The definition of ‘curator’ of contemporary arts


When referring to the definition of ‘curator’, different people working in different fields give different answers. Mostly, people describe a curator as an organizer, a director, a manager, and there are a lot of people that would think curators are personnel responsible for exhibition planning and art dealing. In the context of contemporary arts, the definitions are limited, or defined with preconceived bias. However at least, it seems ‘curator’ is a role filled with multiple identities and responsibilities.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, the ‘curator’ refers to ‘a person in charge of a museum, art gallery, etc’. (Crowther, 1995) Its etymology comes from the Latin word ‘cura’ which means ‘take care of’. Although the definition of ‘curator’ remains inexplicit, at least from its definition we could find out that ‘curator’ is related to a very significant role in the fields of museums and galleries.

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the concept of ‘curator’, it is necessary to introduce the origin of the word ‘curator’. The first use of the word ‘curator’ has nothing to do with arts and exhibitions, but related to the person who takes charge of props and instruments for religious rituals at churches, the meaning of which emphasizes ‘looking after and taking care of’. The development of ‘curator’ in the modern context can be traced back to the 17th century (Ambrose & Paine, 2007) when the first modern museum was born in the United Kingdom. Mr Elias Ashmole donated a series of rare personal collections to the University of Oxford, which forms the preliminary development of the Ashmolean Museum, where the person in charge of the custody of those collections is called ‘curator’. Furthermore, over the time the function and concept of museum have been evolving, and as a result, the responsibilities of ‘curator’ have been transmitting from taking care of collections to conducting researches and studies of collections. Later on, in addition to its collecting and exhibiting functions, museums also take up more and more public education functions. And in order to raise more national funding, museums need to expand their visitors and beneficiaries. Therefore, as the expertise of the collections and relevant knowledge, the curator becomes the main figure in planning high standard exhibitions. As a result, the curator being the connector between the exhibitions and visitors becomes moving forwards to the front stage.

From a broader point of view, the definition of ‘curator’ differs from art institutions in different countries. Although the different art institutions have geographical and cultural differences, there are some principles in common with regard to the concept of ‘curator’. For instance, a curator should be well-educated, working in a museum or a gallery, and in charge of taking care of the collections. Even though the definition of ‘curator’ can basically be sketched out for a rough outline, there are some important issues that are still not mentioned. For example, does the curator who works independently also meet the definition? Are there any qualifications of being a curator? What are the roles and responsibilities of a curator?

In order to find out a clear definition for this term, it is important to address two essential problems of the curatorship of contemporary arts: what the role of a curator is in the contemporary context and what a curator is doing in the contemporary arts fields.

The role of a curator

There are many different descriptions of the role of ‘curator’ in the contemporary arts fields. Liah Greenfeld describes curators as ‘gatekeepers’ (1988), he believes that the curators are certainly powerful and their jobs are to select ‘great artists’. I partly agree with his point. The curators introduce the subjects into the art world, and write articles to explain why the artists do so. Based on their professional knowledge of the arts and their own concepts, curators have the power and privilege to define what the great art is and what is not. Indeed, the work of curators is quite like that of gatekeepers. However, ‘gatekeeper’ seems too cold and stereotyped. From the perspective of contemporary arts, curators study the art history, communicate with the artists and devote their passion to making exhibitions because they want to discover the new arts, enrich the art world and explore the new area of arts. Therefore, the definition of ‘gatekeeper’ is not really suitable to describe that of the ‘curator’ at present, because it does not embody the basic elements of the curators. However, the curators are still playing the roles like ‘gatekeepers’, while curators are more proactive, versatile and with unique personality charms.

With regard to the description of ‘curator’, Seth Siegelaub holds another different opinion. He thinks curators do not represent the so-called ‘right’ artistic values, nor do they play the role of ‘God’ messengers in the arts fields. Instead, if the entire art history is compared to a show in progress, the ‘curator’ is nothing more than just a role or part of the roles for the show (Obrist, 2001). From the perspective of historical development, I agree with his point. If the whole art history is a big show, every one involved would be playing a role, including the artists, curators, collectors and so forth. But even if in a show, there are some roles that are still more important than the others. Seth Siegelaub’s opinion only points out that the curator is one part of the art history but he does not mention if the role of the curator is important or not.

There are many others descriptions and metaphors of ‘curator’. Many scholars describe the ‘curator’ as ‘trigger’, ‘chef’, ‘teacher’, ‘conservator’, ‘translator’, and ‘experimenter’. Among these metaphors, I prefer the comparison to a translator. On the one hand, Gair Boase says:

For most exhibition-goers, curators are producers, mediators, even editors of arts. While the curator and the translator work in much the same way, a good translator’s work seldom leaves any of his or her own presence on the work itself. Therefore, curators should in no way obfuscate or obliterate the art works or the artistic concepts. (Boase, 2003)

I agree that the curator is a bridge between the art world and the public, and the curators’ job is to use different methods to improve the communication between the art world and the public. A curator should focus on the communication but not to judge. On the other hand, Suzana Milevska believes that the curators are playing the role of translators when they are curating within the scope of theoretical and academic contexts. She says:

The usage of the term “translation” (rather than “application”) stands for the awareness of the confinements that appear whenever theoretical concepts are used as justification for curatorial choices of models, strategies and attitudes towards art, rather than as starting points for self-assessment and for pondering of our selection of art and curatorial models. (Milevska, 2007)

I approve of her viewpoint, because the concept of ‘curator’ presents a double identity combining ‘scholar’ and ‘executant’. A curator, as being bringing theories into practice, is a cross-disciplinary profession that often ‘translates’ different theoretical concepts uncritically into exhibitions or other curatorial projects and events. So the ‘translator’ is a very vivid description for contemporary art curators who based on their professional knowledge and practice effectively process information in various fields, and to promote mutual communication and understanding among the different fields.

What a curator does

Nowadays, the word ‘curator’ is becoming more and more popular, but the public is still not clear what curators are literally doing. Seth Siegelaub points out that the key issue of the contemporary art curatorship is ‘demystification’ which is a process in which curators attempt to understand and be conscious of their actions(Obrist, 2001). For this section, it is essential to make clear what contemporary art curators are doing.

The famous contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once in his book mentioned Harald Szeemann for his definition of ‘curator’:

As an administrator, amateur, writer (author of introduction), librarian, manager, accountant, animator, conservator, financier, diplomat and etc. This list can even be expanded including the guard, the transporter, the communicator, the researcher and etc. (Obrist, 2008)

This is a true portrayal of curators who are working in the contemporary art fields. Because during the development of the contemporary arts, curators always explore new artistic fields and directions, and always play the ‘translator’ role between different fields, as a result, what those pioneers should or have to do had not been told. Fortunately, there are many curators working for the contemporary art organizations, and their job descriptions will help us to discover what they are doing.

There are some job descriptions of the contemporary art curators at Tate Modern and other art organizations. To analyse these samples, I summarize the general duties of a curator as follows:


  • A curator is in charge of building the organizations’ permanent collection. Including researches and proposing acquisitions, such as identifying the gaps in the collection and actively seeking the resources and new areas of collecting or making recommendations and decisions to eliminate items which are not suitable for the missions and principles of the organization.
  • The curator should deal with the paperwork, including signing the agreement, such as the Deed of the Gift agreement, assigning it an accessions number, cataloging it and numbering it.
  • The curator also need to maintain and develop an appropriate network of contacts among artists, gallerists, critics, scholars and auction houses. Furthermore, curators need to cooperate with other department and build relationships with potential benefactors.

2.Collections and Exhibition:

  • The curator must be competent and knowledgeable about the collections of the organization, in order to lead, cooperate and manage the exhibition, and collection, as well as display project team.
  • The curator makes the exhibition plan. According to the different exhibition purposes, the curator holds the responsibility for project budgets; drawing up, managing, monitoring accurate detailed budget estimates for expenditure and income, to obtain best value without comprising high standards of presentation and also the curator holds responsibility for establishing and maintaining important schedule dates for the project.
  • The curator negotiates about loans and liaise with artists, collectors, public and private institutions.
  • Research existing or new proposals for exhibition and collection display projects.
  • Lead tours and presentations of displays and collection exhibitions. Research, Development and Writing.
  • Draw upon art historical and curatorial expertise to research and develop existing and new concepts for exhibition and collection display projects.
  • Present researches and critical thinking about art historical and social issues, the curatorial role.
  • Follow and engage in scholarly debate about modern and contemporary art.
  • Maintain and expand expertise in the specialist area(s).
  • Contribute to organizations’ overall research program.
  • Increase expertise in specialist areas by visiting exhibitions, researching and writing papers or articles, presenting lectures, attending conferences.
  • Write informative and scholarly texts for publications, including editorial supervision for exhibition catalogues. Write/present project descriptions for the organization. Write accessible gallery wall texts and captions.

3.Administration and management

  • Supervise junior staff as line manager.
  • Supervise interns or volunteers.
  • Give expert advice to external bodies.
  • Take on administration-related tasks and projects.

In general, the above job descriptions show all duties of a contemporary art curator who is no matter working for an organization or working independently. It helps to demonstrate the purpose of a curator’s job, which is to devise, develop and deliver exhibitions and collection displays and to contribute intellectual, art historical and curatorial expertise to all through research, curating and writing. In addition, to research and propose acquisitions within organizations’ acquisition strategy is required. From the job descriptions, it can be seen that there are many essentials of a curator: he or she must be a specialist being knowledgeable for his or her job, and must have great writing and research skills, and also must be good at communication and cooperation with different people. The emphasis of the curator is moving away from a purely academic research function towards a broader-ranging career which sets foot in many different fields, such as education, entertainment and communication.

Form the paragraph above, in order to help understand the term of ‘curator’, I wanted to find out a legible definition of ‘curator’ for the contemporary arts, but it is really difficult to define the word ‘curator’. However, I still tried to discuss about when the curator appeared, what the role of the curator is and how a curator works, so it proves the reason that why the ‘curator’ is so hard to define is because the ‘curator’ plays many different roles and holds many different responsibilities at the same time. However, some essential elements and principles of the curators have been mentioned, and I would try to give a definition of the contemporary art curator for this study: the definition of ‘curator’ is an open concept. A contemporary art curator is working with an art organization or working independently to apply his or her expertise, creativities and activities to research and develop the collections and concepts, meanwhile organizing and delivering exhibitions or events in order to be affluent in intellectual, art historical and curatorial knowledge to human beings.



為了讓大家對“策展人”的概念能有一個比較全面的認識,這裡有必要簡單地介紹一下“策展人”這個名詞的來由。最早的“策展人”一詞和展覽展示或者藝術都沒有半點關係,它最早是指代在教堂和教會當中負責保管宗教儀式所使用道具和法器的人,其詞義更多強調的是“保管和照料”。“策展人”在現代語境中的發展可以追溯到17世紀,當時在英國誕生了第一個現代意義上的博物館,阿什莫林先生捐贈了一批珍貴稀有的個人收藏品給牛津大學,也就是後來阿什莫林博物館(Ashmolean Museum)最初的雛形,那時候負責保管這些藏品的人被稱作“策展人”。進而,隨著時間的發展,博物館的概念和職能也在不斷地演化,策展人們的主要職能也從保管藏品慢慢地轉變為對藏品的研究和梳理,再後來,博物館除了具有收藏和展示陳列的功能以外,也越來越多地肩負起了公眾教育的職能,同時為了籌得更多的國家基金,博物館機構需要擴大自己的受眾群體和受益人群,於是,作為熟悉藏品屬性和具有專業知識的策展人群體成為了策劃優質展覽的中流砥柱,從這時起,策展人開始逐漸走向台前,成為了鏈接展品和受眾的一個橋樑。




在當代藝術範疇,對策展人的角色的描述有很多種版本,雷阿·格林菲爾德(Liah Greenfeld)認為策展人是扮演“守門人”的角色,他們擁有很大的影響力,他們的工作就是去篩選“偉大的藝術家”。這樣的描述在某種意義上是成立的,策展人根據自己的專業知識或者自己的理念來審視藝術作品,在展出的過程中選取他們認為是“好的藝術”的作品參加展覽,同時撰寫文章來介紹和評價作品,的確,他們擁有這樣的特權和影響力,的確很像“守門人”一般,但同時,“守門人”這個描述所散發出來的刻板和冷漠往往又不能惟妙惟肖地展現“策展人”的全貌。從當代藝術的角度出發,很多策展人研究藝術史,與藝術家們進行大量的交流,投入大量的精力去組織策劃展覽,這些很多都是因為策展人對於發現新的藝術和推動藝術史的發展充滿激情,這種激情絕不會是“守門人”所應該具有的特質,當代藝術中的策展人更多表現出來的是積極主動的行事風格、靈活多樣的工作方式以及擁有獨特的人格魅力。

已故的美國策展人賽斯·西格爾勞布(Seth Siegelaub)對“策展人”有著另外一種描述,他覺得策展人並不能代表所謂的“正確”的藝術價值,也不能扮演藝術領域當中“上帝”信使的角色,如果將整個藝術史看作是一部在進行中的表演,那麼“策展人”無非僅僅就是這個演出當中的一個或一部份角色而已。從歷史發展的角度來看,這種說法無懈可擊,而且不論是藝術家、策展人、收藏家亦或者是我們每一個人,在歷史的舞台上都是一個“演員”而已,而從這樣的形容中我們卻無法判斷“策展人”之於歷史的重要程度到底是怎麼樣的。

當然,對於“策展人”的描述和比喻還有很多,有很多學者用“扳機”、“主廚”、“老師”、“保管員”、“翻譯”、“實驗者”等等詞彙來詮釋對“策展人”概念的理解。在這些當中,筆者覺得“翻譯”這個形容比較接近我們所討論的“策展人”概念。首先正如蓋爾·波斯(Gair Boase)所說:“對於大多數去看展覽的人來說,他們把策展人看作是製片人、調解員、甚至是藝術編輯,雖然策展人和翻譯這兩個工作在某些時候是非常相似的工作方式,但人們就很少感覺到翻譯人員在其作品中所留下的痕跡,同樣的,策展人的工作也應該是‘潤物細無聲’的形式,他們的工作不應該混淆和泯滅藝術家所要表達的藝術觀念。”

策展人是一座溝通公眾和藝術世界的橋樑,他們通過運用知識和不同方式來促進公眾和藝術世界之間的交流和互動,而每一位策展人都應該將這種“交流”置於最為首要的位置,而不僅僅是對於藝術作品作出評判。策展人蘇珊娜·繆拉夫斯卡(Suzana Milevska)也認為策展人在理論和學術範圍內從事策展工作的時候其實就是在扮演“翻譯”的角色:“‘翻譯’這個術語要優於‘應用’,因為它蘊含了一種潛在的自覺,是出於將理論概念作為策展的最初判斷,從而進行選擇展示手段、策略以及對藝術的態度,而不僅僅是以自我審視和思考我們所選取的藝術或者策展形式為出發點。”




策展人漢斯·烏爾里希·奧布里斯特(Hans Ulrich Obrist)曾經在他的著作中提到了哈拉爾德·塞曼(Harald Szeemann)對於策展人職能的描述:“策展人擔當行政管理者、撰寫人(介紹文字的撰寫)、庫管員、經理、會計、漫畫師、保管員、融資達人、外交大師等等。而且這一長串的單子還可以無限擴大,例如保安、搬運工、協調員以及研究員等等。”




  • 策展人需要負責規劃藝術組織的永久收藏。負責研究及提出收購計劃,例如確認已有藏品的斷檔以及積極地開拓新的收藏領域,為優化符合機構主旨和使命的藏品提供建議和作出決定。
  • 策展人需要負責一部份的文案工作,包括簽署協議。例如起草和簽署關於作品贈與的協議、備案及歸檔。
  • 建立和維護機構與藝術家、批評家、學者、拍賣行之間的網絡。此外、策展人需要和其他部門進行協同工作,建立與潛在的贊助者的關係。


  • 策展人必須對機構擁有的藏品具有足夠的知識儲備和管理能力,從而可以帶領、協調、以及管理關於展覽和藏品,以及展覽團隊。
  • 策展人負責起草展覽方案。根據不同的展覽方案,策展人負責規劃預算、項目管理、合算并監督資金的支配並在預算範圍內達到最佳的展覽質量,同時策展人也要負責規劃展覽項目的日程安排。
  • 策展人負責與藝術家、藏家以及公共或者私人機構的展品租借事宜。
  • 對現有的或新的展覽展示方案進行調研和開發。
  • 負責藏品展示和演示,包括研究、調研以及撰寫專業文章。
  • 依據藝術史和策展專業知識來研究并開發現有的或新的展覽展示方案。
  • 策展人根據藝術史和社會現象進行研究和批評性思考。
  • 關注並參與關於當代和現代藝術的學術討論。
  • 在專業領域內保持和更新自己的知識結構和必要技能。
  • 為機構整體的研究項目作應有的貢獻。
  • 為出版物撰寫學術文章,例如為展覽畫冊撰寫重要評論文章;為組織機構撰寫項目介紹文案;撰寫展覽前言及展品介紹。


  • 擔負項目經理的職責,監督基層員工的工作。
  • 負責指導實習生和志願者。
  • 為第三方機構提供專業建議。
  • 負責項目的行政管理相關工作。




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