Why You Don’t Need an Art History Degree to Be a Curator

Abigail Cain
May 20, 2016 10:15PM

Although the title was certainly a mouthful—“Curator: Autodidact Polymath or Academic Expert?”—the question at the heart of a recent panel at Frieze New York was straightforward: Do you need an art history degree to be a curator? 

Study Art Sign (For Prestige or Spite), 2007
C. Grimaldis Gallery

The group of five professors, artists, and curators—including moderator and Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffmannwere more or less unanimous in their answer: No, a curator can get by just fine without one. But that proved to be just the beginning of a wide-ranging conversation about what it takes to be a curator today. From changes in the core of curatorial practice to still-pervasive gender disparities in the field, here are four takeaways:  

Curatorial practice today looks very different than it did 25 years ago.

Hoffmann noted that the answer to their central question would have been quite the opposite just a few decades earlier. Originally trained as a theater director, he recalled that at the beginning of his curatorial career, “I was often confronted with a lot of skepticism. At first, I think I was [seen as] interesting and curious, but once my practice became more known there was more resentment and antagonism.” He said he was frequently asked the very question the panel was posing: How can you work at a museum without having a degree in art history? Today, however, that query “seems very conservative and outdated,” Hoffman said.

Beatrice von Bismarck, professor and founder of the masters program “Cultures of the Curatorial” at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, agreed that exhibitions (and by extension, the role of the curator) have changed dramatically over the past several decades. Previously, “the assumption was that a curator was someone who objectively presented something to the public using the knowledge that he or she acquired as an art historian.” But since the 1950s and ’60s, there has been an increasing acknowledgment of subjectivity. “A curator is never a transparent foil through which something is mediated to the outside world,” von Bismarck said.

Now, von Bismarck says, curating has come so far as to be recognized as its own medium. “That is a big change, because it means you really have to consider the relationship between artworks and exhibitions,” she pointed out. “The practice of curating is very much a practice of connection, of making constellations.” In this model, curators need knowledge beyond the art-historical—von Bismark brought up performing arts and communication studies as specialities that could aid in mediating between the various groups typically involved in putting together a show, while political science, anthropology, and gender studies might ground a sense of curatorial ethics and responsibility.

Art history brings curators down to earth. But does it also keep them from asking the hard questions?

Although an art history degree isn’t required for curators, the group agreed that it certainly wasn’t useless. In fact, Hoffmann noted that during his years as a teacher at curatorial programs, “I always felt that art history was the one class that brought everybody down to earth.” He remembered students tossing out far-fetched ideas like curating without artists—intellectually stimulating concepts that would be difficult, even impossible, to realize. “Art history always pulled them back to the reality.”  

But that sort of grounding comes at a price, according to artist Michelle Grabner. A curator herself—most recently of the 2016 Portland Biennial—she used the example of Helen Molesworth’s exhibition “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957,” on view at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art last year. Grabner saw the show as a potential jumping-off point to look at progressive education in general, a direction she said Molesworth didn’t pursue. “For the academic or scholastic curator who’s really focused on putting forward a history, that is what is often problematic,” she said. Grabner believes that curators who avoid using art-historical elements to make prescriptions for the present or predictions for the future are using their training as a sort of “safety net”—rather than a solid foundation from which they can push beyond the boundaries of the past.

Can art historians and curators get along?

At one point, University of California Berkeley associate professor Julia Bryan-Wilson inverted the question, asking: Do art historians need to be curators? “I think art history should be responsive to the urgencies of the political situation and should be responsive to the constellations of social relations,” she said. “I think it often is all of those things, but I do think, too, that the more there can be a dialogue between these fields and not some kind of wall, the more enriched we all are.”

Hoffmann pushed back, noting that hurdles remain in bringing the two groups closer. “There’s an incredible snobbism among a certain academic art historian towards curators in general,” Hoffmann said. “It’s like, ‘Oh you’re getting your hands dirty with objects in an exhibition space? I’m just living in my own intellectual sphere.’”

Bryan-Wilson agreed that when she was in graduate school, there was a stigma for those pursuing curatorial careers versus professorships. However, she asserted that in her experience those sorts of attitudes have faded. And, she added, the snobbery sometimes goes the other way. She told the story of an unnamed institutional curator who “proclaimed that he could do things much more nimbly because he didn’t have to work on something for five to seven years to create a book. He bragged about how much more effective he could be than me in the world as compared to me in my ivory tower. This kind of antagonism or hostility—which I think is totally foolish—goes both directions.”

You don’t need a degree—as long as you’re a man.

Bryan-Wilson again reframed the discussion with another variation on the central question: “Who are the people who become high level curators at prominent institutions without academic degrees?” she asked. “They are most often men who float to the top as if every current is pushing them aloft, without ever having to prove themselves by working their way up through the ranks or garnering institutional validation in the way that women still need to.”

She pointed out the skewed gender ratios in art history and curatorial studies programs, where women often outnumber men by a large margin (some have cited figures as high as 500%). Yet in professional contexts men still have disproportionate influence, even outnumbering women in fields like museum directorships. That disparity led her to conclude that “in a way, the question, ‘Do curators need to be academic experts?’ in part has already been answered for us, which is, ‘Not necessarily—but only if they are men.’”

Abigail Cain