Meeting and working with curators

A curator organises exhibitions. They research artists who interest them and invite them to take part. A curator might also organise shipping art work, insurance, and promotion. Meeting curators who work with artists like you will help you to get exhibitions.

Types of curator

Most curators have an interest in a particular kind of work. Some work with performance art, others with socially engaged practice, for example. For others, their interest might be around a particular theme or topic. Find out what interests different curators before thinking about getting in touch. You will have more success with curators if you only contact them about work they are already interested in. Sometimes the gallery director is also the curator.

If you want an exhibition in an art gallery you need to get to know curators who might be interested in your work.

My preference is that I choose whom I work with, that I identify the practices I am willing to merge with; and together we decide in what we are about to engage, and how. I approach people that I am interested in working with or sometimes people are recommended to me. I do receive unsolicited proposals. Usually they simply get returned as I’ve usually got something boiling myself that I am seeking to realise – but I love being informed of what’s going on.

Jason E. Bowman, artist, academic and curator

Curators can also be helpful in thinking about your art work and your career in a new way. They might have useful contacts to help promote you and your work outside of the project they work on with you. Many curators work witht he same artists more than once.

Before temporary art exhibitions became so popular, a curator looked after and organised a collection. Most curators had a qualification in art history. From about the middle 1960’s art critics and artists started curated exhibitions too. Now, although many curators still started as art historians or academics, many also began as artists. Many more will have studied curating at university.

A major part of a curator’s work is to make an exhibition that works for a particular audience. They can work with an artist to help develop their work. Curators have to be quite practical so be ready to talk about how to transport your work or installed. Curators are always looking at art and speaking with artists and often visit artists studios. They often write catalogue essays or art criticism.

Curators who work in a gallery usually have to show a range of art work that reflects the gallery in which they work. If the gallery has a collection, that is likely to be a focus of their work.

Institutional curators believe it is their responsibility to reflect the broad range and diverse aspects of contemporary art now. Essentially the role is to reflect the function of a public institution, and its intrinsic value in contextualising art for a wide audience. … Regional arts galleries in the UK are modes for the progression of an artist’s career, and offer different levels at which an artist can exhibit work at different stages of their career.

Paula Orell, curator formerly at Plymouth Art Centre, Plymouth University, and CoCA Toi Moroki Centre of Contemporary Art (New Zealand)

Some curators work at public galleries, but many work freelance. Curators at commercial galleries work in a different way again.

Some gallery curators will be academics and others are more like project managers. They work in a structure and have to follow gallery policies. They will have more job security but will be working on many projects at the same time. Many public galleries organise exhibitions at least 2 years in advance.

A freelance curator will get money from different sources like:

  • fees for curating exhibitions,
  • teaching,
  • research,
  • writing articles or criticism
  • funding for different projects.

It is essential that we regularly take check of what we’re doing. We have worked with a range of spaces. These include museums, law firms, National Trust properties and old-master dealer galleries.

Eliza Gluckman, formerly of Day+Gluckman curator partnership

Freelance curators might not make exhibitions to sell work. They are often interested in more experimental work that may not be sellable. These curators work in different places. They might organise exhibitions in galleries, or work with local councils or in the public realm. They might have a research-based practice quite like an artists.

Like all freelance workers curators will have different responsibilities outside of work. They will have caring responsibilities and other jobs as well. Working with a freelance curator means you need to be responsive and flexible with how you communicate.

A freelance curator might also be an artist curator. Alongside their art practice they will also organise exhibitions. Some artist curators include their own work in their exhibtions, and some do not. Some artist curators say that working as a curator helps their own art practice. Where working as an artist can be quite solitary, a curator has to work with many other people to make an exhibition. Their curatorial interests are likely to match their interests as an artist.

I curate and co-curate live events including ‘whole building spectacles’ for the Wellcome Collection and multi-media performances at Dartington, Barbican and ENO. All of these large-scale projects bring together professionals from both within and outside my own area of expertise, sometimes on a grand scale. Exploring ideas with scientists, academics and performers has become for me, an extension of the internal and solitary debate that takes place in the studio.

Alex Julyan, artist and curator.

You can listen to artist and curator Dallas Seitz talk about working in this way.

A commercial gallery curator will:

  • support artists,
  • managing and develop buyers,
  • run the practical business of the gallery.

They will have a very particular kind of artist they are looking for and want to work with artists whose work they can sell. Sales are the main income for commercial galleries and some art work is easier to sell than others. They are aware of their unique place in the art world that makes them different to other galleries. Commercial galleries are influenced by their buyers tastes.

How curators find artists

Curators, like artists, will build up a network over many years. Their networks will include artists, galleries, and other curators. Curators will get to know artists in several ways:

  • Seeing work at a degree show.
  • Visiting group or solo exhibitions.
  • Visiting open studios.
  • Meeting artists at exhibition openings, talks or other events.
  • Hearing about artists from other artists and curators. They will follow leads from people they trust.
  • Independent research for an exhibition.

Curators might get in touch with artists who have contacted them directly. Most may prefer to have an artist recommended, or to find them themselves. They will usually do some research before contacting an artist back, so make sure you are easy to find. This might include having a good online social network or website.

If you find a curator you think would like your work, invite them to visit your studio. Make sure you tell them about any physical access limitations to the space. Consider inviting them to bring someone else and bring a friend yourself to make the meeting feel more comfortable and safe.

Sometimes a curator will invite an artist quite quickly to be in an exhibition. Often it take much longer, sometimes a few years. It is important to keep curators up to date with what you are doing. Relationships with curators, like everyone in your network, need to be maintained and developed. An exhibition can take a long time to organise because it takes time for funding to be confirmed.

Typically a curator will have an idea for an exhibition and start to develop it into an exhibition. They will approach artists to see if they are interested and keep in touch with them as things develop. Curators will also look for funding for their idea. They will make a plan for how to put everything in place and keep the artists’ work in mind. An exhibition is a shared project between artist and curator. The curator will struggle without the artists’ support. The artist needs to know that their work will be properly represented in the exhibition.

Curators will have particular interests and you should only approach those who may be interested in your work. Do an internet seach or look on LinkedIn to find out other exhibitions they have organised. Some might be interested in a particular medium, like digital media or socially engaged practice. Some might work with artists at a specific stage in their career. A curator’s taste develops through experience. It might also be shaped by the kind of exhibition that could be popular at that time. Many will work with the same artists over and over again for different exhibtions. Curating is usually an organic conversation that is a bit like an art practice.

Like artists, curators research different ideas they are interested in for some time. Often one project or exhibition will start the next one.

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