Job: Museum curator
Role: While their day-to-day responsibilities vary, the curator's principal role is to be the in-house authority on specific collections and subject areas within a museum or gallery. The curator's main job is to develop a collection, which might involve conducting research, travelling to exhibits and collections around the world, and meeting with collectors and donors to discover new and exciting artists or artifacts in their chosen area of expertise. Curators also spend large amounts of time reading, writing, publishing, cataloging and teaching, as well as ensuring the accuracy of everything from exhibit signage to social media messaging.
"It's a very varied job, but at its core there's a knowledge base about a subject and a way of presenting that subject both in a scholarly way but also for the general public," said Moira McCaffrey, the executive director of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization, who has 25 years experience in the industry, 20 of which were spent as a curator.
Education: A vast majority of museum curators hold an advanced degree in their chosen field of expertise, either a masters or a PhD, but also acquire hands-on training before starting their careers. Ms. McCaffrey says many curators will work as assistant curators or research assistants while pursuing their degrees.
"There are museology programs offered in universities where you get a masters in museology, and they tend to be broader programs," she said. "But it's a bit less common to become a curator directly from a museology degree; it's more common to study in your chosen field."
Salary: According to Ms. McCaffrey, the salary for museum curators ranges from "shockingly high" to "shockingly low," and depends on a wide range of factors, including the location, size and financial well-being of the organization, as well as the curator's educational background, experience and level of responsibility.
"If you're working for a small organization – and there are many small arts organizations that do a fantastic job – you could be earning a fairly low salary, but there's probably a lot more flexibility written into your job," she said. "If you're working for a very large institution where you are expected to have advanced degrees in a very specialized field and you're expected to build a collection, you might have very long working hours and also be expected to be on-call for all kinds of events and research trips that can be very demanding of your time, so the salary is much much higher."
Ms. McCaffrey says the salary of a museum curator ranges from about $30,000 a year to over $100,000. According to the Canadian Museums Association's national compensation survey of 2011, the national average salary for a museum director/curator was $68,559 a year, for a senior curator it was $63,492, an intermediate curator averaged $51,151, while a junior curator earned an average of $42,243.
Job prospects: Ms. McCaffrey says that while demand for museum curators has remained steady throughout most of her career, she has noticed a recent spike in job openings.
"We're in a demographic now where a lot of baby boomers are retiring, and so that's going to see a changing of the guard in our institutions, and as a result I think we're seeing positions open up now," she said. "These are some key positions that have had people in them doing a fantastic job for decades, and those people are now retiring."
Challenges: Like most cultural institutions, many museums across Canada struggle to fund their programming.
"There's always a need to look for funding in order to pursue a project, to write the grants and so on that go with that project, and that's a challenge everyone accepts," Ms. McCaffrey says. "If you've got a fantastic project that you think really deserves an exhibit, you'll need to work with your institution to find the funding to support that project. You don't just walk into a room and say 'I have a great idea. Let's run with it.'"
Among the challenges museum curators face are the heavy demands of the job, which extend well beyond the typical workday.
"Museums are incredibly busy places," Ms. McCaffrey said. "One of the challenges is that to really do a great job, to present a great exhibition, to write a publication that is going to make a difference, to catalogue a collection … to do all of those things takes time every day."
Why they do it: Museum curators enjoy working in an environment that allows them to not only pursue the subjects that excite them, but also share that excitement with the world.
"Perhaps one of the common threads is that people are really passionate about the potential museums hold to bring people together to engage them on important subjects," Ms. McCaffrey says. "There's a real love of the artwork and the material culture that goes with that subject, and then there's a desire to share that and to have people love it as much as you do. I think museum curators share a belief that people can really be moved and changed by what they see in an exhibit."
Misconceptions: Ms. McCaffrey says that many people think the work environment of museum curators is quiet and slow moving, when in fact the opposite is true.
"These are definitely hopping places, there's a lot going on. It's not a hushed environment where you go into an office and close the door and there's old stuff there. They are really exciting places where there's a ton of stuff going on," she says.
Furthermore, Ms. McCaffrey says that the word "curator," once reserved for those working in cultural institutions, has found its way into everyday speech.
"Music DJs 'curate' their programs and fashion writers 'curate' their selections of the best looks for fall, and so on," she said. "It waters down the word so that people don't always understand what's involved, and they don't understand the amount of work that goes in to being a good curator."
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