must speak confidently, and work well within a team when necessary.  Preservation techniques or chemical processes are nearly always used in the course of an art curator's workday. These techniques can be taught through college or university courses, by professional curators, or through self-study, but must be mastered.  Art work is valuable, and one small error can cost the galley its reputation, and you your job. 

3

Gain Experience and Build Your Resume

Focus on Developing an Area of Expertise While Building a Professional Network

Don't wait until your degree is complete to gain the experience that can set you apart from other curator job candidates. Volunteer at your local museum during school breaks. Apply for internships at galleries, museums, colleges, and even auction houses to familiarize yourself with the workings of the art world. Search for part-time positions such as tour guide, educational assistant, or research assistant. Even non-art business experience is valuable. The more you know about creating and maintaining databases, working with budgets and overseeing other employees, the more qualified you'll be in comparison to a candidate with nothing but an art history background. 

Develop relationships as you study, volunteer and work to create a strong network of professional resources. Art curator positions are highly sought after and limited by the number of museums, galleries, and other organizations dealing in art. By keeping in touch with professors, volunteer coordinators and supervisors from part-time or entry level jobs, you will develop contacts and resources to help you gain future employment. People who know your skill set and work ethic are more likely to not only hire you for positions they have available but also recommend you to others they know who may have a job opening. Each person in your network has a network of their own that they can tap into on your behalf. 

Make yourself a more valuable commodity by developing an area of expertise – knowledge of a certain art style or time period, fundraising and grant acquisitions, development, and installation of exhibits, or creating traveling exhibitions; Western, Asian or contemporary art.

The level of expertise needed will depend on the size and type of organization employing you.How can you continue your education while employed as an art curator?

Get to Know Our Experts

Jolene Hanson

  • Title:
    Photography Curator
  • Company:
    G2 Gallery, Nature Photography
  • Where:
    Venice, CA
  • Experience:
    11 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Freelancer
  • Company:
    Matías Cuevas Studios
  • Where:
    New York City, NY
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Founding Partner
  • Company:
    Sokoloff & Associates, LLC
  • Where:
    Long Island City, NY
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Curator Infographic