In the competitive world of blockbuster exhibitions and with a global art market that is showing few signs of slowing, curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine in London, Okwui Enwezor of Haus der Kunst in Munich and Massimiliano Gioni of the New Museum in New York have become star names, whose curatorial choices can ensure a museum’s critical and financial success.
And as the role of the curator has become an increasingly desirable one, the number of courses available to study curating has increased.
With an early program created by the Whitney Museum in New York around 1967, the formalized study of curating first properly emerged at the École du Magasin in Grenoble, France, in 1987 with a 10-month course dedicated to curatorship. This was followed by a permanent two-year masters degree course at the Royal College of Art in London in 1992. These programs recognized the importance of curatorship and heralded a new place for the curator — emphasizing the position’s essential responsibility in the creation of an exhibition or display.
Today, dedicated programs in curating studies are flourishing around the world. And, in an era where personal Web sites and blogs mean almost anyone can “curate” a public display, these increasingly specialized degrees are becoming essential for those who wish to pursue a career in curating.
Today, everybody calls themselves a curator — you curate your Facebook page, Web sites allow you to ‘curate’ your tweets. But, to work professionally, a curator needs to be able to contextualize the work within its historical and socioeconomic framework.
The Node Center for Curatorial Studies in Berlin takes a multi-disciplinary approach. Co-founded in 2011 by the Mexican artist Perla Montelongo and the Spanish artist Ignacio Garciá Gómez del Valle, the school aims to offer more experimental curating, and a deeper involvement of the audience. Students attend 12-week residency programs and study the theory behind curating and fund-raising, as well as setting shows in unusual spaces including, recently, a bunker.
Independent Curators International, which started a curatorial hub in 2011, looks to work with professional curators hoping to strengthen their skills. The New York organization, which was created in 1975, sets up programs around the world — most recently in Beijing — where a jury selects 14 international curators and then works intensively with them over seven days.
The course is spent presenting personal projects and answering questions on specific issues. In opinion of the founders of this course, an increasingly global art world has meant that curators must be able to adapt displays from country to country and for different spaces and institutions.
Indeed, programs increasingly look to address the specific challenges of local situations. “The practice of curatorship is inevitably affected by the politics and infrastructures of power,” said at The New York Times, Oscar Ho-Hing Kay, a curator and professor in cultural management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he teaches a curating course. Mr. Ho said he sought to redress the business-led curatorial model of China, where “cultural activities” were merely “about making money, and frequently the curator is also acting as an art dealer.” In other sense, at the Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero in Buenos Aires, one of the first schools in Latin America to offer a master’s degree in curating, since 2010, a focus is placed on “the perception of Latin American art in the big capitals of the world.”
The school is open to the concept of multimedia practice, and planning to work in Web curation, “trying to force Net art into a big narrative of art history.”
In countries like France, where the role of the curator has long been a conservative one, tied more closely to art history than artistic innovation, courses in curating are opening up museums to contemporary notions of curatorship.
At the École du Louvre, for example, while there is still a focus on the technical aspect of painting conservation, “it is definitely no longer just about mastering the methodology or facts of art history,” said Jessica Watson, a master’s student at the school. Today, the course addresses a variety of practical new topics and considerations, with a new focus on museology, administration, art management, mediation.
With a limited number of jobs in the art world, completing these programs cannot, of course, lead to curatorial careers for everyone. But many young curators are using knowledge accrued while attaining their curating degrees to work in other areas.