What lies ahead for museum curators?
New research confirms changing priorities across the curatorial profession and the need for new kinds of investment, writes Stephen Deuchar.
Art Fund’s steadily increasing commitment to supporting the UK curatorial profession — whether through creating and funding training opportunities, or through the Jonathan Ruffer grants scheme that supports curatorial research and travel, or with our New Collecting Awards to help young curators learn about buying and collecting — is, of course, directly linked to our traditional function of helping museums to build and develop their collections. For however much money they may raise, it goes without saying that museums cannot make good acquisitions unless they have expert curators.
Curators provide the knowledge of objects and subjects that make the identification, acquisition, display, interpretation, understanding and care of collections possible in the first place. But in the wake of funding cuts, especially at local authority level, their expertise is still not as widely respected and appreciated as it needs to be, and the pool of expert museum curators across the UK is consequently in danger of becoming ever shallower. We will continue to invest in efforts to buck this trend, but we need more allies and supporters in this cause, and more understanding of the depth of the problem and the range of possible solutions.
With this in mind we recently commissioned some research into museums across the country so we could get closer to the current state of play. Its findings show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there has been a decline in the number of curatorial and specialist roles nationally across the past 15 years, and that there is a related (and in places debilitating) anxiety across the profession. Many voice concern at the frequent absence of in-depth knowledge around specialist collections within individual institutions, and there are worries about the increasing workload of those remaining following redundancy programmes and retirements. While there is a still-growing expectation that curators should focus on making crowd-pulling special exhibitions, some feel that a lack of resources means that good housekeeping, professional collections management, and research projects are being undermined by consequence. There is a strong sense among many curators that their plight is going unheard.
More positively, the initial findings are also pointing to how and where institutional priorities might now be shaped in response to this national climate in which expectations have risen and funds have diminished. So we have begun to look at, for example, the possibility of investing from time to time in specific collections’ management projects, over and above the support we already occasionally give for conservation work in the wake of a new acquisition: there may be ways in which we can facilitate new or better storage, documentation, digitisation, access to reserve collections and so on. We would also like to hear from any museums looking to invest in initiatives to support knowledge exchange, for instance through capturing the expertise of retiring or retired curators. And, at a more general level, we are keen to encourage further collaborations between national and smaller museums, especially in the areas of information sharing and the loan of works of art. The 40 or so national Subject Specialist Networks (SSNs) that have been established by and are run with Arts Council support, through which curators in a variety of fields can pool their knowledge online and through other means, seem to be full of potential. Much of it may yet be unrealised, but the vision of a network of curatorial collaboration across the UK, with individuals eventually taking on structured responsibility to share their specific areas of expertise with relevant colleagues nationally, is enticing, and one we would like to help move on to the next stage. In fact, we have just given a grant of £10,000 to Redeye, a Manchester-based organisation pursuing an initiative to set up a new Photography SSN within the Arts Council’s scheme. There are still many collecting areas for which no SSN exists, and others which exist but are largely dormant. We pledge to do more to help this important national endeavour to expand and succeed.
In addition, the research highlights the potential for forging and extending relationships between museums and universities. There was a time — surprisingly recently, in some quarters — when art curators may have felt they had little in common with, and little to learn from, art historians working within academia. There used to be an unhelpful, polarised but popular view which caricatured museum specialists as being narrowly concerned with objects, little concerned with engaging with their audiences, and art historians as ideologues for whom the work of art itself was less important than the theories that could be attached to it. Nowadays, there is much greater mutual respect and a number of museum-university partnerships (beyond the traditional sphere of university museums) fully under way. In the case of mima (the Middlesbrough Institute for Modern Art), a museum originally run by a local authority has been taken under the wing of a university (Teesside), and elsewhere there are other instances of successful collaborations at the level of research, programme and funding. The logic of bringing academic expertise to bear upon museum collections makes great sense in a climate where curatorship is thinly stretched; and it also allows universities to demonstrate — as they are increasingly required to do — that there is a truly ‘public’ outcome to their work.
To such a background we should ask ourselves: what are the right qualities for a good museum curator or leader to possess as the 21st century unfolds? At a recent seminar organised by the Art Fund at the Frieze Masters art fair in London, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, and I led a discussion between a group of UK curators and their American counterparts, representing institutions including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, National Museum Wales, Glasgow Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Yale University Art Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Supporting the findings of our research, there was consensus that while pure object expertise and/or academic accomplishment still remains valued, at least in the larger and better-funded organisations, skills in fundraising and in institutional advocacy, a willingness to cater actively for new and diverse audience needs (once considered the exclusive preserve of dedicated learning and interpretation staff ), and a serious engagement with growth of digital media are all increasingly prized. Better mechanisms for succession planning are also widely called for — for the looming question of leadership and ‘what next?’, wherever and whenever a funding crisis threatens, is as keenly felt at the curatorial level as at the directorial.
Attempting to meet the challenges of 21st-century curatorial reality (and to avert the threats that forever loom here) is surely one of the weightiest and most important tasks for current and future museum leaders. This is one of the reasons that Art Fund trustees recently agreed to collaborate with the Clore Leadership Programme (established in 2003 under Chris Smith’s chairmanship with the objective of strengthening management capabilities within the cultural sector) by funding an Art Fund Curator Fellowship from 2017. This grant has been made in response to an unexpected recent trend that has seen steadily fewer Clore applicants coming from visual-arts organisations or museums (as opposed to other arts bodies), with those outside London notably poorly represented. In the face of such a worrying signal, our funding will be directed specifically towards regional museum applicants, in the hope that the excellent track record and opportunities offered by the Clore scheme will prove irresistible to museum applicants across the country, hitherto discouraged by the commitment of time and money that participation entails.
Great curators very often make great leaders, and there could be no more important moment than now to foster the development of both. Clore Leadership alumni include Nick Merriman of the Manchester Museum, Maria Balshaw of the Whitworth and Manchester City Galleries, Tony Butler of Derby Museums and, of course, the former curator, now Art Fund trustee and director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Axel Rüger. There is hope.
This article first appeared in Art Quarterly, winter 2016