Read as Elizabeth Schlatter talks about her career as a Museum Curator. Find her at www.elizabethschlatter.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an art curator at a museum that is part of a small university.
How would you describe what you do?
I do a lot of different things, but the main thing that I do, that I love most, is organizing exhibitions of contemporary art.
What does your work entail?
I think of ideas for exhibitions, usually influenced by art and artists that I see or meet or learn about. Then I work on selecting artworks that will be shown as part of the exhibition, research them, interview artists when I can, write about the art in a catalog or article, and design the layout for the exhibition.
I do other things, like research our collection of art, write applications for grants, help write press releases, and assist the director in the management of our department. And because I work at a university, I also teach once a year and mentor college students, which I also really enjoy!
What’s a typical work week like?
I’m in the office typically from 8:30 to 5pm, but I often have one or two evening or weekend events during busy times (like exhibition opening receptions, lectures, or family day events). I usually have anywhere from one to three meetings a day to go over with other staff members how certain projects are progressing, like when we’ll be installing an exhibition or if we need to focus more time for an online catalog. I might be in one of our galleries figuring out how to layout an exhibition, or, if I’m lucky, I’ll spend part of a day meeting with an artist or collector. Otherwise a lot of my time is spent writing in all different capacities, from exhibition labels to grant applications to emails.
But like a lot of people who have the joy of working in the field of their passion, I also spend a good portion of my free time doing things related to my job, like visiting other museums and galleries, reading about art online or in publications, and writing or curating projects as freelance.
How did you get started?
I’ve always loved going to museums. One of my earliest memories is of my mom taking me to an exhibition of a Surrealist artist’s sculptures. My grade school was near the big city art museum, so we took lots of field trips there. I mean, I even remember what it smelled like to walk in that building! (kind of a mixture of dust and metal, that I’ve never smelled anywhere since.) So I started volunteering in museums and galleries when I was in high school.
My first job out of college was as a receptionist at a small contemporary art museum. Then I got promoted to an entry-level fundraising position, which, even though I learned that type of work wasn’t where I was headed, the experience was incredibly helpful in terms of learning how museums raise money.
Then I took a few turns and twists, but my first full-blown curatorial opportunity was organizing a contemporary art show as a freelancer for a local arts organization. I had been volunteering for them already, and they requested proposals for exhibition ideas. I submitted one that they accepted, and I quickly fell in love with the process.
What do you like about what you do?
So many things! I love that it’s my job to look at, learn about, and spend time with art. That’s a true blessing that is continuously rewarding. I also really enjoy working with creative people, from artists to other curators, to other museum staff members, such as educators and art handlers. And my peers within the curatorial field are just as, if not more, passionate than I am about art, so spending time with them can be incredibly rewarding. Finally, while I talk a lot about people, I’m actually not a full-time extrovert, so I truly appreciate the responsibilities I have to do reading and writing. That quiet time is very important to my sanity!
What do you dislike?
Probably like a lot of people, I don’t like all the many responsibilities that take me away from my self-generated projects or away from doing work that is related to art or artists. An example would be reviewing contracts and logistics for an exhibition that’s outside of my area of interest, or researching and writing proposals for things that are more administrative than art-focused. But that’s just part of the job of keeping a department running.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Because I work for a university museum, the university pays for my salary, which I receive in monthly allotments. A typical museum includes the curator’s salary as part of the overall payroll. Freelance curators get paid by the host institutions where their exhibitions are shown, and typically their pay is determined in advance and put into a contract or agreement. However, a lot of places (small non-profit arts organizations) can’t even afford to pay freelancers so unfortunately a lot of people end up doing this kind of work on a volunteer basis.
How much money do curators make?
A full-time curator employed at a very small museum might make as little as $25,000/year. But the average ranges more from $30,000 to $60,000. At very large, prestigious museums, curators in charge of a whole curatorial department can make more than $100,000, but these jobs are few in number.
How much money did you make starting out as a curator?
I started out in my first curating job (which was not my first museum job), at $35,000.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
To be a curator you have to have knowledge of a specific subject, it could be contemporary art, or Renaissance art, or WWII airplanes, or political campaign posters, etc. In most cases, you need at least a Master’s degree if not a PhD. In the field of contemporary art there’s a bit more leeway, because experience and contacts are valued highly. But even so, the profession is trending towards more museum curatorial positions requiring doctorates. I think in part this is related to the competitive nature of the field. That is, there are more people who want these jobs than there are jobs. So the doctorate is a way to distinguish yourself, and it adds to the academic standing of the museum.
What is most challenging about what you do?
It’s hard to juggle a lot of projects, little and big, and make sure that my own stay on track. It’s also difficult to find time to see as much art as I’d like and stay on top of developments in the field. And frankly, I wish I had less meetings!
What is most rewarding?
Looking at art, talking with artists, and seeing an exhibition finally come together. Then, of course, I love being in one of our exhibitions and seeing how people respond and interact. Also, I feel really lucky to work at a university because I’m surrounded by people dedicated to education. That means not only am I involved in teaching, but I get to work with intelligent, talented, and creative staff, faculty, and students. And it’s highly rewarding to stay in touch with former students who either worked or studied with me and are still involved in the arts.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Go see as many exhibitions at museums, galleries, and nonprofit spaces as you can. You’ll find it won’t take too long (unless you live in New York or L.A., which are huge!) to get a handle on who presents what kind of work, how they present it (i.e. what is their style in creating exhibitions), who are some of the more popular artists, and who are the institutions targeting in terms of visitor demographics. That will quickly get you familiar with what’s going on in your community and what is possible in terms of job and freelance opportunities. Oh, and be sure to check out college and university museums and galleries!
How much time off do you get/take?
For most folks it’s a standard job, starting with two weeks paid vacation and earning more as you stay at an organization over the years.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
More than anything I’d just like to expand my own opportunities to curate contemporary art exhibitions and in general engage more with art and artists. I can’t get enough!