Curators are stewards of collections. They are the primary caretakers of the objects in the collections of archives, libraries, galleries, museums, individual and corporate collections and many botanical gardens. The curator’s role may include some or all of these tasks:
• Collecting objects.
• Making provisions for the effective preservation, conservation, interpretation, documentation, research and display of a collection.
• Making the collection accessible to the public.
Most visual artists and the general public become aware of curators in their capacity of organizer of exhibitions—a curator (or director acting as a curator) runs most public (non-profit) galleries. In the past, curators often had degrees in fine art; today, many curators have degrees in curatorial studies. Curators are either employees of visual art organizations and are attached to a specific institution, or they freelance, proposing projects to the resident curators of institutions.
Curators can also be understood as tellers of stories. They tell their stories in both imagery (the artifacts themselves) and interpretive accompanying text. The exhibitions or “stories” are revelatory: by seeing a large number of pieces by one artist or by viewing the images of several artists in one exhibition, viewers find deeper meanings through the relationships between the images, and by doing so they discover the thread of the curator’s intension in creating the exhibition. The curator’s story is told in the artifacts themselves for those who want to discover it, as well as in the catalogues, artist statements, the narrative of gallery docents and sometimes in text panels that are part of the exhibition.
As stewards of our heritage, curators working in public institutions have a responsibility to tell us the most interesting or most important stories of, and for, their constituencies. They are responsible to the local taxpayers (the general public whose taxes support the institution), the artists of their community and their members, sponsors and donors. They must show us the best of our local, provincial and national artists—those artists who excel at saying who we are and those who make a significant contribution to contemporary art practice. And, when possible, they should show us the work of very significant artists from outside our communities. The role of the curator in a public institution, or the institution’s curatorial objective, is often defined in the institution’s constitution or mandate.
Curators also function significantly in the lives of Canadian visual artists because of the role they often play in the peer jurying process of the Canada Council and other funding agencies. Their regional knowledge of artists helps coordinate public investment in specific artists and/or art practices. Artists who are often featured in the exhibitions of significant public institutions are those who become part of our cultural heritage. Art critics, dealers and collectors pay particular attention to the artists who capture the interest of curators.
Curators are responsible for knowing what is going on in their communities— provincially, nationally and internationally. The specific responsibilities of a curator vary from institution to institution; some curators have a specific focus on a geographical region (such as for a relatively isolated or rural public gallery) whereas others may specialize in a medium or genre of art. Curating is a creative and intellectual activity designed to provoke thought about a thesis. It is a process of narrative, assembling the work of artists around a theme, issue or concern. The curatorial process can address the relevance and interconnections between the works of diverse artists, or it can focus on the work of a single artist revealing new insights into their process.
Curators who work in an institutional environment (the large public galleries) have to shape the thesis of their exhibitions in the context of their gallery’s mandate, its academic/aesthetic worth, and its relation to the institutional audience. Their exhibitions often have to serve as a basis for public funding applications, so they must be meritorious. Curators approach artists, galleries and collectors for work to include in their exhibitions—work that supports their thesis.
A curator can become aware of you by means of reviews of your work in the media, by seeing your work in an exhibition, by word of mouth from other visual artists or through the artist’s efforts to meet the curator. Many contemporary artists have representation by a commercial gallery and seek to exhibit in public galleries as well. Their shows in commercial galleries can serve as a means of introduction to curators (and vice versa). No matter how it comes to be that an artist has an interview or studio visit with a curator, the artist should be properly prepared.