Is the Role of the Curator Evolving?

Increasingly, the curatorial role is focused on audience engagement and collaboration, rather than specialized knowledge.

Wesleyan University's Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP)
Wesleyan University’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP)

There has been a lot of chatter in recent years about the “death of the curator.” But is the role of the curator really dead, or is it just evolving? Once a position that glorified specialized knowledge on niche-like topics, this role is expanding, becoming user-friendly and reaching beyond the walls of institutions. It has grown well beyond the selection and placement of art or artifacts in a space; it has equally become about empowering the audience, collaboration, and innovation, both in a physical space and in the virtual world.

Why is the role of curator changing?

There are many factors that have influenced this change in recent years – an emphasis on education in museums and the arts, advances in technology, racial demographic changes, the coming-of-age of the millennial generation – to name a few. Today’s curator is more like a television producer than an academic scholar – they need to capture the attention of the audience through entertainment and engagement. (Think live tweeting during a TV show and customized iPad apps). While being knowledgeable of the subject matter is important for the integrity of the arts, it’s only one slice of the pie for today’s curators.

Alan Brown and Steven Tepper wrote in a recent white paper that the twenty-first-century curator will be “called upon not only to select and organize arts programs, but to diagnose need in their communities, seek out new and unusual settings for their work, forge partnerships with a wide array of disparate stakeholders, and, in some cases, cede a certain amount of artistic control in order to gain broader impact.” If we use this definition, then the days of getting a curatorial position based on specialized knowledge are over. Curators need to be open, curious, communicative and collaborative. They are sociologists and anthropologists as much as they are art historians. The breadth of this new job description does seem a bit overwhelming – how can one person put on all of these hats at once? How are successful curators doing this?

How does one become a twenty-first-century curator?

Traditionally, a curator was required to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees (and sometimes, a Ph.D.) that allowed them to specialize in a particular area. This specialization came with a great deal of research and publishing typically done alone. The exhibitions they developed were based on these specialties, whether or not it interested the organization’s visitors. One way that some current and aspiring curators are proactively challenging this traditional position is through educational programs that have been designed to train curators to look differently at program development in the arts.

In 2010, Wesleyan University founded a graduate-level certificate program called the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP). This program was designed to develop the participating students’ aesthetic perspective, deepen their familiarity with the range of contemporary performing artists, and develop entrepreneurial skills. The instructors are artists, scholars, curators, cultural leaders, writers and theorists. The goal of the program is to not only provide the students with strong theory and academic knowledge, but also to spark innovation and collaboration and challenge them to think about their role beyond the confines of their institutions.

What’s next?

For those who want to become curators, stop worrying that your career goals are going the way of the dinosaurs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment opportunities for curators, museum technicians and conservators will grow by 16 percent from 2010 to 2020. People still want to go to museums and attend gallery shows and performances; they just want to do it in a way that they find stimulating and interesting.

The role of the curator isn’t dying, but the out-of-date definition is. The idea that only a small, select group of people can determine the best way of displaying and contextualizing artistic programming is patronizing. Today’s curators can be informed and have expertise, but they should also be educators and entertainers. Contemporary museum and arts audiences have numerous options when it comes to their entertainment, and it is up to museums and arts organizations to make sure their programming evolves and stays competitive; otherwise, they run the risk of going extinct.

The twenty-first-century curator can lead the way to change that will keep audiences coming back and bring in new patrons. Curators create the soul that people connect to and invest in by sharing their knowledge with audiences on many levels. It seems that, thanks to the virtual world of Facebook and other websites, everyone can call themselves a curator these days – but it takes a special set of skills to put together an exhibition or a performance series that an audience will want to attend. In a way, these new curators are going to teach their audience how to be their own curators; they can teach them to curate their own experience in a way that works best for them.

Has the curatorial role changed at your institution? Does the job description of the twenty-first-century curator help address the adaptive challenges facing today’s arts-centered non-profit organizations?

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About

Erinn Roos-Brown, Blogging FellowErinn Roos-Brown is the Program Manager for the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts in Middletown, CT where she oversees the program’s mission to elevate the place of art, artists and the artistic process at Wesleyan and to innovatively strengthen teaching, student learning, artmaking and cross-disciplinary exchange and inquiry.

  • Curator

    In reality, you will have a difficult time getting a curatorial position with a TV producer’s credentials (?!). Curators in almost all art museum hold PhDs and have distinguished records of scholarship. The qualifications are getting more–not less–stringent. The reason is simple: without knowledge of what these collections are and why we value them, there is no point in having museums.

  • Colin H

    The only curators without PhDs are the generation that’s retiring. Institutions are inherently competitive and want their collections and staff profiles to shine

  • http://www.onemuse.com James Carter

    It’s fascinating to me that the shift in the role of curator seems to coincide with a shift in the role of critic. Who is a critic? Where do they critique? How do they engage with their readers? Much has been said recently about this topic at HowlRound.com.

    http://www.howlround.com/search/node/critic

    Critics are angry because publications for which they work are going out of print and online. They are frustrated with the clout bloggers receive for reviews. They are hated and revered by artists who want approval and can’t stand the criticism.

    Similar dynamics are happening in the curatorial sphere. I’ve called myself a curator for years. I use to produce evenings of visual arts and performances. I don’t have a PhD, and I never needed one. People gravitated toward the work I presented because they were entertained and enlightened. This seems like the greatest shift to me. If critics and curators present and offer wonderful work that engages, they will generate an audience. It doesn’t matter if they are online or off.

    And it won’t matter if they have a PhD or not.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    It is good to note that many of the major art and museum institutions require PhDs and this requirement is definitely valuable – artifacts and collections need a knowledgeable people to bring out their full potential. But, whatever the educational requirements of an institution may be (PhD or not), the role of the curator in these institutions has changed and expanded and requires curators to be more then just knowledgeable. As James notes, audiences want more from their arts and museum programming then just a tutorial from a person with a PhD. They want to be entertained as well as educated. PhD or not, curators at cultural institutions of all levels are finding ways to engage audiences in entertaining ways – from social media to interactive exhibitions and beyond.

  • Jill

    Even art museums on the smaller side often have thousands of works in their collections. First things first–someone on staff needs to know what they are! Curators are valuable because they link collections to the ever-evolving world of scholarship. I agree with the posters above that it should certainly be required that these specialists also be eloquent ambassadors who can argue persuasively for why the art matters. Otherwise, the art wilts. I like Erinn’s idea that these scholars can also entertain the wider public.

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  • http://www.umslobby.org/ Anna

    I’m wondering if this trend in the changing role of curators represents just one part of a larger trend we’re seeing across positions in arts organizations. It seems that all departments and positions are becoming more infused with community. What was once more of broadcasting relationship has turned into more of a two way, mutually enriching conversation.

    James, the connection to the world of criticism resonates with me. When the early book critic bloggers came up, it was an exciting time partially because books that maybe weren’t getting attention before began to get attention. Opening up the community brought in new ideas and voices. Though, now that outlets for reviews have multiplied, some are questioning the value of a (positive) review toward a book’s success. I wonder how this phenomenon might translate to this conversation about the nature of curation. If the role of the curator has changed, has the meaning of being part of a curated experience? What’s the impact of this changing role of the curator on the work?

  • http://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/ artstuffmatters

    I think expertise still matters. But now there’s a growing emphasis on increasing engagement and collaboration. As other commentators have noted, many museums require a PhD for their curatorial positions. So the other issue to consider involves the training PhD students undertake. To what degree are graduate programs in art history or museum studies training students to work collaboratively and in an interdisciplinary manner? How are these programs addressing issues of visitor engagement?

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