3 Lessons Learned as a Curator

 Yesterday, a young soon-to-be-curator asked me for advice on curating and I wanted to share my response.  There are a lot of best practices and field experience that are better learned on the job but I outlined three important lessons I wish I would have known (or am still relearning).  Let me know if I'm missing something.


Hello Lucas!

I might have just gotten a job as a coordinator for an art walk for a town near where I live. It doesn't pay too well, but I figured it's a great resume builder! My job would be to find artists and curate shows. I am completely new at this, so I was wondering if you had any general advice to give me. I know you have much experience.

Also, when you have curated shows with artists who aren't local, how do you receive the artwork? Does the artist pay to ship to you, or do you pay to ship it?

Thank you very much for any advice you're able to give!

"Name Withheld"

A shop named Curator at Stow-on-the-Wold, England (photo by Katie Murphy)
via a brief history of curating as a word from the Manitoba Museum

Hey "Name Withheld",

So you want to curate?!  Boy curating can be really fun but also really hard (and I don't mean "boy curating", I mean "boy, curating").  Here's three things I wish I had known in the beginning.

1. I hate to open with this because it sounds jaded but... usually 5 - 15% of the people involved in the show will complain about something (the other way to look at it is that only 85 - 95% of the people involved will be happy).  It doesn't mean the show isn't good, or that the artist isn't happy but someone is going to complain so be ready for that.  Still, if one of every ten artists, audience, staff, etc. complain then that's still an "A" grade and you're about par for the course.  Don't let it dissuade you.  If there's truly a mistake and can be fixed with minimal effort, do so.  Otherwise just apologize and hold your energy for the next project.

2. Always try to branch outside your network.  Being a curator is not about showing your friends or your friends' friends.  Curators are partly paid to KNOW artists, not just select them.  If you keep seeing the same artists in your shows (or other curator's shows) then you're circling the drain of a tapered career.  Try to see new shows at new spaces and learn new works by new artists.  Consider it job security.

3. And to answer your question about shipping: unless it's explicitly stated in your organizations policy or loan agreement, then ANY costs are up for negotiation.  There isn't really a hard rule about who pays for what, it varies from gallery to gallery, institution to institution and artist to artist.  I recommend figuring out what is and is not paid for by your organization historically (printed matter, framing, shipping, mailings, install, electronic equipment, etc) before you start guaranteeing anyone a show.  Anything that isn't explicitly stated will be up for negotiation later.  Remember that you can always agree to pay for more things later but you can't (or shouldn't) take back what you already offered to pay.  Reneg'ing is the kiss of death.

Hope that helps?  Let me know if you have any more questions.  

Lucas