Ask a Curator: Tips on Becoming a Curator

July 24, 2009

Al asks: How does one begin a career as curator? Do you go to school for it, or can you work your way up the museum hierarchy?

Marielos asks: Beyond grad school and tons of work experience, what are some tips for a curator starting their career?

Internships, internships, internships. And did I mention internships? There is really no better way to develop a hands-on understanding of curatorial work then by observing and partaking in a curatorial department’s daily grind, either through volunteering as an intern or working as a curatorial administrator. It’s one thing to be able to research and write about art intellectually (skills developed at university), and another to deal with it as a physical object that needs to be moved around, insured, conserved and installed in its best “light” (through actual lighting, exhibition design, didactics, etc.). Since curatorial work is a very competitive field, such positions also offer a foot into a museum and the possibility of demonstrating your skills to a staff who may be hiring in the future. I got my first curatorial job while working as a part-time research assistant at MoMA. A curator needed help organizing an exhibition and there I was, right under his nose, ready and willing to jump in.

As Marielos mentions, the conventional approach to becoming a curator also involves an advanced degree in art history. At one time an MA was sufficient, but increasingly (again because of competition), a PhD is “preferred.” A PhD takes at least five years to obtain if you go straight through, and up to ten (or more) years if you stretch it out, as I did, by gaining work experience throughout. Either way, it’s a definite commitment but one that’s truly worthwhile for those who love art (both as idea and object) and bringing it to the public.

p.s. There are, of course, also unconventional approaches to becoming a curator that you see more often in the field of contemporary art. In cities like Los Angeles with vital art communities, there are lots of alternative spaces and art galleries that offer emerging curators opportunities to organize shows.

Leslie Jones, Associate Curator, Prints and Drawings


Raiding and Recycling the Collection

July 23, 2009

Yesterday you might have read Modern Art Notes’ post on artist Robert Fontenot’s Recycle LACMA project, in which the artist purchased deaccessioned objects from LACMA’s collection and refashioned them into new objects (also mentioned in a couple of other blogs). Some of our curators have also been thinking about the many issues surrounding Fontenot’s project—there’s a lot to unpack. We asked our curator of contemporary art, Rita Gonzalez, for her thoughts.

It’s been forty years since Andy Warhol transformed the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design in his curatorial effort Raid the Icebox I. Hanging an assortment of scuffed Windsor chairs on the walls salon style and stacking multiple shoe boxes culled from the forgotten parts of the museum’s collection, Warhol shined a light—literally—on the leftovers (a category that attracted him to objects and people alike). Conjured up from the same font of inspiration, Los Angeles-based artist Robert Fontenot’s online project Recycle LACMA continues this conversation about what remains hidden and what merits display in museums today—and just who is involved in that conversation.

Ironically, Fontenot first started thinking about the lifespan of the museum object when he interned at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, where he worked with LACMA’s former decorative arts curator Thomas S. Michie. As a self-confessed packrat working within a collecting institution, Fontenot found himself thinking about which objects were being preserved and which were contenders for deaccession. The hoarder in his head wondered, “just because this object is not needed now does not mean it won’t be 100 years from now.” This interest in the discarded translated into his artistic practice as he started to work with outmoded craft techniques, such as the incredible assortment of embroidery samplers that can be viewed on his blog Dictionary of Earthly Delights.

Earlier this year, Fontenot acquired fifty objects from three different auctions of deaccessioned materials from LACMA’s Costumes and Textiles collections and has undertaken the self-imposed task of repurposing each into an altogether different entity.

Galanos Coat

James Galanos Long Coat

Car Seat Cover

Car Seat Cover

Rather than a condemnation of deaccessioning practices, Recycle LACMA is a joyful but biting call to all collecting museums to think more radically about re-circulating these objects back into a creative economy. While the texts that accompany the deaccessioned and detourned costumes and textiles on his blog comport with the language of museum recordkeeping (condition reports, justifications for deaccessions), this simulation of the institutional voice is only one facet of his project.

The other, more ludic aspect concerns the potential of curators and registrars to think in an expanded way about recycling cultural materials back into a chain of production. Fontenot acknowledges in short essays interspersed throughout the blog that LACMA (as do most museums) looks for cultural institutions more suited for the objects on the deaccession list. But rather than delving too deeply into the pedantic, Fontenot exerts more of his obsessive energy into breathing new life into his acquisitions (which ironically involves “killing” the old object and thus rendering them ineligible for that one hundred year retrospective!).  He turns a gold lamé paisley skirt into a promotional banner for our present exhibition Your Bright Future. A 1950s evening dress becomes a beach umbrella. And while the embroidered pair of Guatemalan pants reborn as teddy bears makes some giggle, the Claire McCardell dress morphed into a witch’s cap might make some cringe. Of course, those reactions indicate another type of devaluation of the nameless artisan versus the auteur.

Paisley Skirt

Paisley Skirt

your bright future

Banner for "Your Bright Future"

As I sat and discussed the project with our Costume and Textiles curator Kaye Spilker, she wondered aloud if it is the status of her department’s holdings—so undervalued from the standpoint of art history—that made them more available to Fontenot. Would Fontenot have turned a Van Gogh drawing into a witch hat? As I continue to sit and grapple with this provocative project, I wonder in the end if what Warhol and Fontenot allow us to think through is how the curator and artist are the collectors and hoarders who are oftentimes forced to create through purging and construct through deconstruction.

Rita Gonzalez


Twitter en Español

July 22, 2009

Over the years, we’ve translated many materials for our Spanish-speaking audience, but it’s an involved, lengthy process that keeps us from reaching out in this way as often as we’d like. So, we’re trying something new—Twitter in Spanish. (140 characters, now that’s doable.) @enLACMA, the first bilingual account we know of at a museum, will be manned daily by our own Marietta Torriente de León. It’s a translation of the @LACMA account and also a place—and person—for Spanish speakers to come to with questions and comments about the museum. We hope you’ll join us at our new forum.

A través de los años hemos traducido varios materiales para nuestro público de habla hispana, pero es un proceso que a veces puede ser muy largo y complicado y no siempre hemos podido comunicarnos con nuestra comunidad latina tan a menudo como quisiéramos. Así que ahora estamos intentando algo nuevo: Twitter en español (140 golpes, que hace que esto ahora sea una realidad). Hasta donde sabemos, @enLACMA es la primera cuenta bilingüe creada por un museo, misma que todos los días revisará nuestra propia Marietta Torriente de León. Se trata de una traducción de la cuenta @LACMA, pero también de un lugar—y una persona—a la que la comunidad latina pueda acudir con preguntas y comentarios sobre el museo. Esperamos que puedan unirse a nuestro nuevo foro.

Allison Agsten


Secret Art

July 21, 2009

Last week, we told you about Koo Jeong-A’s Mountain Fundamental, an installation purposely removed from the rest of the Your Bright Future exhibition one floor up in BCAM. There are a couple of other works by Koo in the show, and one of them is even harder to find than Mountain Fundamental. In fact, I’d call it the most hidden object on view at LACMA. Next time you’re here, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and try to find Sound around the Smell. Two clues: It’s placed on the exterior of the Art of the Americas Building; and your best bet is to look for the wall label. Chances are, you’ll find it before you find the (tiny) installation.

Allison Agsten


Looking Back on Celebrating Urban Light

July 21, 2009
Untitled, uploaded to flickr by honeybeejen

Untitled, uploaded to flickr by honeybeejen, July 12, 2009

We began Celebrating Urban Light in January, and since then more than six months and a thousand images have passed by. The project, which invited visitors to submit their pictures of our landmark sculpture, left me wondering how digital photography has impacted the way we perceive public art since these days anyone can take a picture of art, upload it, and distribute it worldwide within seconds.

Curious, I posed my question to Charlotte Cotton, head of LACMA’s photography department, and to Joshua Decter, director of USC’s Master of Public Art Studies: Art in the Public Sphere program. Cotton told me that the sharing aspect of digital photography has created a communal experience among photographers, particularly in terms of participation in contests like ours. There’s a feeling of being a part of something, of being a part of art. This photographic exchange, she said, turns a fixed, monolithic sculpture like Urban Light into something even bigger than it already is.

For Decter, the more important question is if a picture—one person’s re-imaging of art—can transform another person’s relationship to and understanding of said art. His answer—it’s debatable. Decter said that photography creates a “sensation of access” which is quite different from actual access, even though some contend that the former can be substituted for—or has already become interchangeable with—the latter within the broader public sphere of culture. He gave me a great example—seeing a picture of a friend’s baby and actually holding the baby are entirely different experiences; one can hardly compare to the other. In the case of Urban Light, I have to agree; there’s nothing like passing by 200 gridded, vintage streetlamps alit.

I connected with both Cotton’s take—digital photography creates a new, shared art experience—and Decter’s take as well—there’s nothing like the real thing. Together, their ideas reminded me of a core concept of artist Koo Jeong-A’s work that I find rather enchanting: it is only once her work is seen as art that she considers it complete.

Allison Agsten


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