Being an art gallery curator

 25 February 2011

The Courtauld Gallery houses an internationally important collection of paintings from early Renaissance to modernist works of the twentieth century. We spoke to Dr Caroline Campbell, Curator of Paintings, about her creative career.

A central part of Caroline’s job involves curating exhibitions.
A central part of Caroline’s job involves curating exhibitions.

After obtaining a first class honours degree in Modern History from University College, Oxford, Caroline decided to pursue her interest in art history. She initially embarked upon a postgraduate course at The Courtauld Institute of Art, completing an MA in History of Art (Italian Renaissance), then staying at The Courtauld for her PhD.

The job of an art gallery curator

“As curator of paintings at The Courtauld Gallery, I am responsible for our wide-ranging collection of international standing. I also play a central role in conceptualising, developing and delivering our acclaimed exhibition programme.”

A central part of Caroline’s job involves curating exhibitions, including:

  • Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests (2009)
  • Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge’ (forthcoming exhibition 16 June to 18 September 2011, co-curator with Dr Nancy Ireson)

Her job also involves collaborating extensively with the education, fundraising, marketing and conservation departments. Professors, other academics and skilled technicians also form part of her working team.

“I also undertake research and organise conferences for art historians in the academic world.  We are part of The Courtauld Institute of Art, a college of the University of London. The Gallery is really a showcase for its research.”

The challenges of gallery work

"This job is an ideal combination of intellectual and practical work. You don’t just think and talk, things actually happen."

The chronological breadth of the Courtauld’s paintings means that Caroline has to work collaboratively and across different disciplines and periods. This can include working with specialist scholars, including participants in the Visiting Curators’ Programme.

“My main challenge is to present our collection to as wide a public audience as possible. Making sure that people really enjoy our paintings is just as important as the educational aspect. I organise lectures and study days which are open to everyone. These encourage people to investigate art for themselves. I also undertake research to develop my expertise in previously unfamiliar fields.”

Skills and qualifications to be a gallery curator

Caroline’s first degree is in Modern History, but curators come from a wide range of academic disciplines including languages, English literature and even science. The lack of a degree in Art History at undergraduate level is no barrier.

“It is your intellectual training that matters.  Of course some people have a first degree in art history, and that can work as well. These days a PhD is virtually essential as competition for gallery jobs is fierce.”

Starting out in art history

A strong interest in art history is, of course, essential. Regular visits to art galleries and museums during childhood helped to spark Caroline’s love of paintings. She was also inspired by a collection of Northern Irish art owned by a family member.

“Whilst growing up I spent time living in the USA and my parents took me on regular trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. During my undergraduate years at Oxford University I encountered the academic discipline of art history for the first time. I enjoyed this so much that I decided to apply for an MA in History of Art.”

Becoming an art gallery curator

Caroline’s first paid job after her PhD was as Print Room Supervisor at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Jobs like this provide an essential grounding in Western European Art.

“Entry level positions like my first job are scarce. It is vital to apply for everything you see advertised. If you write speculative letters, do make sure they are properly targeted and specific:  a general letter to every museum in the UK will not get you very far. After two years in that role I was able to secure my next job, Curatorial Assistant at the National Gallery.”

Undertaking internships is another way of gaining the vital experience needed at the beginning. During one summer holiday Caroline worked in a delicatessen in her home town of Belfast, to help fund an internship at the local Ulster Museum.

“Local and lesser-known galleries and museums often provide a really valuable and varied experience for interns, as they offer an opportunity to see how every department works in a museum. You don’t tend to get this experience in a larger museum. Becoming a curator is really difficult as there is so much competition out there. But never give up hope.  If you really put your heart and mind into something it is amazing what you can achieve.”

The working life of an art curator

"Entry level positions are scarce. It is vital to apply for everything you see advertised."

“The hours vary considerably each week, but I often start at around 8 am and finish at 6 pm. However, I also work an average of one or two evenings a week, to attend private viewings, talks and lectures. I tend to work at home for a couple of hours most evenings, once I have put my two young children to bed.”

Caroline employs the services of a nanny to help her combine motherhood with her busy career.

“I am fortunate in that I have the most wonderful childcare. My children are very important to me, and I always keep weekends completely free for them.”

“Working alongside these wonderful paintings and with such great people is extraordinary. I also love the fact that this job is an ideal combination of intellectual and practical work. You don’t just think and talk, things actually happen. There is real excitement in having an idea and it becoming a reality.”

Travel is also an enjoyable part of Caroline’s job and she has just returned from ten exciting days in the USA.

“I had such a fantastic time meeting so many interesting people. I recently acted as a courier for some of the Courtauld’s Cézanne paintings which have just gone on view in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.”

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