A curator selects, organises and looks after items in a collection or exhibition.
Playing an important role in almost all museums and galleries, curators are highly influential in the cultural sector.
They decide what is held in collections and shown in exhibitions. They are responsible for the success of some artists and the failure of others. At the largest institutions, they can be in charge of yearly budgets of millions of pounds. Even in the smallest galleries staffed mostly by volunteers, they may be the only paid members of staff.
Whether affiliated with a museum or gallery, or working freelance, curators are usually specialists in one or several types of exhibit. This could be a period of history or style of work, such as ancient Greek sculpture, or a medium, such as photography.
Larger institutions may have many curators, each in charge of their own specific area (for example, 19th Century Dutch Painting or Dinosaur skeletons).
Curators at museums will generally assemble and look after a ‘‘permanent collection’’ of items which belong to the museum. For specific exhibitions they will locate and buy or borrow other items from institutions or individual collectors.
Art gallery curators have a very similar role, but will often also work closely with artists to create and develop work to a specific brief.
Once work for an exhibition is assembled, many curators will work with other experts, artists and designers to choose how best to display work. Writing ”interpretation’’ notes to accompany items is also a part of most curators’ work.
Whilst the role is generally primarily about collecting and exhibiting artefacts or works of art, it also involves administrative, and increasingly, outreach work. This may involve fundraising for exhibitions, providing educational tools, and working to increase the profile of an institution or exhibition.
The last decade or so has seen the rise of “online curators”, bringing together content for a particular website or group of websites. The majority of these curators’ work is the same as traditional curators’, but with digital, rather than physical, content.
In America, the term curator can have a broader meaning, referring to the head of any given division of a cultural organization.
Typical starting salaries range from £15,500 – £18,500.
After 10-15 years in the role, curators can usually expect: £25,000 – £35,000.
Many commercial art galleries work on a commission basis, with curators receiving commission and/or a bonus when work is sold. In this case, and at the largest public institutions, experienced professionals can earn over £66,500.
Curators almost always have to:
- Make decisions about what items to collect and/or display
- Make decisions about how items are arranged and displayed within a space
- Undertake research in support of exhibitions
- Maintain catalogues and records of acquisitions and collections
- Provide notes interpreting the items in the exhibition and explaining the principles of their collation
- Locate work from various sources and make arrangements for it to be transported to a new location
- Liaise with other members of staff
Curators often have to:
- Acquire funding from various sources, including government and private individuals
- Make sure items are safe and properly looked after
- Deal with enquiries from researchers and the public
- Liaise with a number of other stakeholders, such as local government, to ensure ongoing support
- Network with other people working in the same sector, at events, meetings and collaborative projects
Curators must have an extensive overview of the market in which they work, in order to be able to select items for exhibition. They must also be able to explain that market to others.
Almost all professional museum curators hold undergraduate degrees in a related subject. Most museum curators working in more prestigious and larger institutions will likely hold a Masters degree, and many museums expect a Doctorate, in a related subject such as History, Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology, History of Art, or Classics.
In addition to a higher degree, curators are normally expected to have presented widely on their subject, in print and at conferences and talks.
Success for contemporary art gallery curators is arguably less contingent on academic qualifications. In this case, curators can build up a portfolio of self-initiated or freelance projects for smaller, independent galleries in order to progress to larger institutions.
As the competition for jobs has increased in many museums and cultural institutions, some universities and other organisations have begun to offer professional courses. These are in fields such as public history, museum studies, arts management, and curating/curatorial practice.
Many arts colleges now offer curatorial degrees, or curating components to other arts degrees. These include the Royal College of Art, Kingston University, Goldsmiths College (University of London), and University of the Arts London. In addition to extensive work experience, many institutions will expect graduates to hold such qualifications.
It is more difficult to say what formal qualifications are necessary to become an online curator, since the role is still nascent and less common.
- In-depth knowledge of your specialisation, as well as an overview of the field
- Research skills
- Ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of people
- Attention to detail
- Good timekeeping
- Organising teams of people
- Spatial awareness
The working environment varies considerably depending on the institution with which a curator is affiliated, and whether they are freelance, which is common.
Some curators are permanent members of staff and will work a regular 9 to 5 in an office. Others are ‘guest’ curators who come in to organise particular exhibitions. But jobs are highly competitive and staff turnover is low, so curators may need to be flexible about where they live and work.
Most curators will spend part of their time researching their area, either on the internet or phone. They will also visit other museums and galleries regularly to keep up-to-date with the work and trends in curation. There is often also a highly practical element to the role.
Curators will spend a proportion of their time in exhibition spaces assessing how items should be arranged and displayed. Many curators will be personally responsible for and oversee the transportation, storage and installation of items.
Where curators are working with living artists, the role can be highly collaborative and creative. Curators in such roles may give critical advice and guidance to artists, giving suggestions to improve and tailor work for particular exhibitions.
There is little gender or age bias in the profession: men and women of all ages work as successful curators.
There are over 1,500 independent museums across the UK, most of which are charities. Most of these only employ one or two curators.
However, several national institutions, such as the British Museum, British Library and National Gallery, have hundreds of employees, many of whom are curators or curatorial assistants.
There are over 300 galleries and museums attached to British Universities, including major institutions such as the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, and the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology of Oxford University.
Fixed-term contracts have become more common recently, but are often still shorter than in other industries. Curators generally therefore have to be proactive about their careers, looking out for new opportunities while they are still under contract.
Traditionally, curators have been very specialised, remaining in one or two fields for their whole careers. That has changed more recently, with curators going on to broader managerial roles.
Many curators work in addition as consultants, giving advice to other organisations such as auction houses. It is common for curators to go on to work full-time or freelance as a consultant. Many also go on to become tutors or researchers at higher education institutions.
Art curators are often artists in their own right. Creative work can inform and complement curatorial work, and can also be a further career.
Also known as…
- Keeper (mostly in museums)
- Webmaster (online)
- Director (Gallery/Museum/Exhibition)
- Records Manager
- Heritage Manager
What’s it really like?
“Joe Coppard, 25, is a young curator from Peckham, London. He has been curating concerts and exhibitions with Jimmy Merris for over two years…”
Jimmy and I were at the London College of Communication together, studying interactive design and graphic design, respectively.
We began putting on events of music and performance art together. We did it in our own time and in all sorts of locations – from warehouses to shop fronts on Oxford St.
As a result of this work, when we graduated three years ago we were invited to be resident curators of the Sassoon Gallery in Peckham, London. There we chose work from applications submitted to the gallery, and commissioned work ourselves. At the same time, we curated single exhibitions and events in other galleries, including Tate Britain and the Institute for Contemporary Arts.
What I enjoy most is the collaboration between us and the artists. You really have to relish working closely with other people to do this job. I spend a lot of my time on the phone and meeting people face-to-face. Sometimes it’s having creative conversations: refining work and developing ideas. Many people have to spend their working day in isolation, working on their own thing or something their boss has instructed them to do. I love the fact that my typical working day is something that develops as I work with other people, and because of this, it’s genuinely varied. You will need to enjoy this aspect of the job though – meeting people, working with artists, going to openings, and you’ll need the confidence to discuss your ideas openly and frankly with those involved in your projects.
There’s a lot of logistical work, too, organising dates and times for people to use a space, making sure that items arrive safely and on time, hiring or buying necessary equipment. When you work for small galleries and spaces you really have to make sure yourself that every little thing is sorted out. And the pay is erratic and usually low. You might even end up working for free, if the proposition’s really inviting.
Sometimes you don’t know where your next job’s going to come from, and that has a big impact on your lifestyle. Jimmy and I live in a big shared house in Peckham, and the fact that our rent is so low is a pretty big reason for this.
We also have to make sure people come and visit the shows. I designed and built our website and together we have designed most flyers and other collateral. For our most recent project we are curating teams of London art students’ work in the window of a large advertising company. It has been interesting to get an insight into advertising, which is a potential progression from curating, working as an Art Director perhaps.
If there’s any advice I’d give to people thinking of becoming a curator it’s just to get on and have a go. Almost any space can be a gallery.