If it’s on your bucket list to schedule a museum exhibition, volunteer or work at a museum, or see your art in a museum collection, you will benefit if you understand how a museum administration is structured.
While I haven't been part of the museum world since 2001, I am confident that what I share below can still be helpful to you. Keep in mind, however, that not all museums operate the same way, and there is a vast difference between how small and large museum personnel divide their responsibilities.
Let’s start with an overview of the basic museum hierarchy.
Board of Directors
Or University Dean, Provost or President. This official body is ultimately responsible for the overall well-being of the institution.
Director of Museum
Now we can look at the individual roles of the staff members.
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), the public, and volunteers.
How an Artist Might Work with a Museum Director
In museums with a curatorial 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 on staff at the museum.
Curators, who answer to the director, are the objects (art) experts on a museum staff and often hold doctorates in art history. Being the objects experts, curators shape the content of museum collections and exhibitions, and write and speak extensively about the art.
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 by chief curator and assistant.
Smaller museums might not have a curator, instead relying on a director to assume 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.
How an Artist Might Work with a Museum Curator
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.
If you stumble when writing or talking about your art, join us for Magnetic You.
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If you were to submit a proposal for a museum exhibition, it should be addressed to the curator.
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.
The primary responsibility of registrars is a big one: they are responsible for the care of the artwork. They make sure it’s safe, secure, and in good condition. They might report to directors or curators.
Registrars supervise shipping, insurance, donor forms and condition reporting. They are the 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, 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.
As I said, museums divide 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? At what height should the hanging discs in your installation fall?
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.)
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, train docents, and lead classes. They might also ask you to volunteer for these roles.
While these are the people at museums that you would work most closely with, you will also come across store managers, volunteer coordinators, development directors, marketing directors, and technology experts.
My hope is that you have a better understanding of how things work behind the scenes in art museums.