Tips for New Curators

            Judy Dales and I have been working together for many years traveling the Fine Focus exhibits. Each time we learn something new and make improvements. When we first started out, the advice of artists and curators like Sandra Sider, who curated the first Fine Focus, proved invaluable. Finding the right co-curator or a committee to help can lighten the load as curator. I learned many things as a co-curator of Fine Focus 02, 04 and 06, show co-chairman for Fiberworks at Houston Center for Contemporary Crafts, and as co-curator of Focus: Materials and Meaning.

I like to begin the process by writing a Vision Statement to help coalesce ideas for the show. Consider your goals: why you are curating this particular show, what you want to accomplish? Is your main goal selling the work, educating the public, or perhaps documenting a particular element of the art quilt movement? Write down your ideas in a few sentences discussing what outcome you want for the artists, the venues and the exhibit itself.   Artists Michele Hardy and Arlene Blackburn, curators of Fine Art Quilts, premiering this spring, suggest the following: 

  • Remember that the term “curator” means to be a “guardian.”  If you solicit work from various artists for any show, plan on how you are going to care and temporarily store the work from receipt to return shipment.  Treat each piece of artwork with the utmost care, as this care reflects on the curator and the show as a whole.  A reputation can be ruined with just minimal damage occurring to one piece.  When curating a show, you are asking an artist to trust you with the care of their artwork.  Along these lines, careful check-in documentation of each piece is essential.  Check each piece as it is received for possible damage in shipment or possible pre-shipment damage.  If a piece is damaged while in the care of the curator, they should immediately contact the artist to remedy the situation.

  • When creating a prospectus for a show, convey the message in the most direct terms possible.  Make sure that each description or requirement is not convoluted with unnecessary language that can be misinterpreted. A great deal of time is wasted for both the artist and organizer in asking and answering questions that should be obvious in the prospectus.

  • Keep the contact info on the website and on all forms up to date and accurate so that artists can easily contact you.

Notify artists on schedule about their acceptance or rejection, so that they can enter other shows. With many shows only allowing work less than 2 years old, artists want to enter the work not accepted into other showsQuilt Artist and Curator Judith Trager has curated many shows as one of the curators at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, including most recently the traveling exhibitions ”Potluck” ”Elements” and “Rooted in Tradition”.
Tips from Judith: 

  • Get to know your show overall--each and every piece-- and your artists.

  • Formulate a good working relationship with the traveling company (if you are going to travel the show) and/or the gallery or museum where the show is going to premiere. Have many meetings with them to really understand what their needs are (which might be very different from yours). Do a little bit a glad-handing, wining and dining. It helps to build loyalty to you as a curator and to the organization that you represent.

  • Do not take anything for granted. Get all the paperwork done in a timely fashion and make sure there are no surprises. Work with a good graphic artist and do not overlook using as many people to help you as you need. One of the biggest problems is the curator micromanaging and taking on too much stuff.

Judy Dales, who is the co-director of the Fine Focus touring exhibits and Focus: Materials and Meaning offers these suggestions for your show: 

  • Call Chris Johnson at Milne Scholnik Associates in Phoenix Arizona at (602) 264-1234 to get insurance for the time the work is in your care. They have a great policy for quilt artists. We use them for the Fine Focus exhibits. We pay around $100 for every $10,000 of insurance for a year. This policy covers the work in transit and at venues and at your house, in your car, wherever. There is a deductible of $500 per loss.

  • Write an interesting press release and distribute it to the artists to submit to their local papers.

  • Have an extra slide projector and bulb on hand for the jury.

Curator of The Roots of Racism exhibition Susan Leslie Lumsden, gives these tips, adding,  “These are the ‘lessons learned’ that are still fresh in my mind 3 years after the show was scheduled to end.” 

  • If it is a traveling show, having similar sized pieces makes shipping the show hugely easier.

  • The learning curve is huge if never done before. Do not let that stop you, but be aware that there is a lot to learn while others are waiting for you to learn it!
  • You might not have time or energy left to create new work of your own while you are committed to the project.
  • Think of it as adding a new skill level to your resume. Actually, it’s more like adding your master’s degree.
  • Chances are entry fees or even show rental fees will not cover the financial outlay.
  • There very well could be unexpected opportunities that come far after the "end" of the project.
  • The relationships you develop while on the project will stay with you for many years. You'll learn who is capable and willing and who the whiners are.
  • There are many, many small details. You have to get them right.

  • Even the most experienced venues can miss something important. You need a way to make sure it is handled, even if you cannot be there.
  • If the subject matter is emotionally charged, you can expect to attract people who get emotionally charged.

Joanie San Chirico, who has a position as Gallery Committee Chair at the Ocean County Artists’ Guild, Island Heights, NJ, has curated of many shows, including
 The First  (2003) and Second (2005) Miniature Art Textiles International Invitational Exhibit, traveling exhibit Beyond the Stitch,  the Fiber Revolution Exhibit at Brodsky Gallery, Common Thread at Phoenix Gallery and Beyond the Stitch II at the Ocean County Artists’ Guild, Island Heights, NJ. She suggests: 

  • Leave plenty of lead time before the Opening; even the most professional artists sometimes forget to send resumes, statements and details along with their work.

  • Trade magazines, i.e. Fiberarts, American Craft etc., need at least 3 months lead time to print your listings. Most newspapers require a month. Plan ahead.

  • If possible, make a web site or have one made for the exhibit.  The exposure for the exhibit will be greatly multiplied and sales will increase.

  • If the venue is at a volunteer-type community art center, confirm that someone will be gallery sitting in all the hours that the gallery is supposed to be open. (I have to make myself available for the entire month in case of no-shows).

  • Follow up with the venue to be sure the artists are paid for sales. Most galleries will not issue checks until the exhibit is over, sometimes even the month following closing.

  • Follow up and confirm delivery of unsold work back to the artists.

Jeri Riggs has curated several shows including Time Squared:  Art Quilts by the Manhattan Quilters Guild which traveled for 2 years (once to Japan), The Northern Star Quilters Guild Challenge: which goes to Lancaster Quilters Heritage Celebration each year, an exhibit of Fiber Revolution quilts, an exhibit of Manhattan Quilters that went to Lowell New England Quilt Museum, one solo show, and a  small group show of  2 artists, says, “It is a fun and time consuming opportunity, which is great if you like  attending to detail, keep lists well and have many folks to help.” 

Jeri gives the following pointers for shows that are traveling to venues: 

·         Traveling shows benefit by having quilts all same size. 

·         Prepare a shipping container, which ideally is a big sturdy container made expressly to fit the quilts, with room for a condition book (a book with a page for each quilt with a photo, artist’s name, title of work and spaces for each receiving venue to list any concerns such as loose stitches, dirt, insect damage, tears, etc).
·         Quilts should have hanging rods (basically slats with screw eyes in each end, which fit in the sleeves and can allow nails thru the screw eyes) cut to fit every quilt, which are labeled and travel with the quilts. 

·         Quilts (and slats) should go into cloth bags labeled with the name of quilt and artist. Labels on the back of each quilt are mandatory (name of quilt, artist name, address, phone, email).  

·         If you roll the quilts, add some acid free tissue to wrap around them before they go in the bags.  

·         If sent flat, they can just be in the muslin bags. You could use plastic bags, I guess, and label them, but I worry about hot conditions melting the bag plastic into the quilts. 

·         I would put plastic around the whole thing, in case of water damage.  

·         Include copies of all the paperwork AND email copies to the folks on the receiving end, so they can print their own if yours get lost or they need the info for other purposes (websites, catalogs). 
·         Get an insurance policy big enough to cover the work while in your home. 

Jeannette DeNicolis Meyer, who spearheaded the Layers of Meaning SAQA exhibition, offers this constructive advice to the next organizer working with a non-profit art organization:
·         Expect that you will be the person most interested in the exhibit’s success. Paid personnel will come and go, and commitment to the exhibit will vary according to the perceived importance on their to-do lists. The difficulty is in the fact that you, as a volunteer representative of the exhibiting group, are not actually the person who has the power or control. Learn to be assertive in a positive manner. 

·         Work backwards. Start with the opening and work backwards with deadlines for the various events that need to occur for the exhibit to open. 

·         Write everything down after meetings and email attendees after the meeting with your understanding of what was said and who was going to do what by when.
·         Take that list into the next meeting and ask for specific things people have done to get to their goals. For example, if a staff member has said she will find a speaker, ask, “Who have you had a chance to contact? What was their response?” as opposed to “How are you coming on the search for the speaker?” which can be answered vaguely with, “Fine, it’s coming along.” 

·         Spend time on the prospectus. Remember to ask for materials and techniques.  When entering the quilt title onto the sheets the volunteers running the slide projectors are working from, enter the technical information as well. This will allow the volunteers to answer questions about processes and materials in an organized manner.
·         Decide how you will deal with framed work and include that information in the prospectus.  ·         Check out the room in which slides will be shown. This should not have to be said, but here it is: make sure the room can be thoroughly darkened so the slides can be shown in the best possible conditions. 

·         Push for an itemized budget. It would be easier to know what the gallery can really do to support the show if one knew what the total budget was. I was involved, unexpectedly, in fundraising in the last few months to pay for the speaker and to help fund the catalogue.  

·         Schedule a SAQA meeting in conjunction with the opening. We benefited from having visiting artists from outside our region attend our meeting. The excitement generated from the exhibit infused the meeting.

One of the most rewarding things as a curator is seeing the fruits of your labor. Seeing the exhibit I have envisioned come to life is a moment of great pride. I get a thrill when I see our exhibit featured in a major magazine like Quilting Arts, an image from one of our shows is printed in AmericanStyle, or when I get a call from a museum asking to acquire several works for their permanent collection.  These moments make all the hard work worth it!  

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6 Responses to “Tips for New Curators”

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    Thank you very much for publishing this tips! Very useful! Young people who are interested in this but don’t have much experience should be thankful that someone are up to share his knowledge!

    With best regards, Anastasia.

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