Ask a Curator: Tips on Becoming a Curator

July 24, 2009

Al asks: How does one begin a career as curator? Do you go to school for it, or can you work your way up the museum hierarchy?

Marielos asks: Beyond grad school and tons of work experience, what are some tips for a curator starting their career?

Internships, internships, internships. And did I mention internships? There is really no better way to develop a hands-on understanding of curatorial work then by observing and partaking in a curatorial department’s daily grind, either through volunteering as an intern or working as a curatorial administrator. It’s one thing to be able to research and write about art intellectually (skills developed at university), and another to deal with it as a physical object that needs to be moved around, insured, conserved and installed in its best “light” (through actual lighting, exhibition design, didactics, etc.). Since curatorial work is a very competitive field, such positions also offer a foot into a museum and the possibility of demonstrating your skills to a staff who may be hiring in the future. I got my first curatorial job while working as a part-time research assistant at MoMA. A curator needed help organizing an exhibition and there I was, right under his nose, ready and willing to jump in.

As Marielos mentions, the conventional approach to becoming a curator also involves an advanced degree in art history. At one time an MA was sufficient, but increasingly (again because of competition), a PhD is “preferred.” A PhD takes at least five years to obtain if you go straight through, and up to ten (or more) years if you stretch it out, as I did, by gaining work experience throughout. Either way, it’s a definite commitment but one that’s truly worthwhile for those who love art (both as idea and object) and bringing it to the public.

p.s. There are, of course, also unconventional approaches to becoming a curator that you see more often in the field of contemporary art. In cities like Los Angeles with vital art communities, there are lots of alternative spaces and art galleries that offer emerging curators opportunities to organize shows.

Leslie Jones, Associate Curator, Prints and Drawings