Curators? Sit Down and Get Comfortable. Here's Your Expanded Job Description

In a recent post on Mellon's vision for the humanities, we dubbed their holistic "no stone unturned" approach the "humanities vision wheel." Mellon's vision lies at the center as the hub, with interrelated grants springing outward like spokes.

Is the analogy a bit overwrought, a tad forced? Perhaps. But we firmly stand by its underlying logic.

When Mellon seeks to transform a sector of the arts, it shuns a piecemeal approach. It's all or nothing. Spokes on their humanities "vision wheel" include funding classic scholarship initiatives, efforts to modernize bibliographical studies, reimagining how humanities departments build out their collections, and equipping liberal arts students with practical skills to land quality jobs in the real world.

We also see this thorough approach in their work in the curatorial field. From our vantage point, we've identified at least three areas in which the foundation is active. The first is making curatorial work a financially viable one for qualified individuals, particularly artists (some of whom may be disillusioned. Not that there's anything aesthetically wrong with being a debt-laden 30 year old abstract painter-turned-barista. Actually, check that; that is aesthetically wrong.) 

Secondly, the foundation is fostering diversity across the curatorial field. For example, a little over a year ago, it awarded $250,000 to Atlanta's Spelman College to pilot a two-year collaboration, dubbed the Curatorial Studies Program, which aims to prepare the next generation of African-American students for curatorial professions.

All of which brings us to the third, and most ambitious, ingredient in Mellon's holistic bouillabaisse: redefining curatorial work itself.

Now, upon first glance, one would think that its recent five-year, $500,000 gift to the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum to create a new curatorial position committed to contemporary textile art is about simply generating more work for GW's HR department. But look closer, and you'll see that the gift also aims to reframe the traditional role of curator.

How so? For starters, by fleshing out a role that we'll call "university liaison." The new curator will:

Leverage the museum’s diverse collections and engage students and faculty in developing exhibition content and programs that fulfill the museum’s educational mission. The curator will collaborate with GW academic departments and help develop lectures, programs and other special events to build an audience for contemporary art within the university and the general public.

Additionally, the curator will "cultivate relationships with collectors and donors to build acquisition funds while soliciting work from collectors and, in some instances, artists themselves." And, we'd be remiss to also mention that the curator’s responsibilities will also include "creating opportunities for student and faculty research, academic projects, and museum career training."

That's a lot of roles and responsibilities.

But given the fact that the money's coming from Mellon, we shouldn't be too surprised. It has a habit of not only modernizing classical arts sectors, but figuratively dragging them out of their cloistered ivory towers to mix and mingle with the common folk. (For evidence along these lines, check out their work in the opera world.)

As for the curatorial world, Mellon seems to be saying, yes, a 21st-century curator needs to be a cultured and erudite specialist in their given field — but that's not enough. They also need to be a savvy, back-slapping brand ambassador equally at ease around artists, university colleagues, and 19-year old students tethered to their smartphones.

In short, they need to be an agent of engagement.

Hmm..."Agent of engagement." That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Much better than a "vision wheel." And a whole lot better than "holistic bouillabaisse."