Why I am Not a Curator

February 18, 2017

Another old unfinished post from the drafts pile… now complete!

Often I have to explain to my colleagues that I studied art history (with a concentration in architecture) in undergrad, and recount how I decided that staying in art history wasn’t for me. Those outside the arts fields usually wonder what one does with an art history degree anyway, and I have to explain that many graduates either go into teaching or research or, after getting their master’s degree or PhD, become curators. As much as I respect the brave souls who choose those routes, I have some fairly strong opinions about why I didn’t think that curating or teaching was for me. And most of those reasons have to do with money and politics.

Regarding the PhD route, my undergraduate advisor recommended that I take it, so I spent a summer doing independent research at Stanford to test it out. Although I don’t mind research, I was so unmotivated that I never actually wrote the paper I set out to write. I read a lot of books, took a lot of notes, and then… did nothing with it. After this, I decided that research wasn’t really my strong suit. In talking with graduate students in my department, I also heard that intra-departmental politics is practically a field of study unto itself, in addition to navigating the complex path into a graduate program and then a tenure track. Finding funding for one’s work is always a challenge, as is finding the right academic support and colleagues. This all sounded like more than I wanted to tackle.

Next up I considered working in an art museum or similar curatorial position. This seemed more interesting since you don’t just do research, write papers, and teach students, but also have some engagement with the public. I was able to get an internship at a museum in San Francisco, in the education department, working with high school students. As part of the internship, we met occasionally with curators from other departments to understand their work. What I learned was that while curators of large museums, which depend on a certain amount of public patronage, do get to focus on their own research interests sometimes, they also have to produce shows that will be popular enough to sustain the museum the rest of the time. Besides that, much of the work requires meeting with donors and others who are needed to keep the museum running. None of that sounded very appealing to me. Museums are ultimately a big business, although one that depends on a combination of philanthropy, public support, and commercial business. From my perspective, this makes it even harder and more complex than “normal” business with its ordinary financial imperatives.

As to the art market, I never had as much interest in other types of art as I did architecture. So in addition to a dislike for promoting or selling art and meeting with donors, and to a lack of interest in the financial side of things, I have never had much interest in what the art market actually sells. That made staying out of galleries an easy decision. Art critic Holland Cotter has a great piece from a couple years ago that very well describes my own attitude toward buying art: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/arts/design/how-to-spend-120-million-edvard-munchs-scream.html

My last internship test case was working for an architecture firm that specialized in historic preservation. This gave me the chance to see historians at work in a private/commercial setting, plus an introduction to architecture practice in a general sense. I found the environment much more engaging, and enjoyed working with others on projects that combined research and design. And so I applied to architecture school. The next summer, I went to a different firm, but found a similar excitement in working on projects there, which helped solidify my choice.

This isn’t to say that working as an architect is somehow immune from the imperatives of funding or of public opinion; in fact, it’s far from that. At my current firm, we specialize in education work, including both public schools and universities, in addition to various other types of public projects. All of these projects require large amounts of public funding and, thus, public oversight. We have to argue for our projects at city council meetings, internal oversight meetings, with school districts and their committees, and sometimes with individual donors. But somehow, I feel like the “politics” here is more straightforward than it would be for, say, a museum show. We are trying to build or improve schools and beloved community buildings, and it’s less a question of what or why than of how. How do we design something that works for all the owners, users, and others involved? How do we spend the public’s money most effectively and efficiently? Our design reviews and discussions within my firm are collegial and sometimes even exciting, as we work together to solve these problems. Then we convince our clients, and then the public. It’s a relatively transparent process, even if we don’t always get what we want. Since our clients typically come to us with funding in hand, our main concern is using it wisely and well.

Architecture is still a luxury of the 1% when it comes to housing or personal use, or even when it comes to directing major works of public architecture (eg, major donors have an outsize say in how building are built). But architecture can be part of everyone’s day to day experience, and I believe publicly-funded architecture ought to be responsive to the public interest. The buildings we work on are ones that many people get to use and enjoy. So I’m happy I get to work where we get to make this happen!