Nine ways to build a career as a curator

2-253022-Main-476x357-2From internships to diversifying your work experience, four prominent arts curators share how passion and persistence are essential to developing a career as a curator

A screen grab of Amy Phoehler in Old Navy (USA, 2014), a television advertisement satirising the contemporary art world. Source Ottawacitizen.com

Carving out a career as a curator is not a straightforward journey. When a panel of four curators shared their experiences at the first of four Creative Careers seminars at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre on Saturday, they described doing extensive voluntary work, creating their own opportunities, strong mentors and ultimately passion and persistence to fulfill their curatorial dreams.

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Introducing the four panellists Roy Marchant, producer, public programs, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre said the aim of the Creative Careers series is to ‘open up and demystify how you break into creative careers’ such as writing, theatre or design. ‘It’s not like they have a specified career path,’ he said.

On the panel were Emily McDaniel, assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) and freelance consultant; Miriam Kelly, curator, Artbank; Talia Linz, curator, Artspace Sydney; and Sian McIntyre, practising artist and director of Verge Gallery at the University of Sydney.

Their stories highlighted career paths that didn’t always run smoothly. There were wrong turns (Kelly and McIntyre started fashion design studies before realising the cut-throat fashion world wasn’t for them); false starts (Linz didn’t follow-through on an internship in London when it wasn’t what she was led to believe it would be) and times when change was necessary (after two years driving the volunteer-run The Paper Mill McIntyre said the people behind it were all burnt-out).

Here are their tips for people wanting to develop a career as a curator.

1. Seek out internships

Linz stressed the value of internships but advised people to choose them carefully. ‘The structure of them is so variable from organisation to organisation. I think a lot of the time people are just making it up.

‘There are organisations like the AGNSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), the Biennale, that have set internship positions and they have callouts and application procedures. A lot of places don’t.’

She suggested targeting particular organisations and people that you want to work with. Or having a concrete idea of the experience you want to gain from a project and putting a cap on the time spent in an intern position.

2. Get voluntary experience

McDaniel first volunteered at the AGNSW when she was at 18 and studying at university.  That led to her becoming an educator at the AGNSW and the MCA.

‘I’ve never had an internship in a formal way but I have volunteered a lot and I’ve done a wide variety of things as well: everything from public programs to education, curatorial and all in between.’ She saw that as an important way to learn about the complexities and the types of jobs that exist in the arts.

‘It isn’t just artist and curator. There are many things in between that. There’s conservation, there’s media, there’s public programs, there’s visitors’ services,’ she said.

Kelly continues to volunteer by joining as many boards as she can most recently the board of Runway magazine. ‘It’s a wonderful way to expand my networks outside of Artbank and keep learning,’ she said.

Like Linz, McIntyre emphasised being selective about voluntary positions, saying: ‘Make sure that they are relevant and make sure that people aren’t taking you for a ride. With my volunteers I always make sure that we have projects where they can get proper professional practice experience,’ she said. ‘That was what I was able to do at the The Paper Mill and if I hadn’t been able to do that then all of those volunteer hours would have just been a waste.’

3. Create your own opportunities

‘What I would really recommend is if you’re not finding the opportunities you want, make your own opportunities,’ advised McDaniel, who turned her interest in electronic art into a series of audio-visual performance nights called Refraction when she was at university. ‘It’s not easy but actually the harder it is the better it is and the more you learn from that.’

McIntyre, too, said of her experience with The Paper Mill: ‘The beautiful thing about doing it yourself is that no-one is there to slap you over the wrist when you make a mistake.’

Linz deliberately chose a curatorial degree at the University of Toronto in Canada because the outcome wasn’t a thesis it was an curated exhibition on your own.

4. Be willing to do it all

Be prepared to do everything. Kelly confessed to being horrified on her first day volunteering with the ACT’s Megalo Print Studio and Gallery when she was asked to change a printer cartridge. She decided not to say anything because she felt she could learn a lot from the organisation and that decision paid off. ‘I got wonderful experience cataloguing their archive and then quite quickly after university a job came up there and because I’d had that experience working with them, they knew who I was, I got that job so thankfully I hadn’t made a fuss about the printer cartridge at the time.’

5. Build and maintain networks

As Linz pointed out the arts industry is relatively small in Australia and it’s important to ‘honour your networks’. ‘People move around a lot so it’s important to keep that network alive and be in touch with people,’ she said.

McDaniel, too, said the diversity of experience she gains from working one day a week as a freelance consultant and four days in her AGNSW role keeps her connected: ‘You can’t just sit in an organisation. You need to be connected to everyone and be connected with the current writing and exhibitions that are happening.’

6. Know when it’s time to get paid

McDaniel there comes a time when you have to be paid for your skills.

‘We volunteer and volunteer but there’s got to be a point where you become quite certain that you have a service that you’re offering people and I think that’s when you have to start being quite firm about getting a contribution towards what you’re doing.’

7. Don’t specialise too soon

It was only after building a wealth of experience through casual teaching at the AGNSW; creating Refraction; and volunteering that McDaniel began to specialise, working in a full-time position for a year at the Biennale of Sydney as the Aboriginal emerging curator. ‘It’s important not to get too specialised too quick. Do a lot, but after you’ve done your time, take a moment and curate your own career, pick what you want to do and what’s probably most beneficial.’

Linz agreed, adding a lot of organisations don’t have the resources to have specialist curators. ‘So versatility is important.’

8. Value mentors

All four panellists talked about the importance of mentors. ‘The biggest thing for me in my career trajectory is having strong mentors,’ said McDaniel.  ‘They have been very, very supportive of my career and I’ve certainly gotten positions through my affiliation with them and their strong recommendation of the work that I do.’

Kelly said she worked with her honours supervisor on a volunteer basis two years ago developing an exhibition in Australia that was then put together in India. ‘He was one of those people that I felt I needed to glean more from in terms of his skills.’

9. If at first you don’t succeed…

You won’t always get the job you want first time round. McIntyre applied for the job at Verge Gallery about three years before she was actually successful in getting the position. Linz applied for the role she had at the Biennale a year before she was successful in getting it. ‘In retrospect the year that I got it was the year I was supposed to get it,’ she said. ‘I think a lot of it is trusting that you’re on the right path. Sometimes it’s about creating your own opportunities but sometimes it’s about recognising which are opportunities you should take and which you just have to succumb to the fact that you missed out on that one.’

The next Creative Careers seminars at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre will be held on July 18 (writing and publishing); August 22 (design) and September 22 (theatre and film).

About the author

Christine Long is a Sydney freelance journalist

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