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Standards & Guidelines » CAA Guidelines


Adopted by the CAA Board of Directors on October 27, 2002; revised on October 23, 2016; revised October 15, 2023. 


The College Art Association (CAA) offers the following guidelines for consideration in establishing arrangements between museums and guest curators. 

In the relations between a museum and a guest curator, a contract that establishes the rights and responsibilities of both parties is essential to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts. When they collaborate on a project, a museum and a guest curator each make substantial contributions based on their respective strengths. A guest curator may bring to a project original ideas, scholarly expertise, curatorial experience, and unique contacts in a field. A museum brings institutional resources and experience in mounting an exhibition. When a guest curator and a museum work together in developing an exhibition, they are engaged in a collaborative process. 

A contract (or letter or memorandum of agreement, hereafter “contract”) should be drawn up between the museum and guest curator soon after preliminary discussions and prior to the formal onset of the project., before any collaborative work is undertaken. Given the inevitably dynamic nature of the enterprise, the parties should recognize that it may not be feasible to address every conceivable circumstance in writing beforehand and therefore the agreement should permit flexibility in allocating their responsibilities. The contract may also include a provision for mutually agreeable amendments once the project is underway. 

The following guidelines are intended as a resource for both guest curators and the museums that wish to hire a guest curator. The items listed below are possible subjects for discussion and should provide a guideline for conversation between the parties. Contracts need not address every one of these subjects. 


Contracts with guest curators may begin at various stages of a project. A curator might come to a museum with an exhibition proposal in either an early or a well-formed state; likewise, a museum might approach a guest curator with a nascent or developed exhibition concept—or just an invitation to develop a proposal. Who originates the proposal and at what state that proposal exists when a museum and guest curator enter into a working relationship are important elements to note in a contract; they affect many other items, including but not limited to compensation, credit, and possibilities for the project in the event of contract termination. 

In addition to noting who originated the project, it can be helpful for a contract to include a brief discussion of why the guest curator is being hired, and what skills they are expected to bring to the project (such as specific scholarly knowledge, a particular artistic or cultural viewpoint, or previous curatorial experience). 


Reporting Structure 

A guest curator will typically work with an array of relevant museum staff members when and as needed; the museum should appoint an authorized contact person with whom the guest curator will communicate on all matters regarding the project. This staff person should oversee internal matters related to the guest curator’s tasks or requests, coordinate various activities related to the project, and speak officially on behalf of the museum to the guest curator when the need arises (e.g., authorizing reimbursements or changes to the project calendar or scope of work). Typically, this in-house project director will be a curator on the regular staff or someone of comparable rank within the institution. 

Notwithstanding the close working relationship that is likely to develop between the guest curator and the museum, the guest curator may not use the museum’s name, present themself as a representative of the museum, or make any commitments on behalf of the museum, unless specified in the contract or expressly authorized by the museum administration. Under what circumstances, if any, the guest curator may act as the organizing museum’s representative (e.g., to negotiate loans or fundraise) should be noted in the contract. 


Administrative Assistance 

Will the guest curator have office space at the museum? If so, the guest curator may expect to make reasonable use of the museum’s facilities and support staff to carry out their responsibilities. The contract should list what reasonable use includes. Will the organizing museum provide support for the guest curator in the form of access to equipment (e.g., computer, phone, fax, or copy machine)? Will the guest curator be able to call on museum staff to make photocopies or scans of research materials? To what extent and in what manner will museum staff handle correspondence? If the guest curator will work offsite, long distance, or from home, do they have the use of the museum letterhead or a museum email account? 

What are the organizing museum’s obligations regarding safeguarding and insuring the guest curator’s belongings when  they are working at the museum without personal office space? If the guest curator brings objects, personal belongings, or other materials into the museum, the contract might state the extent of the museum’s obligations to safeguard and insure such items. Will such items be stored securely (e.g., in locked filing cabinets or storerooms) or be covered by the museum’s insurance policy covering damage or theft? 

Research Assistance 

Will the museum offer research support, such as a research assistant, or funds for books and photographs, printing or photocopying costs, or other resources? Will the guest curator be able to make reasonable use of the museum’s library and online research database subscriptions? Will the museum pay for postage and courier services for research correspondence? Neither party should assume that the museum will provide such support unless its obligation to do so is specified in the contract. 


Budget and Fundraising 

Available and necessary funds will inevitably affect exhibition-related decisions (e.g., loans, installation strategies, publication, timing, etc.) made by both the museum and guest curator. A preliminary discussion of the exhibition budget is essential at the start of contract negotiations between an organizing museum and a guest curator. Budget details or an overall cost range for the exhibition may be specified in the contract. Museums initiating exhibition proposals for which they seek to hire a guest curator should provide a projected budget; likewise, guest curators approaching museums with an original proposal should be able to provide insights about items that will affect the overall budget (e.g., required research travel, high-value or overseas loans, extensive use of technology), however they should not be expected to generate a total project budget. In addition to a cost estimation, it is also advisable that the contract includes a preliminary production schedule (see below) that outlines dates by which different elements of the budget (e.g., artist travel, shipping and crating, publication, etc.) will be determined. 

If grants or other sponsorship will determine the museum’s ability to produce the exhibition, those fundraising needs (and deadlines for securing them) should be addressed in the contract, as well as feasible options for modifying or canceling the project if those needs are not fully met. If the guest curator is expected to help write grant proposals, approach donors, or prepare significant materials for fundraising efforts, these expectations should also be specified in the contract. 

Production Schedule 

A contract may outline a preliminary timetable for the exhibition that identifies key deadlines for distinct tasks (e.g., finalizing checklist, submitting grant applications, delivering catalog content), as well as note who on the museum’s staff will be responsible for developing and managing a more detailed schedule with the guest curator. For those projects that include a significant publication, there may be two parallel timelines and two different project managers with whom the guest curator will work. The production schedule(s) will guide both the guest curator and the museum in fulfilling their respective responsibilities. 


Typically, the exhibition curator prepares a list of works of art to be included in the exhibition, specifying each object’s artist, title, medium, dimensions, and loan source. If the guest curator is not tasked with generating this checklist, then the contract should identify who will be responsible for drafting the preliminary checklist and who will revise and finalize the checklist. In most cases, a guest curator may obtain informal commitments from owners to lend, but it will be the museum’s responsibility to negotiate and finalize loan commitments with the lenders. Unless specifically authorized to do so by the museum, the guest curator may not purport to represent the museum or make any commitment on behalf of the museum to lenders. The museum usually is responsible for sending out the loan forms and associated correspondence, but the parties’ respective responsibilities should be clarified in the contract. 

Works of art in an exhibition may come from multiple sources, including the organizing museum’s own collection, outside loans from private collections, dealers, artists, or public institutions, or commissions from living artists. It is advisable for the contract to address who will be authorized to make decisions regarding each type of object. Example questions that might arise in each case are offered below: 

Collection Objects 

  • How will the guest curator gain access to the objects and their related files (in person or electronically)? 
  • Once an object has been selected, who makes decisions about needed conservation, framing, or other preparations for display? 

Outside Loans 

  • Who will make initial inquiries of lenders and who will send formal paperwork? 
  • Who will discuss loan fees if applicable? 
  • Who will maintain contact with lenders and ensure that all obligations of the loan are met, confirm credit lines, send thank you letters, etc.? 
  • Who will have responsibility for assuring authenticity of loans? 


  • How will the artist be selected?
  • Who initiates the invitation and who generates the artist’s contract? 
  • Who has final say over the artist’s proposal? 
  • Who will monitor the artist’s progress after a proposal is accepted? 

(See also Guidelines for Museums or Other Not-For-Profit Visual-Arts Institutions Working with Artists on Exhibitions and Commissioned Works

In addition to the primary artworks and objects on the checklist, collateral (archival or ephemeral) materials may be desirable. If so, who will locate and secure them? Who will be responsible for clarifying the specifications on these materials necessary for their display and/or duplication? 

Writing and Images 

Many museums maintain an in-house style guide and protocols for the development of different types of museum texts. A museum may also have standard procedures for reviewing, editing, and designing those texts. If they exist, these in-house standards should be shared with the guest curator during contract negotiations and be specified in the contract. 

Preliminary Texts and Images 

Preliminary materials are typically drafted and assembled at the start of an exhibition project and the guest curator may be expected to provide some or all of these materials early in the exhibition’s development, especially if they have initiated the proposal. These materials are likely to include the following: (1) a curatorial statement or précis of the idea for the exhibition and a working title; (2) select images of artworks in the exhibition (with captions, photo credits, and source of reproduction permissions) to be used on the museum’s website and in promotional materials; (3) a visual identity for the exhibition (notes suggesting colors, fonts, and other graphic elements); and (4) press releases and website copy. If the guest curator is expected to help generate or gather these materials, those responsibilities should be set out in the contract, and it should be clarified if or how the curator may be or may not be credited in the copy. If museum staff will write these documents, the guest curator should be informed of their role and rights in their review. 

Gallery Texts

The exhibition is likely to require labels and extended didactic text. Whether these are prepared, edited, or otherwise reviewed by the guest curator, and the schedule for doing so, should be set out in the contract. The following questions may also be addressed in the contract: What style and word count guideline is the guest curator to follow? Is the curator providing object information only (the so-called tombstone) or didactic information as well? Who will review this writing (an educator, in-house curator, registrar, editor)? What is the museum’s standard process for review and revisions? 

In addition to labels and extended didactic text, other signage may be needed, including instructions on how to interact with an artwork, safety warnings, or notices of violent or sexual content. Whether these are prepared or reviewed by the guest curator could be set out in the contract. 


The guest curator is often expected to write text for a catalog or brochure. The contract should set out the parties’ potential commitments in this respect: whether the guest curator will be the sole author of the text, whether the publication will contain a checklist, the approximate length of the text requested, and the approximate number of both color and black-and-white reproductions in the guest curator’s essay and in the catalog as a whole. The contract may also set out the guest curator’s involvement in other aspects of the publication such as deciding whether the publication will be distributed in print, digitally, or by some combination thereof; inviting additional authors to write; reviewing texts written by additional authors; securing images and permissions; and playing any roles in production, including design review, press checks, and the like. 

The contract may also need to specify which party will be responsible for clearing and crediting third parties’ intellectual property rights for quoted material and illustrations for the exhibition (e.g., wall labels or photographs), the accompanying catalog (e.g., photographs or other illustrations), or educational materials (e.g., brochures, study guides, electronic media). The contract should specify who is responsible for acquiring photographs and rights for reproduction for all of the above. In addition, the museum should ask that the guest curator warrant the originality (or proper crediting) of work produced for, or otherwise submitted to, the museum for the exhibition. See also the Intellectual Property section below.         



The exhibition is likely to require content for potential educational materials such as printed brochures or guides, hands-on activities, video or audio guides, blog posts, computer or smartphone applications, or other electronic formats. The museum and guest curator should discuss at the outset of a project the roles each will or will not play in determining what materials, including electronic media, are needed for the exhibition and where they will be located (e.g., exhibition galleries, separate education spaces, etc.). Whether the museum or guest curator expects the guest curator to play a role in writing, designing, editing, or otherwise reviewing educational materials, and the schedule for doing so, could be set out in the contract. 


Many museums train staff and volunteers to guide visitors through an exhibition; museums might also train their security officers or other staff members in the exhibition’s content, both intellectual and physical. Whether the museum or guest curator expects the guest curator to play a role in this training (through written materials, lectures, exhibition walkthroughs, or other means) should be set out in the contract. 


Many museums will develop educational programs related to the exhibition. Whether and to what extent the guest curator will play a role in developing these events should be set out in the contract. These expectations are especially important to clarify at the outset of a project if it is known that the exhibition will be accompanied by a major symposium, lecture series, or college course. What roles will the guest curator play in identifying and inviting symposium speakers and guest lecturers, or proposing and developing curriculum? In addition to these large-scale educational projects, what other programs might involve the guest curator? Does the museum expect the guest curator to give public lectures, tours, or other presentations? Will those educational responsibilities be compensated above and beyond compensation for curatorial obligations? Will these events be recorded and distributed? If so, the contract should contain a provision concerning the curator’s permission for the recordings and specifying their uses. 

Exhibition Design and Installation 

Typically, the layout of an exhibition will be the responsibility of the guest curator and the design of that exhibition (e.g., wall colors, display cases, etc.) will be the responsibility of the museum; however, the exact distribution of these responsibilities will vary. In addition to delineating each other’s roles in the layout and design of an exhibition, the museum and guest curator should discuss the timing of such roles. Is the guest curator involved only in advance proposals or will they also be on-site during installation? If the exhibition includes the creation of a site-specific artwork by an artist, what roles will the guest curator and museum play in overseeing and directing the creation of that artwork? As best able, a contract between a museum and guest curator should not only outline the roles each will play in the exhibition’s design and installation, but should also note who on the museum’s staff (e.g., in-house curator, interpreter, exhibition designer, preparator, registrar) will be the guest curator’s primary contact throughout the process. 

In addition to presenting the artworks in an exhibition, a museum is also responsible for protecting those artworks. Typically, the museum will make decisions as to what means (e.g., stanchions, additional signage, etc.) are necessary to ensure artwork safety. Whether and to what extent the guest curator will participate in these decisions should be discussed and may be specified in the contract. 

Press and Promotion 

Typically, a museum’s press or marketing manager will handle all aspects of the exhibition’s promotion. The degree to which this individual will expect the guest curator to contribute written descriptions of the exhibition, images, or quotations for press releases could be noted in the contract. Increasingly, much exhibition promotion occurs online through social media. What roles the guest curator is expected, encouraged, or permitted to play in promoting the exhibition by these means could likewise be noted in the contract. 

Members of the press regularly wish to speak with an exhibition’s curator or artists in the exhibition. What are the museum and guest curator’s expectations for how the guest curator will interface with the press in advance of the exhibition, during its installation, and after its opening? What roles will the guest curator play in providing press access to exhibiting artists in advance of the exhibition, during its installation, and after its opening? Because press and publicity for the exhibition may not be fully addressed until the exhibition is about to open, or is on view, there may be aspects of this work that cannot be specified in the contract. Ideally the museum will involve the guest curator in conversations about exhibition public relations as the need develops. The museum may have a reasonable expectation that the guest curator will be available to speak to the press about the exhibition in person or by phone, and the guest curator can reasonably expect that the museum will alert the press to the role of the guest curator in the creation of the exhibition and facilitate contact between the press and the guest curator for interviews or quotes. 

Responsibilities at Opening 

A contract between a museum and guest curator should outline their expectations of the guest curator’s role at the exhibition opening. Will the guest curator be at the opening and will this attendance be at the museum’s expense? Will the guest curator be expected to give tours or lectures at the opening—to whom and when? In addition to a public reception, will the guest curator be expected to attend private events for museum donors, exhibition lenders, or other select groups? 

Responsibilities at Closing 

What expectations do the museum and guest curator have for the guest curator’s role in communicating with donors and lenders at the close of an exhibition? Should thank you notes be sent directly from the guest curator or from the guest curator via the museum? These questions should be addressed in the contract. 

Traveling Exhibitions 

The museum or guest curator may desire for the exhibition to travel to additional venues. Ideally, plans to travel an exhibition can be addressed at the start of contract negotiations between the guest curator and the organizing museum, but that is not always the case. If plans to travel an exhibition develop after an initial contract is signed, both parties should be prepared to discuss the issues related to traveling the exhibition and to amend the original contract. The following questions should be considered: What roles will the museum and guest curator play in preparing information for potential tour venues? Who will approach potential venues, and who will negotiate the venue contracts? Once a tour is in place, who will manage the crating, shipping, and insurance for the loans? What access will the traveling venues have to the guest curator? What expectations do the organizing museum and guest curator have for the guest curator’s role at additional venues? Will the guest curator have the right to approve/reject changes to the exhibition (in checklist, texts, or design) at other venues? What additional compensation will the guest curator receive for work done in securing tour venues and in presenting the exhibition at those venues? 



There may be a variety of circumstances in which a museum chooses to hire a guest curator (see Project Initiation above). In each circumstance, ownership of the original exhibition concept may be different, residing with either the guest curator or the museum. It is important at the outset of the contract negotiation to state who originated the exhibition concept and who, therefore, may claim the intellectual property related to the project as it develops, and in the event of breach of contract. 

When a guest curator proposes an exhibition concept to a museum, it is appropriate for the museum to recognize the curator’s substantial intellectual investment in that idea. Accordingly, the parties’ relationship should be founded on respect for the guest curator’s exhibition concept. If the museum declines a guest curator’s exhibition proposal, then the guest curator is, of course, free to approach other institutions with that same proposal. In short, during the period prior to a museum’s agreement to mount an exhibition based on the guest curator’s concept, their proprietary interest in that idea must be acknowledged. 

Ownership of Work Produced (Exhibition) 

Once an exhibition is under contract negotiation, there are two alternative approaches to the ownership of and rights in the guest curator’s work product in connection with the exhibition. By way of background, under US copyright law, the guest curator owns all rights in any catalog, extended didactic text, labels, brochures, or any other textual, graphical, audiovisual or audio work that they have authored. The exception to this rule is that where a contract so provides, ownership can be transferred to the museum, either because the materials are expressly described as “works for hire” or because ownership is assigned outright by the contract. The museum, however, also has certain rights once it has agreed to mount and has begun to invest in the exhibition. The parties’ respective ownership rights in the intellectual property created in the course of an exhibition, including the catalog and other works, should be expressly addressed in the contract. 

The first approach to ownership of intellectual property is that guest curators retain all ownership rights in all work (i.e., the items described in the preceding paragraph) that they produce for the exhibition. Many guest curators prefer this approach. Even if this approach is adopted by the parties, however, it is usually the case that extended didactic text, labels, and brochures will become the property of museums, whether as works-for-hire or by express assignment. Conversely, the guest curator typically retains ownership of their preliminary research materials, preparatory documents and texts, and initial loan lists. When the museum and the guest curator agree that the guest curator retains all rights in and to the materials they have created, it is recommended that the contract specify in detail which rights are licensed to the museum, and for which materials, and whether the license is on an exclusive or nonexclusive basis. In addition, the terms of the license and the media (printed and/or electronic) in which the guest curator’s works might be reproduced and distributed should be set out. Whether the museum has the right to reproduce and distribute (i.e., reprint on a nonexclusive basis or otherwise) the catalog or other works, or prepare subsequent editions, both during and after an exhibition, would need to be negotiated. 

The second approach to ownership is that materials authored by the guest curator for the exhibition, once the parties have entered into an agreement, are considered works-for-hire for, or are expressly assigned to, the museum. Museums usually insist that they own all intellectual property in the work products created for an exhibition because they need the flexibility to adapt and make use of such works (in light of budgetary or other constraints) without having to negotiate further with the curator, or so that they have the right to pursue third-party infringers. When the materials are works-for-hire or all ownership rights are assigned to the museum, the guest curator may subsequently need to obtain certain rights with respect to their work product. To accommodate these needs, the contract should provide for a license back to the guest curator for specified purposes. These might include reproduction and distribution of the works for the guest curator’s personal or professional use, educational purposes, or preparation and distribution of derivative works, such as other written materials (e.g., books or monographs), films, or digital works based on or incorporating the materials produced for the exhibition itself. 

Ownership of Work Produced (Catalog) 

With respect to the catalog, the parties should recognize that due to budgetary or other considerations beyond the control of the museum or publisher, the museum or publisher may wish to modify the catalog text, whether by editing or abridging the guest curator’s contribution or by adding or deleting essays contributed by others. Where the catalog text is a work-for-hire or the rights have been assigned to the museum, the museum has the right to make such modifications without consulting the author. In such circumstances, the guest curator may want the contract to provide that they have a right of approval. Even where there is no contractual right of approval, however, the museum should and usually does make every effort to consult with the guest curator in recognition of their substantial contribution to the catalog. 

Typically, the museum would own all rights in the design of the catalog. Where the guest curator is the sole or principal author of the catalog text (perhaps excluding a preface by museum staff, a checklist, or similar ancillary content), they may want to have the right to be consulted on, or have approval regarding, the catalog design, as well as the final text and illustrations. The extent of the guest curator’s rights in this regard should be specified in the contract. 


The guest curator is entitled to receive appropriate credit for their contribution to the exhibition. The contract could specify where such credit should appear, such as in the various publications associated with the exhibition, including press releases and brochures. The contract should expressly state whether the museum has the right to use the guest curator’s likeness and for what purposes. The contract could also specify the placement and size of the credit in various media, whether printed or electronic. Similarly, the extent to which the guest curator’s name will appear in the exhibition itself should be set forth in the contract. Although some museums may have standardized in-house policies regarding how, when, and where a curator is credited for work on an exhibition, those policies may need to be adjusted when a museum hires a guest curator. For instance, some museums prefer not to identify the exhibition curator on the title wall of an exhibition that has been generated by in-house museum staff, yet when a museum hires a guest curator, it may want to indicate that the exhibition is the work of an outside professional. Moreover, it may be important to the guest curator that they are publicly credited on the title wall. While guest curators should in all cases be respectful of in-house standards and policies at the museum, museums should likewise be flexible and generous in crediting the guest curator for their substantial work. Ideally, the guest curator should be named in all public forums including social media, websites, press releases, and public speaking at exhibition-related events (fundraising events, lectures, symposia, exhibition opening, etc.) by museum administration. Within the museum, it should also be clear to all museum staff, and any other individuals related to the exhibition project that the exhibition is the work of a guest curator. 

The museum’s curators and other staff often make very substantial contributions to an exhibition. In particular, an in-house curator may contribute to, for example, the exhibition’s underlying conception, associated research, or the catalog. The contract should specify whether the in-house curator, or other staff, will be credited as “project director” or “co-curator” and/or “coauthor” of the catalog or whether their contributions should be otherwise acknowledged and, if so, in what way. In addition, research assistants and others who contribute to the content of exhibitions and catalogs should be acknowledged fully for the work they do, particularly if, for example, they have authored a section of the catalog. The contract should address the issues relating to credits to avoid misunderstandings among the guest curators, in-house curators, assistants, and other staff. 

Ownership and/or Sharing of Materials at Close of Project 

At the end of the project, who owns the related research materials and other notes from the exhibition project? What is the guest curator’s obligation to archive their work for the museum? What is the organizing museum’s obligation to share a final summary of the project (budget, press, installation photos) and future access to the institutional exhibition archive to the guest curator? When the exhibition closes at the organizing museum, and any traveling tour of the exhibition to additional venues is concluded, a museum typically archives the exhibition records. This material may include budget records, grant proposals, correspondence with lenders and donors, research notes, draft checklists, press releases and press clippings, etc. A guest curator may plan to do the same with the materials they have accumulated during the project. Both parties may consider specifying in the contract what obligation either has to share the accumulated records of the exhibition work, and what access in the long-term future either party may have to request access to materials from the other’s archive. 

In the course of mounting an exhibition, a museum routinely constructs or installs special cases, frames, enlargements of photographs, wall texts, and the like. All these materials are assumed to be property of the museum upon the closing of the exhibition, unless otherwise specified by the contract. 


The parties should negotiate, and the contract should set out the manner and amount of compensation paid by the museum to the guest curator in recognition of the expertise that they bring to an exhibition and for their work products. In these negotiations, the parties should take into account that the payment should be fair, in light of the time necessary to render the services and the working circumstances of the guest curator. First-time guest curators should seek advice in these matters from more senior colleagues, as they may be likely to underestimate the workload involved in an exhibition project. 

Curatorial Fee Variables 

The term “guest curator” encompasses a broad range of individuals with a variety of professional skills and expertise. Although compensation for guest curatorial work will necessarily differ among institutions, museums are discouraged from adopting a single flat fee or honorarium for all guest curatorial projects at their institution. Instead, museums should consider each guest curator’s qualifications and the scope of work they will be expected to undertake. 

In addition to the guest curator’s qualifications and scope of responsibilities, their availability for the project should also affect compensation. Is the guest curator independent/freelance and therefore able to devote significant hours to the project and be available for meetings and correspondence during business hours? Does the guest curator have full-time professional obligations at another job (e.g., as a professor at a college or university, or as a curator at a different museum) with limited availability to the exhibition under negotiation? Does the guest curator bring extensive curatorial experience to the project that will enable them to oversee most aspects of the entire exhibition? Does the guest curator primarily bring scholarly expertise, but little or no curatorial experience, which will require significant in-house curatorial oversight? 

Guest curators are often paid as contract employees and receive their compensation pre-tax. They generally will not be entitled to receive any insurance, vacation, health, or other benefits for which the museum’s own staff is eligible. Any staff benefits to which the guest curator is entitled should be set out in the contract. 

Museums should be aware of factors that may motivate a guest curator to request a specific fee or, alternately, to offer their work for little or no compensation. Salaried professors with full benefits may see a guest curatorial opportunity as a chance to advance their scholarship, and may request only a small honorarium. Independent curators who pay out-of-pocket health insurance might ask for a fee that seems high, but their full-time availability and significant professional skills may enable them to manage the entire project with minimal oversight from in-house staff. As these factors suggest, there is no one-size-fits-all model for determining compensation, and museums and guest curators should be flexible and fair in how they negotiate compensation. 

For institutions with one or more in-house curators, it may be possible to propose compensation with a sliding-scale model based on comparable work typically undertaken by a staff member with similar professional qualifications. For example, if the guest curator’s skills and scope of work most closely relate to those of an associate curator on the museum’s staff, and that associate curator’s total compensation (including benefits) is $N per year, the museum may estimate that its associate curator typically spends approximately one-fifth of their time on a single exhibition each year. Therefore, compensation for the guest curator could be proportionally estimated at approximately 1/5 $N per year, and a multiyear project might be negotiated at one-fifth of $N per year x 2 (for two years), x 3 (for three years), etc. Compensation for a senior scholar, or a well-credentialed independent curator, or a guest curator at a junior level, might be adjusted upward or downward accordingly. This sliding-scale model should be based upon in-house salaries at the organizing museum and is not meant to suggest that guest curators can expect the same rate as they undertake various projects at institutions with different levels of staff support and resources. It may also be the case at smaller museums, nonprofit galleries, and regional art centers, that there is no salaried curator on staff upon which to base a proportional level of compensation. These small institutions may rely heavily on guest curators for exhibition projects, and might do so with a tight budget, but in all cases the curator’s workload, professional skills, and length of the project should be significant factors in determining appropriate compensation. 


There are three commonly accepted practices of compensating guest curators for their services: (1) an amount to be paid for the entire project (i.e., for all the services set out in the contract), or for the entire project except the catalog, for which separate compensation is negotiated (see Contributions to a Publication below), or a separate royalty agreement is made, either for only the trade edition or for both the trade and museum editions; (2) payment on an agreed-upon per diem or hourly basis; or (3) an honorarium for a discrete portion of the curatorial project. 

If the guest curator is responsible for all aspects of managing an exhibition (particularly when a substantial scholarly catalog is involved), it may be preferable for the parties to define the tasks and agree on an amount (project fee) to be paid for that work. In this case, the amount may be broken into separate payments based on a schedule of calendar dates or by completion of benchmarks. For example, a contract might specify one-third payment upon signing the agreement, one-third payment upon completing the loan list, and a final one-third upon opening the exhibition. Similarly, the parties may wish to contract for discrete items (the loan list, wall lists, audio works, the catalog, etc.) and assign certain payments to the delivery of each item. In either case, the contract should note any financial penalties for delivery past the scheduled due date, and when such penalties might be incurred.  

A second method of compensation—to pay the guest curator on a per diem or hourly basis—may be appropriate for tasks where the amount of work is more difficult to determine at the time the contract is negotiated. Examples of such projects may include cataloging an uninventoried collection or bringing some other expertise to bear on an unorganized group of objects. Again, the contract should specify the rate, schedule, and procedures for invoicing and payment.  

A third method of compensation may be an honorarium. This method of compensation might be suitable for very specific circumstances when the exhibition project is brief or small in scale, such as a semester-based project with students, or when the guest curatorial role is limited in scope, perhaps to involve a well-known scholar in an advisory capacity. If an honorarium is proposed for this kind of limited guest curatorial responsibility, the contract should very clearly define obligations for both parties. 

Honoraria may also be provided when a curatorial proposal is selected through a competition or call for proposals. These kinds of programs often enable smaller institutions to mount lively and inventive exhibitions of contemporary art, and they provide emerging curators with an opportunity to gain valuable professional experience. If this is the case, the time frame for the exhibition project should be limited (not more than one year) and the scope of work should be modest. The honorarium should be specifically identified as curatorial compensation, and not intended to support additional exhibition expenses such as shipping or an artist’s fees. 

Though rare, a guest curator may wish to provide their services on a voluntary basis or as an in-kind contribution. Some guest curators may be academics with full-time faculty positions or graduate students who wish to undertake an exhibition project as part of their research pursuits—more common among university-based museums. The terms of academic appointments or restrictions imposed by a student’s grant funds or university fellowship, may prohibit them from receiving compensation for “outside” work. In this event, museums contracting academics or students who are prohibited from receiving a curatorial payment should ensure that the individual is able to receive compensation in some other appropriate form, such as a course release for a professor or a course credit for a student. In general, however, for the benefit of the profession as a whole, guest curators are discouraged from donating work and museums are encouraged to always provide some form of compensation.  

Potential Conflicts of Interest 

Individuals with commercial interests, such as art advisors, art dealers, and gallerists, or estate representatives or relatives of deceased artists may also serve as guest curators. In these cases, museums should be aware of a potential conflict of interest with the nonprofit goals of their institution. Will the guest curator be promoting artworks or artists in the museum exhibition that they also sell to clients in other forums? Will the guest curator financially benefit, in the form of market values or publicity, from the scholarship or press efforts undertaken by the museum? Assuming the guest curator is financially compensated by the museum, are they also permitted to profit from the sale of art (included in the exhibition or by artists on view in the exhibition) during or after the exhibition? This document advocates that all guest curators should be paid fair compensation for their intellectual and professional contributions to an exhibition; however, when contracting with an individual who has commercial interests in the art world, museums should be especially clear about the boundaries between the guest curatorial role and the individual’s other professional commitments. For further guidelines on this issue, museums and guest curators may want to consult the “Code of Ethics” guidelines provided by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors on their respective websites. In general, guest curatorial work undertaken for a nonprofit museum or gallery is to serve the public good and not to advance individual financial gain. 

Preliminary Work and Initiation of Contract 

Guest curators cannot expect that expenses incurred prior to the signing of a contract will be reimbursed, although the work already undertaken to craft an original proposal should be considered in assessing what the curator brings to the project. In the case of an original concept developed and proposed by a guest curator to a museum, guest curators may have already undertaken a substantial amount of research (often unpaid work) by the time they enter into contract negotiations with a museum. Therefore, once the museum has expressed clear interest in the proposal, the museum should make every effort to expedite a contract and establish a payment schedule. It is unethical for a museum to express strong interest in a proposal, encourage a guest curator to advance the project, and/or request multiple meetings or site visits while simultaneously delaying a contract and the start of payment. If an exhibition proposal is compelling but has significant speculative elements, such as complicated loans, both parties may benefit from a preliminary contract that specifies a flat fee for exploratory work. At the end of a set time for this preliminary research, perhaps six months or one year, the parties can together reassess the viability of the project and choose whether or not to undertake a long-term contract to fully realize the exhibition. 

Contributions to a Publication 

In addition to the curatorial services that they may provide, guest curators may be asked to contribute to a publication. The scope of the publication project, whether a small pamphlet, brochure, catalog, or multiauthor catalog, should be detailed in the contract and should inform how compensation is determined for the guest curator. A guest curator’s involvement in a publication may take many forms, including an invitation to contribute an essay, a request to oversee the entire publication project (working with an editor and designer) as author or co-author, or serving as coordinator or editor for contributions from other authors. Whether and to what extent guest curators should be entitled to a separate fee for their additional work on a publication (e.g., their contribution of a specific essay, or royalties tied to the sale of the catalog) should be addressed in the contract. 

The policies of museums and other publishers regarding catalog and other book publishing fees and royalties are complicated and vary significantly. In most (but not all) cases, guest curators will be paid a flat fee for their contributions to a publication. Some guest curators, however, may prefer an alternative, royalty-based method of compensation, which would reward them more directly for their labors in connection with a catalog. Under this approach, they would receive an agreed-upon percentage of the wholesale price of each catalog sold (a distinction may be made between those sales within and those outside of the museum); any such arrangement, along with a payment schedule, should be set out in the contract. 

The guest curator and the museum or publisher should agree in the contract as to how many copies of the publication the guest curator will receive gratis, at what discount they will be entitled to purchase additional catalogs, and how many copies the museum or publisher will send out to reviewers and colleagues at the guest curator’s request. (See also the CAA Guidelines Regarding the Hiring of Catalogue Essayists.

Adjustments Related to Cancellation or Timeline Revisions 

The contract should include provisions for the project’s cancellation by the museum, such as fundraising or loan constraints, that the exhibition must be canceled by the museum after the guest curator has already been contracted and begun work. (See also Terms and Termination below.)  

The contract should provide for this possibility and specify what compensation the curator will receive for work already undertaken. It may also be the case that the exhibition dates must be changed by the museum, either earlier or later, from those specified in the original contract. Ideally both parties bring a level of commitment to be flexible about these kinds of calendar complications. However, the museum should be prepared to provide additional compensation if the revised dates require additional work from the guest curator, due to an accelerated pace or a longer commitment. If the cancellation or change of dates of the exhibition is at the request of the guest curator, they should also be prepared to forfeit or adjust compensation appropriately to reflect the revised contract. 

Reimbursement for Travel 

The parties should negotiate to what extent travel costs incurred by the guest curator will be reimbursed, perhaps based on specific budgeted amounts or numbers of trips. As the parties enter into a contract negotiation, it is reasonable for guest curators to provide a list of likely travel requirements and an estimated budget (e.g., for research, checklist development, etc.) with the initial exhibition proposal, especially if the exhibition concept is developed by the guest curator. The contract may also include a contingency sum for unanticipated travel requirements. In addition to travel for research, the guest curator may also be reimbursed by the museum for travel to attend meetings at which their attendance is requested by the museum, to oversee installation of the exhibition, to visit tour venues, and to attend the opening of the exhibition. Understandings in this regard should be set out in the contract, perhaps with estimated costs, or a budgetary ceiling by category, for such travel. 

Reimbursement for Research Materials 

The contract should specify whether office and other administrative costs incurred by the guest curator in connection with the exhibition will be reimbursed. A guest curator can invoice for expenses in connection with the preparation and development of an exhibition, such as the gathering and organization of research materials (e.g., photographs and books) or office expenses (e.g., telephone, photocopying, courier, and secretarial services). The extent to which the guest curator may be reimbursed for such expenses should be specified in the contract. If the museum reimburses the guest curator for materials such as books, those materials become the property of the museum, and should be delivered to the museum by the guest curator at the completion of the project, unless otherwise specified in the contract. 

Additional Engagements 

It is reasonable for the museum to expect the guest curator to participate in duties and events often associated with the final installation and opening of an exhibition, without additional compensation. These duties and events might include tours to train docents or museum staff, press walk-throughs, or a private or public tour or gallery talk before or during the opening reception. However, if the museum requests a public lecture or on-stage event (such as a curator “conversation” or interview with artist) at the opening reception or during the run of the exhibition, or if the museum wants the guest curator to organize or moderate a symposium related to the exhibition, these more substantial events should be items for additional compensation and the museum should be prepared to pay for travel, per diem, and accommodations for the guest curator if necessary. 

Traveling Exhibition  

It is often desirable for a museum to travel an exhibition to one or more additional venues. In addition to circulating the exhibition content and scholarship to a broader audience, traveling an exhibition to multiple venues can be a way for the organizing museum to defray costs associated with shipping and loan fees or to raise additional funds in support of the catalog or overall exhibition costs. Ideally, the intent to seek additional venues is clear at the outset of contract negotiations with the guest curator, and the guest curator’s responsibilities related to those additional venues can be established early in the project. However, plans to tour an exhibition may develop after the project is underway and issues related to additional venues therefore might not be addressed in the guest curator’s contract. Because traveling an exhibition involves both the circulation of a guest curator’s intellectual work, as well as potential additional work for the guest curator, the organizing museum should either address compensation for a planned tour in the initial contract or be prepared to revisit the contract and adjust compensation as necessary if a tour develops. 

Contracts for traveling an exhibition are typically negotiated directly between museums, and in those negotiations the organizing museum should act as an advocate for the guest curator’s involvement at additional venues. In rare cases, the guest curator may not need to be involved, or may not want to be involved, with the presentation of the exhibition at additional venues. More often, however, the guest curator’s involvement is essential to the exhibition’s presentation at each venue. Therefore, once plans for a tour of the exhibition are established, the guest curator’s contract (or revised contract) should provide that the organizing museum will ensure that additional venues support the guest curator’s exhibition concept, and that any proposed changes to the checklist, didactic materials, or other aspects of the presentation are vetted and approved by the guest curator and organizing museum. The guest curator’s contract could provide that the museum’s contracts with such other institutions incorporate (whether by attachment or otherwise) all such terms. (See the previous section, Scope of Work: Exhibition Tour, for additional discussion of this topic.) 

The guest curator’s work obligations at each venue should be specified in the contract. Will the guest curator need to travel to the other venues for meetings, site visits, or installation? Will the guest curator need to correspond with the additional venues to revise the exhibition design or layout, or substantially rewrite or add didactic materials? The guest curator and the organizing museum should clarify that these details will be addressed by the organizing museum in the venue contract on behalf of the guest curator. It may be determined that once negotiations proceed to a certain point with a potential venue, the guest curator will be invited to negotiate their specific work obligations directly with each additional venue. Throughout these negotiations, however, the organizing museum should understand its role as an advocate for the guest curator. If the additional venues also request an event such as a public lecture or symposium, this should also be an item for additional compensation. 

If the exhibition will travel to additional venues beyond the organizing museum, through partnership with other institutions or rental as a traveling exhibition, the guest curator should receive additional compensation for both the distribution of their intellectual work and for the additional work required to present the exhibition at each new venue. Because tours can develop or expand unexpectedly, and sometimes after the close of the exhibition and the conclusion of the guest curator’s work obligations, it is important that compensation be addressed in advance so that he or she is assured proper recourse. 

Compensation for the distribution of the guest curator’s intellectual work might be a flat, per-venue honorarium or it might be a percentage of each booking fee paid to the organizing museum; either type of per-venue compensation allows flexibility should venues be dropped or added. Compensation for additional work at each venue (additional didactic texts, revisions to checklist or layout, etc.) could be paid by the organizing museum in the same per-venue manner (and accommodated by the organizing museum setting its booking fees accordingly). Alternatively, if each venue will require a different amount of work from the guest curator, it may instead be best for each additional venue to provide compensation directly to the guest curator. Although in this case the guest curator may ultimately receive compensation directly from a traveling venue, ideally any details regarding the guest curator’s compensation are included in their original (or revised) contract with the organizing museum. The guest curator should not have to seek compensation from additional venues without the support of the organizing museum, and the organizing museum’s contract with each venue should specify how payment to the guest curator for the additional scope of work will be handled. Each additional venue should also be prepared to pay for travel expenses, lodging and per diem for the guest curator if they will be required to be on-site for meetings, site visits, or the installation and opening, and these details should also be addressed in the contract. 


The terms of the agreement between the guest curator and the museum generally will expire on the closing of the exhibition and the return of any borrowed works of art to the lenders, unless otherwise specified in the contract or by subsequent amendment agreed upon by the parties. 

Breach of Contract 

The agreement should address how a cancellation or breach of contract by either the museum or the guest curator would be resolved. Two issues in particular should be considered: fees already paid to, or owed by, the guest curator; and the ownership of intellectual property rights. 

Remedies if Guest Curator Breaches Obligations 

The museum may wish to have some remedies should the guest curator not perform their services, or fail to do so on a timely basis, or if their work is deemed by the museum to be unacceptable. These remedies may include financial penalties, unless the curator’s failure is occasioned by circumstances beyond their control (e.g., illness). Furthermore, where the guest curator breaches their obligations, the contract may provide that the museum can terminate the arrangement, perhaps on the payment of certain amounts to the guest curator. If the guest curator must cancel the contract for personal or professional reasons, does the museum maintain the right to pursue the project if it originated the exhibition concept? If the guest curator has originated the exhibition concept, do they maintain the right to bring the project to a different museum? If the museum maintains the right to continue the project without the guest curator, the extent to which the guest curator’s role in the creation of the project is acknowledged should be specified and agreed to by all parties. 

Remedies if Museum Breaches Obligations 

The contract may provide for remedies if the museum breaches its obligations. Should the museum pay some compensation in lieu of the guest curator’s loss of the total agreed-upon fee? If the guest curator has originated the exhibition concept, and the museum cancels the contracted exhibition, what are the guest curator’s rights regarding ownership of the concept? The contract could provide that, upon termination, the guest curator has the right to take the project to another institution. If the museum does not adhere to the agreed-upon timetable for moving forward and therefore renders the project dormant, then the contract might provide that the museum has, in effect, canceled the exhibition. In that circumstance, the contract could state that the guest curator could terminate the contract and has the right to approach other institutions regarding the exhibition; they might not be able to do so, however, absent permission from the museum, if the project was conceived jointly by the guest curator and museum staff. 

If, however, the organizing museum originated the exhibition concept, and it must cancel the exhibition, what are the institutional rights regarding ownership of the exhibition idea? If the organizing museum wants to cancel the contract, does it maintain the right to undertake the project with an in-house curator or a different guest curator? In certain circumstances, the museum may wish to terminate the agreement with the guest curator while, nonetheless, moving forward to mount the exhibition. To what extent it should be able to do so, and whether the guest curator would be entitled to compensation for their role in developing the exhibition, and for services rendered, or reimbursement for expenses incurred, up to the date of termination could be set out in the contract. The organizing museum’s right to revive the project subsequently, and whether it is able to do so with or without the involvement of the guest curator, should be addressed in the contract. If the museum materially breaches provisions of the contract (e.g. by altering the content of the catalog, failing to credit the curator properly, or changing the concept of the exhibition without the curator’s consent), the contract should state the museum’s obligation to cure the breach to the reasonable satisfaction of the guest curator. 

Remedies for Other Disagreements/Cancellations 

With respect to the catalog, it is possible that the parties may disagree about the written content. The contract should address what might happen in such a circumstance, including whether the guest curator could publish the catalog on their own (assuming that the catalog would otherwise have been a work-for-hire or been assigned to the museum) without the museum either being associated with it or paying for its production. 

The agreement may provide that the exhibition will be canceled if the museum fails to receive funding grants. 

More broadly, the museum may wish to negotiate for the right to cancel the exhibition and terminate the agreement at any time (and for any reason) for an agreed-upon buy-out fee. 

In one or more of the above circumstances, where the museum elects to terminate the contract, the guest curator may wish to negotiate for a cancellation fee. Any such fee should be set forth in the contract. 

In the event of museum cancellation, the extent to which research materials purchased by the museum for the exhibition should be given or lent to the guest curator to assist them in realizing the project and publication of the catalog elsewhere, should be negotiated. The contract may expressly address the museum’s right to retain ownership over research notes or other materials. The contract may also address the parties’ respective rights of ownership in the text of the catalog, and the right to publish it elsewhere, if, prior to the termination of the agreement, the guest curator has completed and delivered such text to the museum. In such a circumstance, either any licenses to the museum might terminate (where the curator had retained all ownership rights) or, in the case of a work-for-hire or assignment, all rights might be assigned back to the curator. 

Revised in 2023 by Professional Practices Committee Member Jeffrey Abt, Wayne State University, and Museum Committee Members Monica Andrews (chair), Harvard University, and Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, the College of New Jersey. 

Originally revised by Rachael Arauz, independent curator, Boston; Tracy Fitzpatrick, Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY Purchase; Saadia N. Lawton, College Art Association; and Emily Stamey, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; chaired by Patricia McDonnell, Wichita Art Museum; with the advice and approval of the 2015 and 2016 Museum Committees.