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What Do Art Curators Do?

You’ve probably heard of art curators, but you may not know what they do. Curators are the people behind the scenes, selecting and even interpreting art. They greatly influence the art we see in art museums and galleries. But many also have other responsibilities.

What Do Art Curators Do?

A curator may be involved in virtually every facet of a museum’s or gallery’s functions. Their job is to preserve (or protect) art, select new work, and display or arrange works.
On the business side of things, an art curator may help institutions determine how to allocate budgets and choose works to display. They also decide how works are hung at galleries and art shows, influencing the way the public experiences exhibitions.

In the contemporary art world, curators must be able to multi-task. At any given time, a curator may be:
  • Organizing exhibitions
  • Researching artists
  • Selecting art for display
  • Creating written material
Many people underestimate the power curators have over the art world. Henry Geldzahler, known as a “star curator,” was the man behind the 1969 exhibition “New York Painters and Sculptors of 1940-1970" at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

That famous fine arts exhibition launched the careers of several emerging artists, including Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and David Hockney. The New York Times once called Geldzahler “the most powerful and controversial art curator alive.”

Some curators view themselves as simple enablers or partners to artists. Others take a more activist role, helping artists of color or women. There are also curators that start off as artists themselves, so they understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. 

A Day in the Life of a Curator

Photo taken by the Michigan State University archive.Min Jung Kim, deputy director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. All rights belong to them.

Now that you have an idea of what a curator is and does, you may be wondering what actually goes on behind the scenes. 

No two days are the same, but curator Min-Jung Kim of Asian Arts & Design shared one particular day on the job with the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. At the time, she was working on the exhibition Spirit of jang-in: treasure of Korean metal craft.

Kim’s day started off with a visit to the exhibition’s construction site. Next, she met with the registrar to discuss photos and reports.

Here’s a brief rundown of the rest of her day:
  • Met with the assistant curator to work on captions for the works.
  • Answered public inquiries regarding the museum’s Asian objects.
  • Worked on copyright for the exhibition’s music.
  • Made phone calls regarding the loan objects.
  • Met with exhibition designer to discuss display supports.
  • Discussed marketing materials and the Korean media preview for the exhibit.
  • Checked the objects in the storage area.
  • Met with the web designer to choose images for the online exhibition.
  • Worked on exhibition catalog text and labels.
  • Discussed the exhibition’s contemporary sections with the assistant curator.
As you can see, Kim tackles a lot of different tasks throughout the day. Her day truly highlights the management and organization aspects of being a curator. 

Curators do more than just “select pretty things” to display in museums and galleries. A major part of their job is to preserve and look after the artwork on display and in storage areas. Curators become truly immersed in their work, gaining real knowledge of the works in their care.

Curators take pride in their responsibility to care for the works in their charge. Most will tell you that it’s a privilege to be in their line of work. They are true appreciators of art, and some use their voice and influence to help artists find their footing in the complex world of art.

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