How to Become a Curator

Instructional image from Wikihow "How to Become a Curator."
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Develop an interest in a particular area of art, history, or science.

Be detail-oriented.

Volunteer at a museum or similar institution.

Get your undergraduate degree.

Get your graduate degree.

Adopt a research project and publish it.

Be willing to work your way up.

Consider getting your PhD.

-From Wikihow’s “How to Become a Curator”

1. Start a gallery in your living room/backyard/bathroom/crawlspace. Make it content-specific, feature only Eastern European video artists or sculpture exclusively made of bubblegum and condom wrappers. Self-fund it with sales of weed and molly rather than depend on the vicissitudes of the art market.

2. Go radical. Start curating everything. Your shoes, your record collection, your outfits, your walks in the park, your meals, your friends, your sexual positions. Produce business cards on ultra-fine food-grade rice paper with gold leaf that spells your name and “Curator.” As soon as your contacts have a chance to read it, wrench it from their hands and slip it into their wine at the opening. Stroll away as this dissolves. 

3. Humbly work your way up from lowliest intern. Your success at doing this in some way reflects the possibility of social mobility in your time and place, as even the interns will usually have ivied graduate degrees. 

4. Spend $75,000 to get a dubious degree in curating from an eminent upstate New York college. This will almost guarantee you a starvation-wage position as a curator’s assistant. Alternately fetching coffee and having your best ideas filched by your boss.

Note: Grueling apprentice systems do seemingly allow for at least some well-bred people to spread and rise, proliferating standardized ideas of professional practice, or conversely, a spirited rejection of same. Of all the future curators who take this route, only the very wealthy escape debt that indentures them to their labor.

5. Don’t start out as a curator at all, but as a poet, a graphic designer, a dancer, a playwright. Slowly realize that the confines of your medium are too confining. Imagine space and time working in ways that could be funded by the wealthy’s weird attraction to object ownership, slowly shift over until you’re something in-between everything, but you might as well be curator, too.

6. Start out as an artist instead. In school, you’re always saddled with organizing the group shows, buying the beer, placating fellow artists’ fears, making the invitations, composing the checklist, finding the funding, contacting the press, inviting the audience. Your entire art practice becomes a smudgy line between curating and art, and you grow to feel strange and unnecessary. You are not a keeper of objects, but a maker of experiences, confluences, exchanges, parties, conversations, immersions. You have no pretensions of responsibility to history but a spirited approach to working with others. In your bio, it says artist but you don’t mind if people call you a curator.

7. Become a member of the poverty jetset, writing diary entries for international art publications, taking photographs for chic French fashion magazines, picking up short-term gigs working as a sub-assistant for international biennials. The main payment from the latter is the propinquity to an internationally renowned super-curator with some disconcerting physical feature and a handsy way of talking at you. You share a full-sized bed with another sub-assistant who has the same degrees as you, only she graduated two years before. Something, sooner or later, really ought to open up.

8. Start your own non-profit and declare yourself Founding Director and Chief Curator.

Note: This is only possible if you, or someone very near you, has a lot of money to throw at this particular provocation/risk. Conversely, you can spend all of your meager savings and max out your credit cards in a fantastic blaze of glory. Though inadvisable, many colleagues will admire your guts/resent your bravery. Something, somewhere, will open up soon.

9. Take a position at a company that liberally employs the words “creative,” “start-up,” or “disruption.” Whatever it is you do, call yourself a curator. A Curator of Sales, a Curator of Marketing, a Curator of Phone Messages, a Curator of Computer Code, a Curator of Brand Management, a Curator of B2B Strategies, a Curator of Janitorial Arts.

10. Get your PhD. This will eat five-ten years of your life. By the end, you will have grey hair and spook at loud noises and forget almost anything that isn’t the narrow hyper-focus of cultural engagement hoisted onto your life through the necessity of thesis specialization. Big cities both allure and frighten you. Subsequently you only apply to tenure track in small, third-tier cities in the plains or the Mid-West or south-central Florida. Prepare to complain regularly about how glamorous it might be elsewhere, and the chronic under-regard of your work.

11. Get a job at a blue-chip commercial gallery that lets you call yourself curator. Schimmel did it, Gregor Muir did it. The gallery has the snap of a crisp, freshly printed $100 bill. The predation and heat of sales frighten you, but the gallery is weirdly, blessedly easier to work in than any non-profit. You do tolerate the vitriolic ad-hominem screeds the gallery owner regularly vomits over her staff, or the empty elegance of the sales folks and their quasi-urbane, ultimately conservative manners. No matter how kindly the proprietor or how committed the staff, you have to implicitly accept the clear inequality of a world that makes such places possible.

Your peers look on your move with quietly judgey envy.

A third-cocktail guilt over being some kind of sell-out haunts you, but the next day, you sell a major work of your favorite artist to the most important museum in the world. On your way home from work, you drink a celebratory bottle of wine with the artist. She tells you that with the money she might pay off her loans or put a down payment on a house. Any regret washes away with the next gulp of gin.

12. What is a curator anyway and what is it to become one? Is a curator a keeper of artifacts, an educator of history, an advocate for the new, a protector of the old? A producer, a storyteller, an activist? A fundraiser and a bureaucrat? A gatekeeper, a trendsetter? Sometimes a middle-manager with a regular paycheck but very little executive control? Sometimes a maker on par with their artist colleagues? What obstacles does one generation impose on another to achieve standing? Could Harald Szeeman, the patron saint of all curators, get a job these days even as a security guard at MoMA with his lack of a curatorial degree and his resume as an actor, set designer, and painter?

Curator is a job and a word with a history, a trajectory one can ignore or embrace, accept or reject. For the cost of a few-hundred dollars’ worth of books or a few-hundred thousand dollars’ worth of private school, you can learn the depth and breadth of this profession from a variety of gurus, practitioners, and geeks that range from self-aggrandizing crypto-fascists to tireless technicians, the soft-hearted communitarian to the rarest of curators, the authentic genius weirdo who stumbled into curating on accident after being a guitar tech for the Grateful Dead, a professional gambler, and an experimental poet.

Most of the best ideas about how to make space for artists, to tell stories through artworks, usually come from outside the manuals. The best ideas are not recited by a professor, but made up in your own head.  

You learn what everyone sooner or later does, though it comes off as utterly cliché advice if ever repeated. There is no right or wrong path to become anything really, and besides, you get to decide what success means. Make your own job, career, life. Become whoever you want to be, however you want to be it.  

Note: Being a curator is very different than becoming one.

 

Appendix:

Warning posted at the end of the Wikihow article “How to Become a Curator”:
Thanks to federal funding cuts stymieing the expansion and completion of museums, becoming a museum curator is a highly competitive field with more qualified applicants than there are jobs to fill.

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