If you’ve always been fascinated by art and history, then becoming a curator might be the right career path for you.
As the art world keeps evolving, curators evolve with it. So, if you’re passionate about a particular art form, why not pull together collections of the best artists and get paid to do it? Sounds like the dream.
In this article, we’ll cover what curators do, what the job is like and what they earn, and we’ll go over the essential skills you’ll need to be successful in the role. So, if you want to know the steps to become a curator, you’re in the right place.
What curators do
Curators are responsible for managing collections of artwork, historical artefacts and other precious items. Not only are they responsible for the care of these items, it’s their duty to display them in the best way possible to both educate and entertain visitors that have come to see their collection. They can work with an array of items, including works of art, ancient manuscripts, digital artwork and scientific documents.
Types of curators
There are different types of curators that deal with a variety of different forms, from modern art to archaeology. Here are a few of the different kinds:
- Museum curator: Museums curators are responsible for managing, organizing and displaying collections in museums, as well as conducting related research.
- Collections curator: This curator travels from location to location with a specific collection and will work out of whichever museum the collection is displayed in.
- Academic curator: These curators work closely with museums to develop academic programs relating to the collection. They’re also part of art foundations and independent projects.
- Digital art curator: The focus of a digital art creator isn’t limited to physical collections, but covers an array of art that’s been created digitally.
- Section curator: If a curator specializes in a specific subject, such as African art, modern art or Renaissance art, they could be the curator of that particular section in the museum.
Duties and responsibilities
Depending on the kind of curator you want to be, you’ll have varying duties and responsibilities. However, here are the basic day-to-day tasks you’ll be charged with:
- Select, buy and borrow items for a collection
- Research, identify and catalog collections
- Make sure exhibits are stored securely, are safe and are displayed in the correct conditions to preserve them
- Arrange restoration of items and take steps to make sure they’re preserved correctly
- Organize fundraising for the museum, and market the collection to the public
- Negotiate funding and arrange the loan of exhibits
What the job is like
If you’re serious about pursuing this career path, you need to understand what the job is like to determine if it’s right for you. In this section, we’re going to cover the work environment, the hours you might have to work and the hazards you could face, and we’ll look at the job market, too.
If you’re interested in this role, there’s a high chance you’re a big art lover, and if that’s the case, you’ll be happy to know you’ll probably spend the majority of your workday surrounded by precious and irreplaceable pieces of art.
While it does sound great, there are a few things to consider. You’ll probably be spending lots of time on your feet, as you’ll spend quite a lot of your time working around the museum. You could also be asked to visit other museums to discuss transfers of pieces to your collection, or you could be asked to travel abroad to source other items. However, there will be periods of time where you’ll be working on a computer and sitting in an office.
This role has a typical Monday to Friday, 9–5 work schedule, but some evening and weekend hours might be required in the weeks running up to an exhibition launch. As you can expect, there are lots of things to be arranged and organized, and you’ll need to be slightly more flexible around these times.
While this isn’t a dangerous job by any means, there are some occupational hazards to consider.
There’s always the possibility of injuring yourself while transporting pieces for the collection, and you’ll also need to consider your exposure to chemicals. Indeed, some ancient collections in history museums have centuries-old pesticide treatments or toxic art pigments that can be a danger if not handled correctly, so you’ll need to bear this in mind.
Alongside this, you could come into contact with strong acids, as well as exposure to X-rays and radioactive isotopes that are used during the conservation dating and examinations process.
Curators surveyed gave an average job satisfaction rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars in terms of their work–life balance, their compensation and benefits, and their career opportunities. So, there’s some room for improvement but, overall, curators seem relatively happy with the work they do. It probably helps that they’re passionate about their job, with many of them working in an area they’ve studied extensively.
If you’re still interested in becoming a curator, it looks like now is as good a time as any to pursue this career, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 12% increase in jobs by 2031, which is much higher than the national average.
The BLS also estimates that there will be around 4,700 job openings each year over the next decade, with many of these positions being replacements for workers who are transferring to different occupations or retiring.
A continued public interest in museums means the demand for curators is on the rise, meaning it’s a great time to get to work and begin your career on this track. However, this is a competitive field, so actually landing a position can be tough — but we’ll cover the steps to take to become one later in this article.
As with any job, the salary for a curator can vary significantly depending on your experience. However, according to the BLS, a curator earns around $63,880 a year ($30.71 hour). This is higher than the national average, which sits at approximately $58,260.
Annual wages for curators on the 10th percentile are around $35,990, with the 25th percentile earning approximately $46,590, the 50th percentile earning around $60,110, and 75th percentile earning $79,920 per year. For top-level curators, they can earn in the range of $98,490 per year.
The highest-paying states for curators are Alaska with an average annual salary of $72,870, Hawaii with $74,580, California with $80,680, the District of Columbia with $82,030, with New York coming in at the top with an average salary of $88,910 per year.
Check out our infographic on the average salaries of curators in the US:
Essential skills and qualities
As a curator, you’ll need to have a specific set of professional skills in order to be successful. Here is a list of the main skills and abilities you’ll need to be successful:
- Communication skills: Curators need to have sharp written and verbal communication skills to do their job effectively, as they’ll be communicating with a wide range of people on a daily basis.
- Project management: As curators are responsible for organizing and managing different projects, you’ll need to have great project management skills, as well as be able to manage others.
- Analytical skills: In this role, you’ll be required to look at objects in depth to determine their history, origin and importance, so you’ll need to have astute analytical thinking skills to be successful. Attention to detail is extremely important, too.
- Research and IT skills: You’ll spend a lot of time researching artefacts and artwork, so you’ll need to be confident working with computers and know exactly where to look to find the hidden gems.
- Organizational skills: To be successful in this role, you need to have strong organizational skills. You need to be able to organize distributors, staff and the items for the exhibition effectively.
- Interpersonal skills: You’ll be dealing with many different people from many different cultures when working as a curator, so you need to be sensitive to their ideologies and needs while working to get the pieces you want and need.
Steps to becoming a curator
So, we’ve covered what the job is like, the salary you can expect, and the skills and attributes you need. But how do you actually become a curator? Here are the steps to take to become one.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right career for you
Firstly, you need to make sure that this is the right career path for you. While you might have a strong interest in art and historical artefacts, the role of a curator might not actually be a good career plan, as you’ll spend a lot of time working with the public and less time than you might think actually working with the artefacts themselves. However, if you love organizing things and want to portray them in their best light, then it’s definitely worth considering.
If you’re not sure you’ve found the perfect career for you yet, it’s best to take a career assessment, like our own 6-stage assessment at CareerHunter, so you can analyze your skills, personality and interests to find a career that’s right for you.
Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school
The subjects you need to study will vary depending on the area you’re wanting to work in. For example, if you’re wanting to become a curator that specializes in Renaissance art, it would be best to study art history so you have a foundation of knowledge around the subject. However, if you’re more interested in archeology, then studying this topic would obviously be beneficial.
Think about what topics interest you and what your long-term career goals are, as well as considering which artefacts you’d love to work with on a daily basis. Once you’ve decided, try to think about which subjects are most relevant, like science or history, and work hard to get your high school diploma in these subjects.
Step 3: Go to university
Once you’ve earned your high school diploma, it’s time to begin your bachelor’s degree. You’ll need to look into the different degrees available to you that fit what area you want to specialize in. For example, if you want to focus on anthropology, you’ll need to complete a degree in this subject.
Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree, you can move on to completing a master’s degree in your area of specialization. Subjects like anthropology, history or art are typical qualifications for a curator.
Step 4: Gain work experience
The next thing to do is to look into ways to gain work experience, whether that’s by completing an internship at an art museum or volunteering in the archives — it all helps. When it comes to looking for a permanent curator job, you’ll stand out if you have some form of work experience on your résumé. It’s also worth signing up for relevant associations, like the Museums Association, which gives you free entry to certain museums and access to online training modules, among other things.
Even gaining experience in a business administration or public relations role is beneficial, as you’ll be required to do administrative work and marketing in the role.
Step 5: Apply for assistant curator jobs
Most people in this field will start at the bottom and work their way up the career ladder, so begin by applying for assistant curator roles in the museum field. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you can gain more experience and take on more responsibilities until other curator positions become available.
Take this opportunity to learn from your mentors and use the things you learn to help you progress through the ranks.
There are many different types of curator career paths to consider, but it’s worth mentioning that curation is a competitive field, no matter the specialization, so starting early is the best way to get into the role. Tailoring the subjects that you study around the position will help significantly, as well as completing relevant museum work, whether that’s volunteering at your local museum or completing an internship in business administration.
Make sure you’re constantly learning, too. The world of art is constantly changing, and the historical artefacts that keep being unearthed are changing our concept of the world. How exciting that you could be a part of it?
Are you thinking about becoming a curator? Have a question or want to share your experiences so far? Let us know in the comments section below.