Is the Role of the Curator Evolving?

Increasingly, the curatorial role is focused on audience engagement and collaboration, rather than specialized knowledge.

Wesleyan University's Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP)
Wesleyan University’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP)

There has been a lot of chatter in recent years about the “death of the curator.” But is the role of the curator really dead, or is it just evolving? Once a position that glorified specialized knowledge on niche-like topics, this role is expanding, becoming user-friendly and reaching beyond the walls of institutions. It has grown well beyond the selection and placement of art or artifacts in a space; it has equally become about empowering the audience, collaboration, and innovation, both in a physical space and in the virtual world.

Why is the role of curator changing?

There are many factors that have influenced this change in recent years – an emphasis on education in museums and the arts, advances in technology, racial demographic changes, the coming-of-age of the millennial generation – to name a few. Today’s curator is more like a television producer than an academic scholar – they need to capture the attention of the audience through entertainment and engagement. (Think live tweeting during a TV show and customized iPad apps). While being knowledgeable of the subject matter is important for the integrity of the arts, it’s only one slice of the pie for today’s curators.

Alan Brown and Steven Tepper wrote in a recent white paper that the twenty-first-century curator will be “called upon not only to select and organize arts programs, but to diagnose need in their communities, seek out new and unusual settings for their work, forge partnerships with a wide array of disparate stakeholders, and, in some cases, cede a certain amount of artistic control in order to gain broader impact.” If we use this definition, then the days of getting a curatorial position based on specialized knowledge are over. Curators need to be open, curious, communicative and collaborative. They are sociologists and anthropologists as much as they are art historians. The breadth of this new job description does seem a bit overwhelming – how can one person put on all of these hats at once? How are successful curators doing this?

How does one become a twenty-first-century curator?

Traditionally, a curator was required to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees (and sometimes, a Ph.D.) that allowed them to specialize in a particular area. This specialization came with a great deal of research and publishing typically done alone. The exhibitions they developed were based on these specialties, whether or not it interested the organization’s visitors. One way that some current and aspiring curators are proactively challenging this traditional position is through educational programs that have been designed to train curators to look differently at program development in the arts.

In 2010, Wesleyan University founded a graduate-level certificate program called the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP). This program was designed to develop the participating students’ aesthetic perspective, deepen their familiarity with the range of contemporary performing artists, and develop entrepreneurial skills. The instructors are artists, scholars, curators, cultural leaders, writers and theorists. The goal of the program is to not only provide the students with strong theory and academic knowledge, but also to spark innovation and collaboration and challenge them to think about their role beyond the confines of their institutions.

What’s next?

For those who want to become curators, stop worrying that your career goals are going the way of the dinosaurs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment opportunities for curators, museum technicians and conservators will grow by 16 percent from 2010 to 2020. People still want to go to museums and attend gallery shows and performances; they just want to do it in a way that they find stimulating and interesting.

The role of the curator isn’t dying, but the out-of-date definition is. The idea that only a small, select group of people can determine the best way of displaying and contextualizing artistic programming is patronizing. Today’s curators can be informed and have expertise, but they should also be educators and entertainers. Contemporary museum and arts audiences have numerous options when it comes to their entertainment, and it is up to museums and arts organizations to make sure their programming evolves and stays competitive; otherwise, they run the risk of going extinct.

The twenty-first-century curator can lead the way to change that will keep audiences coming back and bring in new patrons. Curators create the soul that people connect to and invest in by sharing their knowledge with audiences on many levels. It seems that, thanks to the virtual world of Facebook and other websites, everyone can call themselves a curator these days – but it takes a special set of skills to put together an exhibition or a performance series that an audience will want to attend. In a way, these new curators are going to teach their audience how to be their own curators; they can teach them to curate their own experience in a way that works best for them.

Has the curatorial role changed at your institution? Does the job description of the twenty-first-century curator help address the adaptive challenges facing today’s arts-centered non-profit organizations?

Erinn Roos-Brown is the Program Manager for the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts in Middletown, CT where she oversees the program’s mission to elevate the place of art, artists and the artistic process at Wesleyan and to innovatively strengthen teaching, student learning, artmaking and cross-disciplinary exchange and inquiry.