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Educational Background of Modern/Contemporary Curators


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Hi all,

I posted this is a different forum but wanted to share here. I've been working on a spreadsheet of where mod/con curators or directors got their education. This helped me as I have been deciding where to apply/where to attend. I looked mostly at museums I'm interested in working. 

Fascinating that for modern/contemporary at least, less that 20% have doctoral degrees. 

In order of most frequent: NYU, Courtauld, Columbia, Bard, Hunter, and Williams. Another consideration is how many students these programs have per year...

Hope this helps someone else! It could be made into a google sheet if people want to contribute to it. 

https://www.dropbox.com/s/ii0568y5n50yysg/Modern%2FContemporary Curators (3).xlsx?dl=0


Edited by igotangels
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Amazing!  This is incredibly helpful, at least for me - I am thinking of going this route!  

Though, this list is also a tad disheartening to be completely honest - I come from a small state school for my undergrad as it's all I could afford.  I've done some really awesome things during my tenure there, but am wondering if it will compare to all these amazing names I'm looking up to as I'm heading into grad school.

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This spreadsheet has very limited implications. You include curatorial assistants and the most recent hires among them have PhDs. That should tell you all you need to know about whether or not you will need a PhD to be competitive on the modern/contemporary market.

A more productive data set would order these hires chronologically. While it was - and to a certain extent, still is - possible to become a curator of contemporary art without a PhD, the trend has shifted towards increased professionalization and academicization. There are plenty of online resources that catalogue press releases for recent hires - theirs is the education you should model. Your peers (and competition) are not curators of contemporary art who were hired with a CUNY MA fifteen years ago. If you look through the openings for curators of modern and contemporary art on AAMC, you'll see that over half the assistant-level and nearly all of the associate-level jobs now list "PhD preferred." 

It seems like you've already decided not to complete a PhD and you're looking for justification. Your education and professional career are yours to pursue, but you are working from flawed data. I am based internationally and many of my peers have two-year graduate degrees, but without native or near-native fluency in a language other than English, that route is a wash. The PhD is becoming a pre-requisite to be competitive in the United States beyond entry-level curatorial positions.


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gdnittis is exactly right. This is a very misleading spreadsheet, and doesn't take into account the fact that curatorial positions at major institutions are now going almost exclusively to PhDs. Sure there are plenty of current curators holding an MA (or less) but anyone with insight will tell you that these days are long over. I have two friends who took positions as curatorial assistants after finishing their PhDs - jobs that used to go to BAs. 

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@gdnittis @kaufdichglücklich

Thanks for the responses. I appreciate having additional input.

The purpose in making and sharing this document was not to justify my or anyone else's decision. This data is absolutely unfinished and skewed toward my own interests, as I stated above. I'm still working to compile research to satisfy my own curiosity. Feel free to take it or leave it. Clearly, from data or anecdotal evidence, a case can be made for both paths. 

Best wishes!

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  • 3 months later...

Ditto to others have said about the dubious usefulness of such a list, though it's definitely interesting in other ways.

I would add, however, that getting a job as a contemporary curator involves many, many more factors than merely one's education.

Developing close relationships with prominent contemporary artists, publishing in significant venues, and curating one's own exhibitions can be as or more important than education in many contexts. The exception to that would be highly academic or scholarly museums, such as The Met or the Getty. You're not going to find any curators there without PhDs. But you WILL find them at MoMA and the Whitney, and even moreso at more cutting edge contemporary institutions. Did either of the two curators of the last Whitney Biennial have PhDs? What about the Biennial before that? Think about people like Mia Locks, Ruba Katrib, Thomas Lax... These are not people who were appointed to their jobs fifteen years ago. These are young, young curators.

If you look at most of the chief curators of the major contemporary art programs in American museums today, relatively few of them actually have PhDs. That is in contrast to smaller museums, often affiliated with Universities, which often have more of a focus on scholarship. And on the flipside, there are dozens of PhDs out there who can't land jobs in museums precisely because they don't have the experience. This is partly why certain fellowships at places like the Walker are so coveted: they often lead to full time jobs.

I don't mean to suggest getting a PhD is a bad thing. But it certainly isn't a surefire path to a curatorial job; nor is it necessary to have that particular degree in order to find a position curating contemporary art. What it is, however, is a way of supporting yourself while you build the kind of profile that WILL land you a curatorial job, and that is what smart PhD are doing these days. So you will find them curating shows, publishing, and doing fellowships before they defend, and often times taking jobs before they finish their degrees (think Elena Filipovic). There are many interesting examples of this.

As I wrote in another post today, the key thing is network. All of this is important, but it's like planting in unfertilized soil unless you build up that network, which provides the nutrients for all your work as a curator and art historian to grow. That may not be as true in other fields, but it's 100% true in contemporary.

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  • 8 months later...

I think you are right about networking and that is where this list is useful in my opinion. I was recently accepted into a curatorial program and one of the factors I took into account was alumni. Where are they, what are they doing, is there a strong alumni association. Your correct that networking is key and one part of that is connections with current and previous students. 


That said I have an update for your list. Is it possible to edit it? 

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