2005-05-13 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

How To Become A Curator
by Susan Hartenstein


 The Bayou Blues Band plays at the RAA Geoff Rawling Exhibit. The Bayou Blues Band plays at the RAA Geoff Rawling Exhibit. Gallery Happenings:

A Mixable Feast, Geoff Rawling’s solo exhibition featuring A Month of Sundays of delicious events continues through Sunday, May 29. Admission is free. Gallery hours: Saturdays 12-5 p.m.; Sundays 1-4 p.m.

* Sunday, May 15: Naked Lunch, a revealing blend of undressed creativity, “nude food” and bare bones music from the Bayou Blues Band. 1 p.m. start.

Saturday, May 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is “clean-up and paint day” at sTudio 6. Help make our gallery sparkle. Come in work clothes.

Study programs designed to provide the academic and practical training necessary for a career as a curator have been developed at various colleges and art institutions. The Whitney Museum of American Art and Bard College are two examples. However, these programs have become available relatively recently. There are curators working in the field today who never had the opportunity or the desire to enter one. They went about the process in different ways.

In its survey of curatorial programs the College Art Association (CAA) states that generally the study programs fall into two categories: the first, to train those interested in working in a particular area of expertise for a large museum and those who want to work for smaller city or university museums (these programs are designed as an adjunct to a master’s or PH.D. in art history, frequently offering a certificate program); the second, for those who would work at museums and galleries of contemporary art and alternative spaces. A knowledge of art history is considered important, no matter what category into which one falls. Today, a Ph.D. is becoming a job requirement or a preference at most of the art institutions in the second category. Considered essential are internships that provide hands-on practical experience in the operations of a museum or gallery and in all the tasks necessary to create and organize an exhibition, including the actual laying out of an exhibition. CAA considers the visual relationships in an exhibition to be its “primary means of communication.”

Erin Barnett of the Guggenheim Museum earned a master’s in art history at the University of Kansas and concentrated in curatorial studies at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. In an interview with Ilana Stanger of TheArtBiz.com she confirms the need for an MA (especially if you want to work in a large museum) and for work experience in a museum to see if that kind of profession is for you. While the Whitney Program taught theory, it also provided her the opportunity to be one of the curators of a show at the museum’s Connecticut branch. For Claudia Gould, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, no such program existed when she graduated from school. She received a BA in art history from Boston College, after which she built herself quite a resumé. She interned at the New Museum, at Artists Space, a non-profit alternative space, and at a commercial gallery. She earned her master’s in arts administration from NYU but, as stated in this ArtBiz interview, regrets not having gotten an MA in art history Gould worked as a staff and independent curator for several respected art venues that include P.S. 1 and was named Executive Director of Artists Space. While you can’t make a living freelancing, she states, her advice to young people is to “just do it” – if you want to curate a show and can find a space, just do it. In contemporary art, she says, you need to align yourself with artists. If you want to curate at a museum get a job there, even as a receptionist. Do it well and move up the ladder that way, at each stage. If you can’t move to what you want where you are, use the artists you meet there to curate your own show, even if it’s “in your living room.” Curator Jenelle Porter tells interviewer Matthew Deleget that she began her career as assistant to a curator at the Whitney. Here she had the invaluable experience of working on all sorts of aspects of organizing shows. She also worked in the curatorial internship program at Walker Art Center where she had the opportunity to coordinate with the curatorial staff and curate her own show. Lawrence Rinder, curator at the Whitney Museum with an MA in art history, states in an ArtBiz interview that academic programs are good for some, but only after one has had some experience in the field and seen a lot of art. This allows one to determine where one’s passions lie. When he began, the only way to become a curator was to do an internship with one, where one learned “on the job.” Programs, he believes, are good to hone skills, not to “create curators.” There is a danger of “over-academization.” Gavin Wade is an independent curator in London. He studied painting in college and organized exhibits of his own work. Then he was asked to show in a gallery by its owner, who allowed him to curate a show. He has continued to make contacts with artists and to curate exhibits based on these associations.

Next week: A brief look at a few curatorial study programs; how to find out more about them and other such programs; websites to check out for job opportunities in the field.

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