Who can become a curator? by Sofia Landström

When I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Visual Studies one year ago, I was faced with the question of how to take my next step in the art world. During my studies, I had worked with exhibitions and curating, but I was not sure how to truly make curating my profession. With a limited number of jobs in the art world, the pressure is strong to make smart decisions, choosing a path that would lead to calling myself a professional curator. The first and most obvious decision was whether to pursue further education or not.

When considering whether it was worth it to continue with curatorial education in a formal sense, first I conducted some research, and here’s what I found: the nineties brought changes to the way that art was presented, but also in the way that art was produced. The role of the curator had for a long time been mostly hidden from public view, tied more closely to a small professional circle than the limelight. At the time, schools providing curatorial education could be easily counted: CCS Bard in Annandale-on-Hudson,the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York, and École du Magasin in Grenoble primary among them. In the nineties, more curatorial studies programmes opened, such as the one at the Royal College of Art in London.

The exhibition space started to symbolize a collective dimension for art as an open work with participation at its centre, informed by “…a new curatorial rhetoric of flexibility, connectivity, transformativity, intersubjectivity, contextuality, collaboration and hybridity.” (1) The shift represents a key moment in the development in the curatorial practice during the last 20 years. This practice changed the form of exhibitions, making them more cooperative, process-oriented, and discursively based. This new generation of curators emerging in the nineties offered a new range of experiments, formats and cultural actions. Curators became more visible and necessary as exhibitions became more conceptual and context-based in themselves. The curatorial role, and curatorial education, emerged strongly as these changes putting the curator at the forefront were enacted.

But does this mean that a Master’s degree, PhD, or other higher education is necessary in order to become a professional curator? Because art ideas have changed and are still changing, does that mean that I must be trained at a university to understand and practice them? In my research conducted while preparing for my applications, I read about some of the most successful curators of today, and found that they never formally studied curatorial practice. In the book, On Curating, by Carolee Thea, curators like Joseph Backstein, Roselee Goldberg and Charles Esche describe their curatorial practice as almost a coincidence; some of them started with writing for magazines and museums, some others started off as artists themselves but later developed an interest in curating. (2)

While early curators got into the field through broad knowledge and experience rather than education, today that path would be hard to follow, since the profession is becoming professionalized by education. We can see the same development within many fields, such as journalism and marketing. In today’s knowledge-and-power-economy both fields have gone through an educational turn and become more and more professionalized. In 2013, it seems impossible to become a curator without a further education in the field; curatorial practice has also had its educational turn.

It is of course debatable if is the best development for the field, as it limits entry to the profession for many, and will likely narrow the scope of knowledge within the practice. But it’s a fact that almost every museum or gallery that is hiring a curator requires an MA or a PhD, and this means that schooling is effectively more important. An MA in curating opens up the job market further, and it gives you the freedom to call yourself a curator. Unfortunately, the field might miss out on some very talented people as education becomes increasingly mandatory.

I received my acceptance letter from Central Saint Martins in April. Even though I worked on independent projects before applying, I never knew exactly how to either embrace or challenge the blind spots in my curating practice. Filling this gap in my own curatorial work made me choose the Central Saint Martins programme, with its emphasis on exhibitions and curating inside and outside the museum and gallery, in order to analyze their effects on contemporary art practice, and construct an alternative, critical art history. The number of curatorial studies programmes is flourishing around the world and my decision to choose Central Saint Martins wasn’t an easy one: however, within this context I feel I will have the chance to not only to define my own work but also broaden my knowledge of art history’s historiography and methodology.

Obtaining further education is an easy move to justify; the promise is that it provides tools and the knowledge needed to succeed as a professional curator in the long term. I don’t necessarily think that a MA in curating is the only way to go, but for me, I think it’s an expedited way to start my career, and it’s my hope that curatorial studies allows for a broader range of career options and flexibility. The educational environment also provides a variety of networks difficult to access anywhere else: the people in your classes have similar ambitions as you and one day the person sitting next to you might be your co-worker, employee, or boss. Once my degree is finished, I will be curious to look back on these thoughts and rethink my views, as well as reflect on how my years in graduate school will inevitably change my views on curating, contemporary art, and my own practice.

1. The culture of curating and the curating of culture(s), Paul O´Neill, 2012, page 110
2. On curating, Interviews with Ten International Curators, Carolee Thea, 2009

Categories: career, curating, education, ma, Musings

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