so you think you can curate?



curating is a delicate dance


Curator  –noun

1.  the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.

2.  a manager; superintendent.

3.  Law. a guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent, esp. with regard to his or her property. [no irony intended here, this is straight from the dictionary.]

I’ve loved museums as long as I can remember.   When my parents travelled, my Aunt Lou would babysit us.  On the weekends, she would ask us where we wanted to go.  We had the entire city at our disposal and when it was my turn to pick the activity, I always piped up, “The museum.” Now, keep in mind that Kansas City is home to a ton of stuff to keep kids entertained, but my answer was always the same.    To her credit, Aunt Lou packed dutifully packed me and my siblings into her car and we were off to the city.

I would roam the galleries, searching for my old favorites and discovering new ones.  I never gave much thought to how the objects came to be there. In fact, for the longest time I thought the only people who worked in museums were the people guarding the artwork and the folks who prepared the yummy food in the restaurant. Of course, as I got older–and certainly as I began working in one–I realized that there are as many different professions as collection areas (if not more!) represented in museums.   The career that holds significant interest for me (although I have neither the skill nor devotion to make it happen) is curator.

The word “curator” has been co-opted since the mid-90s, according to Alex Williams of the New York Times, by the “aesthically-minded”, bringing a formerly exalted term to the masses. Ultimately, this has led to a change in the context of the field, particularly in visual art museums.

Who, or what, makes a curator? Is it as simple as putting “multiple checks” by the pre-selected works that speak to you and letting someone else worry about the nuts and bolts of procuring and installing the objects? If I have what I think is the world’s greatest collection of painted seashells and display it to the public, does that make me a curator? If a museum asks me to select works from its collection does that give me more street cred?

The recent kerfuffle about Shaquille O’Neal’s curation of the upcoming exhibition “Size Does Matter” at The Flag  Art Foundation is fascinating.  Although Mr. O’Neal was very forthright about the fact that he has no formal experience or training, that doesn’t seem to diminish his enthusiasm for the task. Selecting “celebrity curators” helps introduce art to new audiences, and there is a long relationship between sports and art.  So what is the big deal (pun definitely intended)?

That this phenomenon seems to occur most often in the realm of contemporary art is worth further exploration–can there be no justification found for non-credentialed folks curating an exhibition of Baroque paintings? Ultimately, this is not a terrible thing.  I’m in favor of making art accessible, and if showing up to see what tickles Mr. O’Neal’s fancy introduces someone to the likes of Yinka Shonibare or Cindy Sherman, all the better.

Don’t get me wrong–I understand that if I had spent dozens of years and tens of thousands of dollars to become a museum curator, and found myself fortunate enough to get paid to do it, I might be a bit miffed that someone could just walk off the street and have the title bestowed upon them. However, as anyone who observes museums surely has noticed, a cultural shift is taking place in the industry and more is expected of curators than ever before. It is time for practitioners to redefine, expand and enhance the curatorial role and press those who prepare future curators to follow suit or face irrelevance.

11 thoughts on “so you think you can curate?

  1. I’m not really all that hung up on curating, but I haven’t been able to get a job in other departments either. Oh well. Guess I just don’t have the experience which I can’t get by not working at a museum.


    • Well I will definitely keep my eye out for you. It has got me thinking about barriers to entry of the field and how challenging it can be to translate your training into a career. I might have to ask you for a quote!


  2. No, and I think that’s the problem. I got a general degree and I have zero interest in getting a Ph.D. in art or something so I’m probably SOL..


    • Ah! I often wonder why the advanced degree is what’s required, especially for the curatorial stuff. I’ve found that other areas of museum work, particularly education and marketing, aren’t so hung up on that. But if curating is where your heart is, it seems like you have play that game, at least for now. I have had colleagues tell me that they found art history masters work or arts management certification helpful.


  3. Hi! Just found your blog via Present Magazine. Interested in reading more, so I subscribed. Museums are teh shit… I just wish I could get a job in one. It’s making my Museology degree feel pretty useless.


    • Hey there, thanks for reading and subscribing! I don’t think you’re alone in having a museum-centered degree but unable to find work in one. Do you have a specific concentration of study?


  4. Pingback: museums & memory « Cabinet of Curiousities

  5. The ‘curate’ thing has been driving me crazy for years, and the NY Times article finally made me feel vindicated rather than an asshole about semantics.


    • It definitely boggles my mind, but I plan to ask more curators what they think about it. Semantics to us may be seen as life or death to them, but I’m confident we can find some middle ground – or at least a different word to describe it!


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