Guidelines for Curatorial-Studies Programs
Adopted by the CAA Board of Directors on October 24, 2004; revised on October 25, 2009.
In the past few years, a number of colleges and universities across the country have instituted programs in curatorial studies. The following remarks are intended to guide art departments and administrators organizing curricula as well as to help faculty advisors and students determine which curatorial-studies programs are appropriate for an individual’s specific interests, abilities, and career goals.
Curatorial-Studies and Museum-Studies Programs
These guidelines address curatorial-studies programs created to train curators and/or directors of art museums or university art galleries. Museum-studies programs tend to be more broadly designed for future museum educators, registrars, and collection managers who will work in natural-history and science museums, state and national parks, and historic sites and houses, as well as in art museums. Much of the information about museum-studies programs, however, is relevant in making a choice about curatorial studies; some of these sources are listed in the bibliography.
Students and their advisors should be aware of the relatively small size of the art-museum universe. According to the 2009 Official Museum Directory, there are approximately 12,000 museums in the United States; 2,900 are art museums; 400 museums are college or university based, and about half of these are art museums. Out of total number of art museums, only 172 are affiliated with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD); that is, larger art museums with operating budgets equivalent to or exceeding $2 million for two consecutive years. Thus, the number of art museums is smaller than one might expect. (A similar disparity exists in attendance, e g., the median annual attendance for art museums is 59,822 while that of science and technology museums is 244,589.)
In practical terms, this means that in order to find a position, one must be willing to relocate. Students should also be aware that starting curatorial salaries tend to be low, and advancement within an institution is not guaranteed. (Current jobs are listed on the websites of CAA and AAM; for specific information on salaries, see the AAMD survey, cited in the bibliography.) Before undertaking the search for the right academic program, students would do well to work as interns or volunteers, perhaps at their own campus museums, to get a sense of the museum work environment. Museum work tends to be fast paced and collaborative, and multitasking is constant.
There are many more teaching positions than curatorial ones, as College Art Association listings show. Curatorial positions fall roughly into three categories. First, there are specialized curatorships for specific areas of expertise in larger museums; secondly, directors and curators of smaller-city museums and university-based art museums; and finally, curators of contemporary art working at museums and galleries of contemporary art, art centers, and alternative spaces. Overwhelmingly, museums hiring curators for the first two categories of positions require or “strongly prefer” a doctorate in art history. Other degrees might distinguish job applicants but are not considered an alternative to the PhD. A PhD would be required, as well, for a joint appointment to a museum and university. For positions in the contemporary-art field, the applicant needs a master’s degree and a strong background in current art and art criticism, although even in this field the doctorate is becoming more common. Extensive professional knowledge of the art scene entails continually viewing art in galleries and museums and keeping abreast of developments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Although such familiarity is not academic training per se, it does require time, energy, and dedication. The commercial gallery system is not a large source of curatorial positions, as there are relatively few opportunities for advancement beyond entry-level jobs.
Programs of Study
Broadly speaking, existing curatorial-studies programs are of two types: one designed to train curators for the first two categories of museum careers described above (specialized curators and directors), and the other for contemporary-art positions. The first type is designed as an adjunct to the MA or PhD in art history; frequently it is offered as a certificate program. Such programs usually consist of courses on materials, media, and techniques, classes devoted to research methodologies, and training in connoisseurship and in the organization of exhibitions. Many programs also include a course on exhibition design with an emphasis on graphics and mounts. Extensive internships are included.
The second type of curatorial-studies program is designed for students who expect to work in the contemporary-art field. These are intended to familiarize students with current trends in practice and criticism and to provide opportunities to organize exhibitions. Students make studio and gallery visits, learn installation work, exhibition and graphics design, and write catalogue essays, wall texts, and publicity materials. Because staffs of contemporary-art centers tend to be small, hands-on experience in every aspect of the curator’s responsibility is important. Training for contemporary-art curators presents a difficult challenge. The field of contemporary art is enormous and ever changing. Although students may concentrate on art developments since 1980, the study of twentieth-century art is still essential. Thus, art history is at the core of all training in curatorial studies. In the current competitive job market in academe and in art museums, employers tend to prefer candidates with a doctoral degree. On the other hand, commercial galleries frequently seek candidates with a certificate in Artsystems (for in-house publishing), an eportfolio, and some business background.
Duties of Curators
1. The care and interpretation of objects belonging to or lent to the museum, which usually include:
- making recommendations for acquisitions either through purchase or gift; for outgoing loans; and for deaccessions
- carrying out research on the collection, including verifying authenticity, tracing provenance, evaluating significance, and judging quality
- working with collections management to ensure records concerning the collection are accurate and up to date
- working with conservators to ensure the safety of the collection and to propose and advise on any necessary conservation treatments
- collaborating with museum educators on methods for the presentation of the collection to the public, recognizing the increasing diversity of the museum publics
2. The conception, development, and organization of exhibitions, which usually include:
- articulating the rationale for and narrative of the exhibition, and identifying objects for the checklist appropriate to the concept and to the mission, scale, and resources of the museum
- writing or assisting with the grant proposal in a small organization, working in collaboration with development or the grants office when feasible
- writing the catalogue, wall texts, and labels
- publications production management
- planning the exhibition’s layout, order, pacing, grouping, and emphasis
- securing the objects for loan
- arranging institutional partnerships and/or other venues when appropriate
- working collaboratively with other museum staff on the installation design, educational programs, outreach, publicity, and fundraising
3. The development and communication of program and collection information, contextual background materials, and intellectual rationales in forms needed by other departments, especially the education department and the development office.
4. The cultivation of donors and patrons for the department and for the museum itself.
5. The effective curator:
- has substantive knowledge of art history of all periods and specialized knowledge of his or her own field
- is skilled in museum-based research, including visual analysis
- writes thoughtful art-historical studies and catalogue essays and entries for both scholarly and general audiences as appropriate
- writes clear, informative object labels, wall labels, and other didactic materials
- knows and understands collection-management tools and software and, where necessary, collaborates with the registrar, library, archives, etc., to improve and unify them
- has basic knowledge of conservation of works of art, exhibition design, registrars’ procedures, and the accession process
- has connoisseurship skills and an exceptional “eye”
- speaks effectively to both scholarly and lay audiences
- knows and understands the institution’s various audiences
- interacts smoothly with trustees, donors, colleagues, educators, and artists
- works collaboratively with and conveys all needed information on time to all museum departments
- works with designers to create coherent paths through exhibition galleries
- works with educators to identify themes and key objects for teaching different audiences and grade levels in collections and exhibitions
- has good management skills, including but not limited to project, time, budget, and interpersonnel communication
- works independently and with other departments as necessary to develop strategic plans for collections, programs, publications, and fundraising efforts
- respects deadlines
- cooperates in development efforts, assists as needed with writing grant proposals
- understands budgets
- knows the art market in his or her field
- has basic understanding of relevant legal issues, including tax laws on charitable giving, estate planning, import and export laws, and repatriation issues
- is willing to mentor young scholars and those interested in museum careers
- is conversant with museum-management systems, digital technologies, and website development, as they relate to the collection and interpretations of works of art
See also: the College Art Association’s Professional Practices for Art Museum Curators.
After consultation with curators, museum directors, and professors teaching in curatorial-studies programs, CAA has specific recommendations for curriculum development. Given the duties of curators in art museums of the twenty-first century, students first need all of the training appropriate for an advanced degree in art history. In addition, to prepare for curatorial work, students need to develop specific skills for working with objects. Ready access to museum objects throughout the training period should be required, especially in the campus museum. Regardless of the emphasis, contemporary or historical, curriculum requirements are the same.
Most effective curatorial-studies programs are certificate programs offered in conjunction with the MA and PhD in art history. Students should have at least three to six credits of curatorial training, preparing them for at least six to nine credits of internship. Although internships are essential, they do not replace the classroom experience. In addition to lecture courses and colloquia, requirements for a certificate in curatorial studies should also include a graduate seminar devoted to the organization of an exhibition, providing students with opportunities to select works of art for the exhibition, study these works, and write catalogue essays.
Curatorial-training courses must be taught by museum professionals, and by experts in other fields (e.g., art history, law, and business management) as appropriate. The introductory course should consider museum history, philosophy, and operations, with respect to the latter, focusing on the functions and responsibilities of departments with which curators typically interact; exhibition planning design; and interpretation of the collection/exhibition. It is important to stress that the primary means of communication in an exhibition is not the written word but how works are installed and how visual relationships are established within a given space.
The course or seminar on methodology should introduce students to museum-based research, which differs from university-based research in several ways. Much curatorial work deals with objects that lie outside the usual academic canon. Therefore, curators must be able to work with objects that are unknown, unpublished, atypical, or of problematic authenticity. Research on provenance is often important, which means tracing the precise history of an object’s ownership.
Under the broad rubric of connoisseurship are skills used to make some of the curator’s most important decisions: which artists and which of their works to add to the collection, and which examples are the most appropriate to acquire given the museum’s current holdings, resources, and mission. The curator, often in conjunction with conservators, also determines which works should be exhibited and which should be placed in study collections. This aspect of curatorial work depends upon the development of the curator’s connoisseurial skills. The ability to see, understand, and process are vital; wherever possible, students should have the opportunity to work with originals first hand, as constant exposure is essential in this development. Students should have at least one lecture on materials and techniques and one on conservation. It is advisable that future curators take at least one studio course, so that they understand the physical and intellectual challenges involved in creating works of art.
Students should also be offered courses, or modules within courses, on law and ethics and on management. The care—and particularly the enrichment—of the collections in their purview requires that curators be familiar with numerous legal areas, including trade, import and export laws, estate planning, taxes and charitable giving, and ownership and repatriation issues. Curators must also often assume a variety of managerial roles, undertaking leadership roles in project management, information management and unification, and personnel management. Given the variety of tasks inherent in all curatorial positions, curators must also be adept at time management. Curators are also often involved in strategic planning both for their department and the institution as a whole, and must work both independently and with other departments as necessary to develop plans for collections, programs, and publications. Students should develop a familiarity with all of these issues and procedures, and would benefit from courses taught by nonmuseum professionals (e.g., professors of law or business, through alliances formed with other university departments).
Museum work is necessarily collaborative. The complementary, rather than competitive, nature of this kind of work must at all times be stressed, and students should be required to work in teams wherever possible.
All of those consulted in the preparation of these guidelines agree on the importance of internships for effective training of prospective curators. Internships should involve full days of work in a museum over an extended period of time, with the serious supervision of a member of the museum staff. Often internships lead to a part-time position, which can be seen as a useful introduction to future employment as a museum professional.
An intern must be introduced to all museum departments and functions. All museums are complex organizations, and every department performs vital functions, from security to development to operations to accounting.
Finally, the intern should learn the following practical skills: writing wall labels and proposals; installing a show; giving talks on art to nonprofessional audiences, including docents; writing a proposal to acquire an object; working with databases; learning the basics of tax law on charitable giving; knowing how to handle art objects physically; and interacting successfully with everyone on staff, especially registrars, conservators, and educators.
Some criteria for evaluation of curatorial-studies programs:
- Do instructors have extensive curatorial experience?
- Is the program staffed adequately so that mentoring is available?
- Does the program include visiting curators and other museum professionals?
- Does the program incorporate an opportunity to continue studies to the PhD degree?
- Does the program have an ongoing relationship with a museum holding a substantial collection?
- What is the program’s relationship with the campus museum? Are museum staff members involved in the program?
- What is the program’s relationship with the art-history program? How are art-history faculty members involved?
- Will there be an opportunity to organize an exhibition? Will it involve labels, loan forms, and press releases? Will there be a publication or some other form of dissemination of research and interpretation?
- Have alumni of the program found appropriate positions? Are alumni who have been successful in the field active in mentoring current students?
- Are the normal resources for graduate students available, such as financial aid, access to all libraries, etc.?
Resources and Bibliography
* Indicates availability from the AAM Bookstore, email@example.com; 202-289-9127. The AAM Bookstore lists books on every aspect of museum work: Careers and Professional Development, Human Resources, Interpretation and Education, Legal Issues and Ethics, and Museum History and Theory, among other topics.
General Museum Information
The Official Museum Directory (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2009) is the most reliable source for current information on US museums and their personnel
American Association of Museums
Museum Professional Training
* AAM Museum Studies Committee. Museum Studies Programs: Guide to Evaluation. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, Technical Information Service, 1987. This includes a section entitled “Criteria for Examining Professional Museum Studies Programs” and a self-study guide for colleges and universities that have, or are contemplating, such programs.
* AAM Professional Practice Series. Careers in Museums: A Variety of Vocations. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, Technical Information Service, 5th ed., 2000. This describes the working environment, lists suggested qualifications for museum jobs, discusses training and also includes biographies of a number of museum professionals, a bibliography, and a list of resource organizations.
*Schwarzer, Marjorie. Graduate Training in Museum Studies: What Students Need to Know. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, Committee on Museum and Professional Training, 2001.
AAM professional-training programs are listed on the AAM website.
For examples of successful grant proposals, see the National Endowment for the Humanities website.
Social Skills in the Work Environment
Drucker, Peter F. Managing the Non-Profit Organization. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Goleman, Daniel. Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Examples of Museum-Based Research and Exhibition Catalogues
See publications that have received CAA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for museum scholarship.
Authors and Contributors
The initial document approved by the CAA Board of Directors was prepared by the 2004 Museum Committee: Katherine B. Crum, chair; Maria Ann Conelli, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York; Jan Driesbach, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; Maribeth Flynn, Brooklyn Museum; Erica E. Hirshler, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Bonnie G. Kelm, University Art Museum, University of California; Joan M. Marter, Rutgers University; Andrea S. Norris, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; Joseph T. Ruzicka, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts; Brian Wallace, Galleries at Moore, Moore College of Art and Design; Nancy E. Zinn, Walters Art Museum.
Revised in 2009 by the CAA Museum Committee: Jay A. Clarke, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, chair; Brooke D. Anderson, American Folk Art Museum; Virginia Brilliant, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art; Maria Saffiotti Dale, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Anne Goodyear, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Holly Harrison, Dallas Museum of Art; Dorothy Kosinski, Phillips Collection; Karol Ann Lawson, Sweet Briar College; Amy Schlegel, Aidekman Arts Center, Tufts University; Alan Wallach, College of William and Mary. Two noncommittee members advised on the revisions: Anne Helmreich and Catherine Scallen, Case Western Reserve University.