How to Become an Art Curator


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. 


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. 


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?

Helpful Resources