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Become a curator: how to use your knowledge to create memorable cultural experiences

Elise Tornos

Launch your career as a curator in a specialised field: how to get there, what to study and what you'll earn.

Over the past decade, the number of Australian (and international) travellers has grown steadily. For example, between 2013 and 2014, 20 percent of Australians attended a classical concert, 27 percent visited an art gallery, and 28 percent went to a museum.

At the heart of these activities—at least, on the part of the gallery, museum, or cultural venue in question—is the curator, whose job, broadly speaking, is to research, collect, interpret, and display artefacts within the context of a cultural institution. They are also often involved in the acquisition and preservation of objects, as well as the development of exhibitions organised around coherent themes (such as the artistic development of a particular photographer, or the artefacts related to a specific historical period or cultural movement).

To accomplish the above goals, curators focus on understanding what will draw in public audiences, while also submitting grant applications, managing staff and volunteers, producing catalogues, writing labels for displayed objects, liaising with artists, cultural custodians, and other cultural institutions, preparing marketing materials, and coordinating activities designed to attract public interest and financial support.

In short, curators perform one of the most important roles in the field of cultural recreation—it can be hard work, but it’s also rewarding, with many curators becoming renowned public figures who exercise significant influence over the cultural life of Australia.

In contrast to professional careers, such as law, medicine, and accountancy, there is no one academic path that prepares one to work as a curator. Instead, aspiring curators are generally advised to focus on an area of study that’s broadly relevant to the type of cultural or public institution in which they’d like to seek employment.

For example, according to Museums Australia, zoo curators benefit from completing Bachelor degrees in biological science, zoology, wildlife management, animal behavior, and similar disciplines; museum and art curators can gain an advantage from studying fine arts, archaeology, history, museum studies, or arts management; and would-be curators of historic sites are encouraged to study arts, history, archaeology, paleontology, or other relevant subjects.

Leading curators often acquire postgraduate qualifications in a bid to become more competitive in the job market. Some of the more popular degrees include the Master of Museum Studies, Master of Cultural Studies, Master of Museum and Heritage Studies, or Master of Fine Arts. The popularity of curation as a career path has also led some prominent institutions, such as Melbourne University and the University of Sydney, to offer dedicated Master of Art Curatorship programs. These degrees emphasise topics such as the history and philosophy of museums, exhibition management, issues in art conservation, heritage law and policy, audience engagement, and so on.

Once employed, curators fall into four hierarchical categories with the following average salary expectations:

Curatorial Assistant: $45,000—58,000
Assistant Curator: $45,000—71,000
Curator: 50,000—86,000
Senior Curator: $80,000—128,000

Curators use their passion, knowledge and expertise to create memorable cultural experiences.