Q&A: What's it like being a curator?

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper on how she got into curating, her favourite part of her job, and her advice to aspiring curators.

Dr Rachel Sloan

What was your path into curating?

I went to university in the States and did a joint degree in English and history of art. I had planned to go on to postgraduate work in English, but a part-time job at my university’s art gallery and a year abroad in London – a considerable portion of which was spent visiting museums here and on the continent – persuaded me that I would be much happier in a museum.

I came back to London to do my MA and PhD at The Courtauld, during which time I volunteered in the Paintings department at the V&A and served as a researcher for the National Inventory Research Project. After completing my PhD, I returned to the States for a few years, where I did a graduate internship in the Drawings department of the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, followed by a curatorial research fellowship at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. I’ve been at the Courtauld Gallery since January 2012.

 

How did you come to specialise in prints and drawings?

The subject of my PhD was the interaction of Symbolist artists in France and England in the late 19th century, and a number of the artists I worked on were prolific and talented draughtsmen and printmakers. Studying their work first hand in the intimate setting of a print room was thrilling. After I finished my studies, I found that more and more of my scholarship focused on prints and drawings, and when I had the opportunity to work with drawings at the Getty, it seemed like a natural step.

But my interest in drawings actually reaches much farther back. I remember visiting a small show of Italian Renaissance drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago when I was quite young – perhaps ten or eleven? – and finding that I preferred looking at the drawings to looking at finished paintings. There’s something ghostly and elusive about drawings, like a direct – if fleeting – glimpse into an artist’s imagination.

 

What does your job involve on a daily basis?

There isn’t really such a thing as a typical day for a curator! I spend quite a lot of time working with the collection, whether organising an exhibition or display (working with prints and drawings, which are light-sensitive and can only be displayed for relatively short periods of time, means that the next one is always on the horizon), researching a single work, or working with our print cataloguer.

Gallery technician Jack Kettlewell and assistant curator Rachel Sloan hanging a Cézanne watercolour

Rachel and Gallery technician Jack Kettlewell hanging a Cézanne watercolour for the exhibition ‘Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery’

 

One of my major responsibilities is managing the Print Study Room, so I might be overseeing one of our busy drop-in sessions (to which anyone is welcome to come on Wednesday afternoons during term time), assisting with a class, or teaching a class myself.

Sometimes I’m not even in the Gallery – I might be attending (or sometimes speaking at) a conference, visiting an exhibition or an art fair, or accompanying a work from the collection when it goes on loan to another museum.

 

What’s your favourite thing about being a curator?

Getting to work directly with incredible works of art and having regular opportunities to share them with a wide range of audiences, whether in an exhibition, a session in the print room or a lecture. The tremendous variety and hands-on nature of the work. The fact that no two days are the same.

 

And what is the hardest part?

The fact that no two days are the same!

 

What has been your career highlight so far?

Something that’s currently in progress – I’m working on a small show on English and German Romantic landscapes. I’ll keep you posted!

 

What is it like to work at The Courtauld Gallery?

Being able to work with such an excellent collection is a real privilege, and one of the most rewarding aspects of working in a university gallery is that we share the collection with such a wide audience – in a single week in the Print Room we might have as visitors a class from the Courtauld Institute, a renowned scholar from another institute, and members of the public who are thrilled to be able to spend time with a single print or drawing.

Being part of a relatively small staff (there were twelve of us when I arrived, which has grown in the last year to fifteen) means that there’s a great sense of camaraderie and cooperation – on a major project (like an exhibition), everyone pitches in.

 

What kind of qualities do you think a curator needs?

A passion for original works of art, a keen eye for detail, excellent communication skills (both verbal and written), the ability to work happily both in a team and independently… and tenacity! It takes a tremendous amount of time and hard work to become a curator, and of course once you start working, the work doesn’t stop. Not that I’m complaining – there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

 

What is your favourite piece of art in The Courtauld collection?

That’s a difficult question – especially considering that there are about 7000 drawings and 22000 prints to choose from! The Turner watercolours are amazing (though if I had to choose just one, it would probably be On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen).

On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen

J M W Turner, On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, c. 1841

As far as prints go – again, a tough choice, but I think I might choose Canaletto’s Views of Venice – there’s something tantalisingly eerie and unsettling in his prints that is much less present in his paintings.

Canaletto, Imaginary View of Dolo with Market

Canaletto, Imaginary View of Dolo with Market, c. 1741-44

I also have a sentimental favourite that’s neither a print nor a drawing: Gauguin’s Te Rerioa.

Two years before The Courtauld moved to Somerset House, Samuel Courtauld’s collection was sent on a tour of major American museums, and I remember being taken to see it when it stopped in Chicago. Not only did I find Te Rerioa enchanting on the wall, it was also the image on the cover of the catalogue, which my mother bought. I grew up with it staring up at me from my parents’ coffee table. Maybe my coming to The Courtauld was fate…

Paul Gauguin, Te Rerioa

Paul Gauguin, Te Rerioa, c. 1897

What would your advice be to any aspiring curators?

Spend as much time with works of art as you can – learn to consider them as objects, not just images. Not having a first degree in the history of art isn’t a barrier to becoming a curator (many curators have studied literature, languages, history or even science at undergraduate level), but postgraduate study is becoming increasingly important, if not essential. Polish your writing and speaking skills.

Internships are really important – get as much, and as varied, hands-on experience in museums as you can, whether it’s working as a research assistant, giving gallery talks, helping with admin on an exhibition – all of it will be valuable. (Undertaking an internship at a smaller institution will likely allow you to gain a more varied experience than you might at a larger one.) Grab any opportunity you can.

Lastly – don’t give up! Becoming a curator is by no means an easy or straightforward process, and the competition for jobs is intense, but if you’re truly passionate about it, persevere.

 

For another perspective on life as a museum curator read V&A Curator Glyn Davies’s diary of what his job involves.