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Curators Take Flight: Four curators cast a wide eye on the shifting landscape for curatorial practice

Category: Museum Magazine
A person stands on a precipice looking out into an abyss of clouds with a single ladder leading toward the sky about halfway across the chasm.
In a roundtable discussion, curators at various stages of their careers discuss changes like centering audiences, embracing biases, and decolonizing power structures.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

It’s an exciting time to be a curator. The role is evolving and the field is broadening.

Recently, four professionals at various stages of their curatorial careers—emerging, mid-career, and late-career—sat down to discuss some of these changes: René Paul Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs at the McNay Art Museum; Laura Minton, curatorial assistant, prints, and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Dr. Porchia Moore, assistant professor of museum studies at the School of Art + Art History, University of Florida, and former curator of the rotating African American gallery “Spoken” at the Columbia Museum of Art; and Dr. Noelle Trent, director of interpretation, collections, and education at the National Civil Rights Museum.

What do curators do?

Barilleaux: My institution, the McNay, has a traditional history. We have curators from varied backgrounds. Each is defining their curatorial work differently. Curators today do a broad range of things that are partly defined by audience, partly by personal vision, partly by need, and so on.

Minton: Many people are unfamiliar with the curatorial profession. It is important to emphasize how much work and effort goes into creating exhibitions. Because exhibitions often look pristine, the labor involved to produce them is not always visible. Curators also engage in activities beyond exhibitions, such as interfacing with the public, conducting research, scholarly writing, and fundraising.

Moore: My understanding of who I am as a curator and the role of a curator has changed. I have a Ph.D. in library and information science, and that library pedagogy informs me. I view myself as a cross-pollinator, someone who works and lives in the museums but approaches museums from a library/information science lens. Because of that, I see curatorial work as a kind of storytelling and information praxis. I view it as a form of social justice practice and activism. Curatorial work is about being culturally responsive, being able to rapidly respond to issues such as police violence or even just being able to navigate and cultivate conversation. So for me, this work is about sharing of information and helping to highlight and uncover suppressed narratives.

Trent: I have historical training rather than an art history background. When I say curator, I think people tend to imagine artwork. In helping them to understand my work, I compare it to what the Smithsonian does, looking at objects and communities and privileging voices. But when we have artwork come to our museum, when we are creating exhibitions, I have to explain to the artist that our audience isn’t your usual art audience, and you need to create the messaging around your artwork. Otherwise, my visitors aren’t going to get it. That is the other layer of what we do.

How are curatorial roles changing and expanding today?

Trent: I think the big elephant in the room in these conversations now is the diversity and inclusion piece. Voice is present in the work that we do, and bias, intended or otherwise, is something that the curatorial field is really embracing in powerful ways. Some communities have been doing this for much longer, but now it has hit the broader conversation.

Moore: We are seeing curators who are not employed in museums but who are creating real places of dialogue and activism within their communities—people who are really stretching in pleasurable, exciting, innovative, and creative ways the confines of what curatorial work and praxis actually is and can be.

Trent: I think there is some value in different ways of getting the training experience because we don’t want to lose the praxis, right? Even if you do pop-ups, and you are a little bit freer doing that, there are some things you need to learn at some point. You are going to have to learn, whether someone teaches you or you do it through trial and error, about the value of the well-written exhibit label.

Minton: I come from a traditional art historian background, and writing for the public is much different from academic writing. I did not learn to write for the public in my graduate work; I learned it on the job in different museums.

Moore: I am interested in the ways curators can access points of informational curiosity.

Barilleaux: We’ve been on a campaign to write labels for our collection galleries and have spread it across curators of every level and with education staff. We’ve also created focus groups with community members who vet labels to see if we’re hitting the right points—hoping to respond to what our community wants to know.

Minton: Your approach allows for a dispersal of voice, so it is not just one single, faceless author.

Barilleaux: We had feedback from the community saying that they prefer different voices in the labels. Sometimes a label is focused on the artist, sometimes on the object, sometimes on the context of the object. We learned that people don’t want standardization—they want each label to feel fresh.

Moore: I think that is really powerful.

Trent: That shared voice, shared authority has tremendous appeal.

Moore: It makes me think about one of the components of the ICOM-proposed new definition for museums—this idea that the museum is a space for polyphonic voices.

Barilleaux: It’s not that we lose authority, it’s that we become a filter—hearing from the audience and hearing that they read the labels.

Moore: I think that risk-taking is so important. Moving forward, will we need labels?

Trent: We have found that for roughly 60 percent of our visitors, this is their first museum experience. So our panels and our labels need to guide people through the pain, through whatever is there. I have worked with artists on thinking about how they want to guide visitors.

Moore: What is an embodied museum visitor experience? How can it really help visitors understand things like information literacy, visual literacy, and civic literacy? Are labels the best way to do that?

Barilleaux: Especially with temporary exhibitions, we’ve started to create a whole experience. For example, we recently presented Andy Warhol’s portraits—primarily from the 1970s—accompanied by a disco ’70s soundtrack that played in the gallery. We noticed that people really felt engaged—it took them to a different time in their lives; it made a holistic experience. Another approach we tried was instead of narrative labels, we presented bullet points, so visitors could go right to what they want to know.

Minton: My institution presented a similarly immersive experience alongside “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art.” Near the exhibition, there was an interactive gallery where Van Gogh’s paintings came to life through art-making activities, digital experiences, photo-ops, and walk-in recreations of paintings in 3D; there was a lot of interest in this. It makes me think of the idea of play in museums as an entry point.

Trent: I think the digital space is going to be really critical for how we move forward because it will allow us to layer the experience. Someone on the curatorial staff still has to generate the content, but once you do the onerous work of creating that database of information, photo licenses, the sound, and whatever else you want to include, you can layer it out. We all know there are the people who skim, and there are the people who really want to emotionally connect.

Minton: Right now, curating and creating your own experience is important to many people. In one of our recent exhibitions, we included an iPad that presented additional text and artworks with Spanish translations as well as interviews with local artists. A survey conducted during the exhibition noted where people were spending the most time in the room, and the iPad was the number one hotspot.

Barilleaux: For a recent exhibition, we decided not to create a printed catalogue but a microsite that was accessible to anyone at any time for free. It was a more democratic way of sharing.

What are some of the pathways to entering the curatorial field?

Trent: There is the typical art historian route if you are in art museums. But I know educators who got their advanced degrees in education and evolved into curation because they also have specialized expertise. Some museum studies programs and public history programs facilitate that as well. Historically black colleges and universities have a long history of such programs. Hampton University has the first African American museum in the country. Howard has a really great public history program that has trained people to go into the curatorial and archives fields. Andrea Brownlee is a phenomenal curator at Spelman College, which is training young women at the undergraduate level to go into curatorial work.

Moore: I look at the work that people like Kelli Morgan, who is a curator of American history at Newfields in Indianapolis, are doing, people like LaTanya Autry.

Trent: What I find frustrating is that some of these folks who decide this is the path they want to be on will get these fellowships, and because they are a person of color, they end up being overwhelmed and overworked.

Moore: Definitely, and let’s go ahead and say it, tokenized. That emotional labor that we don’t always talk about is that they are expected to now just do that work. They are not allowed the freedom and liberation to explore whatever their interests may be. So it is important when we talk about recruitment that we also talk about retention. We don’t want to cultivate all of these brilliant, bright folks to come into museums as curators, and then they come into environments that are hostile or oppressive or simply do not have the resources to nourish them. I think that is actually more harmful.

Trent: It is frustrating to meet someone who is brilliant and has put in the time to get the content, but you can see that the institution has worn them out and said, “you are the black voice, you are the person of color voice, let’s throw all of these things on you way too soon.” They don’t have the support they need, and if they fail, it becomes a reason for why we can’t do this, or “we tried to look for them, but people aren’t going to these programs.” Also, if you don’t get certain graduate degrees, you’re not competitive in the marketplace. And sometimes these wages are not livable.

Minton: I think compensation is a problem in entry-level curatorial positions and can be a barrier for working in the field. It can be difficult to support yourself when you are just starting out, relocation expenses might not be provided, and you may have debt from undergraduate and graduate school. There is an ebb and flow to when entry-level positions are even available.

Trent: I was at a conference where someone said we have to think of museums in some cases as institutions of colonialism. If we are really pushing to diversify, be inclusive, decolonize, the curator has a lot of authority and influence in how that happens. Some things are going to be uncomfortable, and I think we just have to reconcile that.

Moore: If you do agree or are aligned with this notion that museums are colonialist enterprises, to make restitution of some sort, you have to be willing to give up and/or share power and approach it through some type of space-making mechanism. Otherwise it is not authentic and is just lip service.

Minton: That is definitely an area where collaborative curating can be very beneficial, working directly with community members so there is not just one authorial voice but many.

Barilleaux: More and more within our institution we are collaborating on exhibitions, incorporating different departments. We are also engaging the community with outside committees that respond to ideas and shape projects. Broadening the voices represented has made our projects richer.

Moore: Can we begin to have sources of power and authority come from our communities that have nothing to do with having large amounts of money?

Trent: As someone who functions on the senior management level, I don’t think there is any point where you are not going to have that conflict. A curator wants to put this idea or project out there, but there are the realities of board support and donor support. Is it on message with your museum? Do you have the support of your executive director, president, or CEO? Sometimes curators are not aware of how complex these things are.

Barilleaux: It’s the curator who brings passion to the project and brings passion to the board and staff. Sometimes colleagues cannot express the same passion. That’s a point where the curator can affect real change, bringing passion to get everyone excited.

Trent: And donors. I am brought in to make the donors excited, to make them understand that this is a great opportunity. Then you bring in your development and other folks to work through the technical aspects.

Final thoughts?

Moore: I really appreciate being able to have this conversation. It is very refreshing to talk to and learn from all of you, to hear what is happening in other corners. The word for that would be community; it is good to be a part of a community.

Barilleaux: We tend to approach this work as cookie-cutter—everyone must do the same thing in the same way. We can do it differently and it is still valid. We can put our own personal spin on things and make it unique.

Trent: Anytime we can discuss, sometimes commiserate, and figure out new ways to create experiences, it is a benefit to the public knowledge in a way we could have never imagined when we were in school or training for the work we are doing.

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  1. This, and the companion articles in the latest issue of Museum, pose interesting questions about what many museum professionals expect from curators, versus what the museum public expects. “By the Numbers” on page 6 states simply that roughly 75% of museums goers see the central role of museums as making collections (“original objects”) available to the public, and that along with collections museums should present “just the facts”. Nevertheless, the articles included in the issue tend to emphasize the roles many curators seem to chose as “meaning makers”, even social influencers. It’s notable that none of the views in the issue come from natural science museum, zoo or aquarium curators, and no mention is made of the matter that in many instances – especially outside the US – the central function of a curator is to “care for” a collection. If this issue is representative (and I’m not sure it is) of what most curators think about while carrying out their roles, then the profession is surely suffering an identity crisis.

  2. What about caring for collections? The basic definition of curator is “keeper” in the British sense… none of your interviewees mention the importance of caring for the collections they oversee. I respect their concern for collaboration with education and for timely exhibitions, but they must not neglect what I think is their primary responsibility.

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