Following on the previous piece on museum directors, I was surprised–yet somehow not surprised– that the list didn’t mention artists, curation, or really much about museum content. One would think that such a list of “improvements” to museums would include the requirement that museums strive to better their shows and content? In particular, the list missed mentioning curators; you know, those poor souls who the Association of Museum Directors employ, and who are ostensibly the creative agents within museum institutions. That omission got me thinking about what curators do, about the curatorial profession, and about the pedagogical cottage industry of curatorial studies.
That means asking “why the global proliferation of post-graduate/MFA-granting curatorial programs today?” And that begs a related question of just what is “curatorial studies” as a discipline. Maybe the problem is that it isn’t one at all.
Perhaps it’s easier to begin by asking what sort of professional outcomes curatorial studies presents its graduates. As a degree (M.A.) or credential, it doesn’t offer much professional security in academia, which generally reserves permanent or tenured positions in the arts for holders of terminal degrees such as art history Ph.D.s or art practice MFAs. The close connection (and often asymmetrical relationship) of curatorial studies programs (no PhD) to art history departments (PhD-granting) means that the seat of their graduates’ professional aspirations aren’t in academia, but elsewhere. Where is that elsewhere?
Simple answer, right? To curate, that is, to organize art exhibitions (and to produce and perhaps write for art catalogs that result from those exhibitions) happens in but a few sites: art museums, non-profit or university art centers, and commercial art galleries. Curatorial studies programs feed students into these three institutions; the art magazine world and the grant-giving/foundation sector can be folded in here too, though generally they do not involve curating narrowly defined. Working as a curator generally means intersecting with at least one of these art display institutions, whether or not the curatorial work is independent or salaried. Though these sites have different masters, different “employers” so to speak, the non-profit and museum worlds in particular share certain professional similarities. Yet curatorial studies programs don’t seem designed to educate students about the expectations of these institutions.