Where to From Here? The Professional Challenges of Emerging CuratorsPosted by April Steele • Tuesday, October 4. 2011 • Category: Musings
The professional aspect of being a curator has been a popular discussion topic of late. As an emerging independent curator and a recent graduate myself, I find the discussion to be a crucial one, and the professional and developmental challenges faced by newcomers to the field are constant questions posed by myself and my peers. In discussion with my colleagues regarding the challenges faced by emerging curators, several themes appeared. At the forefront, unsurprisingly, were concerns regarding the lack of funding available. Meager funding and the limited budgets provided for exhibitions present challenges including the inability to access artists who can request higher artistsâ fees; difficulties providing adequate fees for those artists willing to participate; and the problem of finding funding that doesnât conflict with funding provided to artists. Often, the funding that is available is entirely out of reach for emerging curators at the beginning of their career. For example, the Canada Council for the Arts offers project grants and professional assistance to curators, though applicants must have already produced an independent body of work, have had at least three public presentations of work in a professional context over a three year period, have maintained an independent professional practice for at least three years, and have produced at least three exhibitions or publications. These stipulations are usually prohibitive and discouraging for curators fresh to the field without bankable experience â a situation emerging artists applying for grants will be familiar with.
Often working outside the framework and support of an institutional budget, emerging curators are faced with the difficulties of reconciling their curatorial direction with the realities imposed by insufficient funding. A lack of salaried work and over-dependence on project-by-project funding often forces emerging curators to take on âday jobsâ, and the challenges of balancing a curatorial practice with other work are not inconsiderable. Of course, insufficient funding is not a problem faced only by curators (emerging or not) and obviously extends to the arts in general, which is a much larger issue that requires addressing.
Beyond funding, another problem is posed by the dearth of professional resources for young curators. Unfortunately, few resources exist for emerging curators, who are often caught in limbo between education and career, without institutional resources. Some excellent resources do exist: this site and IKT (though with IKT members must apply and have their applications supported by two existing members) are among the few highly accessible international resources for curators online. Another excellent resource is the Curatorial Toolkit for emerging curators assembled by Karen Love and 2010 Legacies Now in British Columbia, which provides an in-depth practical guide to curatorial practices, with topics including the role of the curator, researching a concept, securing a venue and funding, budgeting and fundraising, exhibition programming, media relations and audience development. Additionally, a number of publications in print address curatorial practice, though the majority focus on broader curatorial theory rather than specific, practical professional issues.
Despite these resources, gaps obviously exist in professional support available to emerging curators. In Canada, for example, the Canadian Artists Representation/le Front des Artistes Canadiens (CARFAC) provides legal assistance, health and safety advice and other professional development resources to professional artists, however an equivalent umbrella organization for curators still does not exist. Some advocacy and legal frameworks do exist: the LaSalle River Accord (1999-2000) and the Toronto Independent Curators Network Proposed Fee Schedule (1999) set recommended fee schedules for independent curators including writing fees. However, as Love notes, curatorial fees in Canada still amount to annual incomes that are well below the rates recommended by the Canadian Museums Association and salaries provided to curators by most institutions.
Of course, any discussion of the challenges faced by emerging curators must address the recent proliferation of curatorial programs at the university level. In an increasingly corporate world that prioritizes concrete skills and quantifiable qualifications, and where higher education supposedly provides some assurance of gainful employment, emerging curators are increasingly seeking validation through (often pricey) curatorial degrees. As a result, university programs in curatorial studies are flourishing internationally. A primary concern expressed by my peers is that university programs often do not offer the hands-on experience and direct involvement with artists that a self-directed curatorial education in the field may. While many students take it upon themselves to put forth their own projects and proposals outside of their curriculum, those who do not are often unprepared for the practical realities of a curatorial practice upon graduation. Many programs seem to be attempting to bridge this gap with mandatory internships and student placements in galleries or museums, however there are still the realities of proposing and mounting exhibitions on oneâs own that must be learned. In the end the onus is on the student to fully participate in the curatorial field outside the classroom. Additionally, since university curatorial programs are relatively new and many established curators donât necessarily have the same degrees, there sometimes exists a professional divide between the old guard and the new, and occasionally some doubt regarding the taught skills of new graduates (perhaps justifiably, given the aforementioned lack of practical experience in graduates). A new difficulty now perhaps lies in presenting a university degree from a curatorial program as an asset and not a liability.
Establishing oneself in any career certainly has its challenges, and as training programs blossom and numbers swell, curators, face some unique obstacles. However, the ways in which emerging curators are navigating these obstacles and presenting new alternatives is heartening. Hopefully, we will see a continued push for the development of new, accessible resources and a reassessment of the funding available for curators, to further the development of this profession and provide opportunities to present new and critical material. And hopefully, we will see a continuation of this discussion as new ideas are presented. We need better curatorial programs, more strategic funding opportunities earlier on in emerging curatorsâ careers, and more professional associations to guide us. Letâs work towards this together and make it a reality.