Who's Who in the Art Museum

This post is for you if you’re interested in having a museum exhibition, volunteering or working at a museum, or seeing your art in a museum collection. You need to know how a museum administration is structured.

Alyson Stanfield at the Milwaukee Art Museum

In front of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is probably my favorite museum design to date. From the parking garage to the hallways, this building is stunning.

While I haven’t been part of the museum world since 2001, I am fairly confident that what I share below can still be helpful to you. Keep in mind, however, that not all museums operate the same and that there is a vast difference between how small and large museum personnel divide their responsibilities.

Museum Hierarchy

Board of Directors
(or University Dean, Provost or President)

Director of Museum

Museum Staff

Volunteers

Museum Staff Roles

DIRECTORS

Museum directors are responsible for overseeing all operations. They keep the board of directors informed through regular meetings and as-necessary contact. They serve at the pleasure of the board.

Directors often have art backgrounds, but more and more of them have business experience and political (fundraising) acumen.

The director juggles trying to please the staff, the board, the university (if on a campus), public, and volunteers.

How an Artist Might Work with a Museum Director

In museums with curators and other staff, you probably wouldn’t have much contact with a director. However, it might be necessary for a director to assume some of the roles below if there are only a few people working at the museum.

CURATORS

Curators, who answer to the director, are the objects experts on a museum staff and often hold doctorates in art history. It is the curator who shapes the content of museum collections and exhibitions.

Some museums are lucky to have more than one curator. In these cases, curatorial responsibilities might be divided into exhibitions (curator of exhibitions) and collections (curator of collections). Alternatively, they could be differentiated by medium (curator of prints) or eras (curator of contemporary art) or even have a chief curator and an assistant.

Senga Nengudi speaking

Curators at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver interview Senga Nengudi about her work.

 

Smaller museums might not have a curator, instead relying on a director to perform all of the curatorial responsibilities in addition to administrative ones.

Curators often perform services for the art community outside their own walls. They might judge exhibitions for organizations or other institutions; sit on grant panels; or contribute text to magazines, brochures, and catalogues.

Curators are the reason you want to keep excellent records of your work and exhibitions and why you want to become better and better at articulating what your work is about. They will want to dive in to every detail of your career.

How an Artist Might Work with a Museum Curator

If you were to submit a proposal for a museum exhibition, it should be addressed to the curator – with full knowledge of how your proposal works with the museum’s program.

The curator makes studio visits in order to select the work for exhibition. He or she would conduct extensive interviews with you (privately and, perhaps, in a public forum) in order to ensure the intellectual integrity of the exhibition.

The curator is also the person who recommends additions to the collections.

Please note that museum exhibitions and acquisitions are a long-term goal. It takes more than submitting work to a curator to see your art in a museum.

REGISTRARS

Registrars are responsible for the care of the artwork might report to either directors or curators.

Registrars oversee shipping, insurance, donor forms and condition reporting. They are meticulous record-keepers of the museum and usually have an art or art history background.

How an Artist Might work with a Museum Registrar

The registrar will ask you for object lists with insurance values. He or she would also coordinate any shipping arrangements of your work and communicate with you if there were any problems with the condition of the art.

PREPARATORS

Preparators, often artists themselves, are the people who prepare a space and its content for public view.

Preparators are responsible for the physical aspects of storing, transporting, and exhibiting the artwork. They pack, uncrate, move, and install the work. They might paint the walls, put up labels, and build pedestals and other display mechanisms. They also oversee lighting and climate control.

Each museum divvies up these responsibilities differently, but preparators usually report to the registrar.

How an Artist Might Work with a Museum Preparator

A preparator might check with you about your wishes for installing the work. Is it right-side-up? Did you want 4 or 5 feet between these two pieces? 

EDUCATORS

Museum educators interpret the artwork for the public. They take the art-ese of the curator and transform it, magically, into the vernacular. (You can easily differentiate labels written by the curator from those written or edited by the educator.)

DAM Dye Garden

Educators at the Denver Art Museum were probably responsible for the “Dye Garden,” as part of their textile focus last summer.

Educators oversee group tours, studio programs for children and adults, public lectures, label writing, interactive spaces, demonstrations, gallery guides, and other interpretive programs. They are also responsible for docent training.

A large museum would separate the education responsibilities among the staff, so that you might have an educator for school programs or an educator for family programs. Most educators report immediately to the director, but some old-fashioned museums have them working under curators.

How an Artist Might Work with a Museum Educator

Educators hire artists to speak, to give demonstrations, to train docents, and to lead classes. They might also ask you to volunteer for these roles.

 Do you have any questions about how museums operate? Leave a comment and I might be able to answer with a future post.

 

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