What is an Art Museum Curator? by Kevin Sharp

The Dixon communication staff keeps telling me I haven’t answered them yet, that I keep talking around the question of what an art museum curator is and does, without clearly laying out an answer. I was hoping they wouldn’t notice.   

There are lots of different kinds of curators, even within the fairly narrow confines of museums of art. Realize, too, that museums of natural history, science and industry, civic and state history, libraries of every kind, botanical gardens, and museums of fashion, medical oddities, farm equipment, etc., all have someone who fills the role of curator, however that role might be defined. I can hear the communications staff whispering under their breaths, “He is doing it again.”   

To me, a curator is someone who gathers, organizes, and tries to understand. In a small collecting institution like the Dixon, our curator carefully gathers works of art through purchases and gifts, folds them into our existing collection (cataloguing as she goes), and then she tries to communicate through one means or another what those works of art have to say individually and as an ensemble.   

Far more frequently, art museum curators do the very same thing—gathering, organizing, and trying to understand—with information rather than works of art. I suspect that most art museum curators would say they spend their best days researching and gathering primary and secondary documents and information about artists, bodies of their work, or periods of art history. They organize that information until recognizable patterns begin to emerge that shed new light on those same artists, bodies of work, or periods of artistic endeavor. Once those patterns coalesce, museum curators try to understand what they mean in the context of specific artistic careers, bodies of work, or periods, and communicate it through publications, lectures, websites, or whatever means is available to them.   

The art museum field is changing quickly these days. I would guess that most curators also would insist that they are part of the fundraising apparatus, the membership arm, they are educators, agents for audience development, and participants in a dozen other projects within the museum as well. On occasion, I have seen the Dixon’s curator, Julie Pierotti, barefoot in the galleries, running the vacuum cleaner.  She does it well.

Posted by Chantal Drake at 10:56 AM
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