Why Are Top Museum Curators Joining Commercial Art Galleries? – ARTnews.com

If Katherine Rochester, who has a PhD in art history, had been told 10 years ago that she would work at a gallery, she would not have believed it. “I think 75 percent of the people who go to art history graduate school are doing it to become curators,” she told ARTnews in a recent interview. “You weren’t getting a PhD to work in a commercial gallery.”

Her doctorate on experimental animation in interwar Europe led her to roles at museums and foundations, including the VIA Art Fund, the Getty Research Institute, and the Whitney Museum over the past 15 years. But in February, Rochester surprised herself when she announced she would join blue-chip gallery Lehmann Maupin, which has four locations around the world, as curatorial director.

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During her job search, Rochester interviewed with collecting museums, but found the demands of that process, and in turn what is expected of a senior curator, unnecessarily arduous: “I was finding that some of the tasks were just really exhausting,” she recalled. “One institution flew me out and asked me to present three years of programming with budgets… at the end I decided I did not want to work like that.”

While she was offered that job, Rochester took the Lehmann Maupin role because the interview process was far more stimulating. “I feel like I am working like an art historian again,” she said. “I wrote a monographic dissertation, and my goal with that was to make the case for that one artist’s relevance, to not just look at the famous moments of her career, but to look at the whole arc of it.” When interviewing for the gallery job, Rochester was enthusiastic about this parallel because it would involve “working long term with artists again in a really committed and intensive way.”

Posts at commercial galleries are becoming increasingly covetable, even to institutional curators who have worked at the highest levels. In March, Kate Fowle, who had served as MoMA PS1’s director for just under three years before unexpectedly resigning in June 2022, was hired as the inaugural senior curatorial director at mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Like Rochester, several curators-turned-directors told ARTnews that one draw of a gallery job is working closely with the enterprise’s roster of artists, where sustained interactions comprise a large part of the work, as opposed to the more detached role of curators at museums. Of her new post, Fowle said it was the opportunity to think deeply with artists: “I am somebody who has had long term relationships with artists throughout my career. Now those relations lie at the heart of my job. From when I wake up to when I go to bed at night, I’m thinking through and with artists.”

A view of an art gallery showing an artwork on top of a vinly print of a lush landscape.

Installation view of “Elfie Semotan: Color y carne / Color and Flesh,” 2022, at Galeria Campeche, Mexico City, which Davila-Villa & Stothart consulted on.

Courtesy Davila-Villa & Stothart

As with countless galleries, curators now seem to be terming their practices as “artist-first,” moving away from curator-as-auteur persona that was glorified a decade earlier in favor of stewarding solo projects or shows driven by existing networks in which the artists can shine. In many ways, Fowle has been at the forefront of these curatorial shifts for over two decades, having founded the Curatorial Practice Master’s program at California College of the Arts in 2002 and co-editing, with Terry Smith, the 2012 book Thinking Contemporary Curating.

(Disclosure: I have benefitted from Fowle’s work, having completed the Curatorial Practice Master’s at CCA in 2018; I now work as an artist liaison at a commercial gallery in New York in addition to being an arts writer.)

The change from museum curating and directing to artist-focused gallery work aligns with her current ethos “as somebody who has thought through the lens of curatorial practice,” she said, “it is about shifting from the rhythm of a museum program to a more sustained engagement with artists: thinking about where an artist has come from and is going.”

Money, of course, is another draw for curators leaving museums. A quick glance on NYFA’s job listings shows that institutional positions pay less than comparable jobs at commercial galleries. For example, an entry-level gallery assistant position can pay up to $65,000, while curatorial assistantships at certain New York museums offer annual salaries as low as $35,000.

“Sadly, the salaries offered by most museums just barely cover living expenses,” said Anna Stothart, who preceded Rochester at Lehmann Maupin and came from curatorial positions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and the San Antonio Museum of Art. She attributes her sales commissions from Lehmann Maupin to paying down student loans and personal debt and becoming financially stable enough to eventually start her own business. Together with Ursula Davila-Villa, she co-founded Davila-Villa & Stothart, a consultancy that provides professional strategy and legacy planning to artists. 

View of artworks hanging on a clothesline at a gallery with wooden floors.

Installation view of “Ernst Caramelle: actual size,” 2023, at Peter Freeman Inc, which Anthony Elms organized with the artist.

Photo Nicholas Knight/Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc., New York

While some curators have taken on positions that are less market focused, others are gallery directors in the classic sense. Anthony Elms worked as a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia for over ten years, ultimately rising to chief curator in 2015. He joined New York’s Peter Freeman, Inc last summer as a director, where in addition to mounting exhibition he is also responsible for private sales and manning the booth at art fairs. Elms describes the shift as contingent on the gallery’s program being a good fit. “It was this particular gallery,” he said in an interview. “I’ve always had a love of artists from Eastern Europe, so that material interested me.”

By contrast, Ylinka Barotto, a director at Mitchell-Innes & Nash who has held curatorial roles at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Moody Center for the Arts in Houston, said she was brought on to solely liaise with institutions for exhibitions and acquisitions. “I increase their visibility through institutional exhibitions and acquisitions, and this offers me the opportunity to be in close conversation with my peers at museums,” noting that in recent years the gulf between museum curator and commercial gallery curator “feel less compartmentalized, which is healthy and invigorating.”

This hasn’t always been the case. Davila-Villa, who was director at Alexander Gray Associates for 5 years before going into business with Stothart, recalled a more senior curator at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin making a remark along the lines of “going to the dark side” when she announced she would be joining a New York gallery. “She was older than me,” Davila-Villa said, “so in retrospect not only do I strongly disagree, but I think that it was a disservice to a younger curator.”

Part of this trend is due to gallery owners wanting former museum curators on staff. San Francisco dealer Jessica Silverman, who has hired two curators into new roles since 2021, said, “They make the best artist relations staff because they have experience in overseeing artist projects from beginning to end.”

Previously an associate curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, Kathryn Wade said that during the interview process Silverman asked “if I was comfortable talking about money” even though the role did not include sales. “The answer is yes, I am,” Wade said, likening it to how museum curators are themselves “fundraisers—and never far from conversations about money.”

View of a gallery with several black wood rectangles displayed on the floor. They are connected by a laid out black fabric.

Installation view of “Grada Kilomba: 18 Verses,” 2023, at Pace Gallery, New York, which Kimberly Drew worked on.

Photo Jonathan Nesteruk/Courtesy Pace Gallery

A major commercial gallery hiring a curator to work on exhibition was no doubt pioneered by Larry Gagosian, who brought on Picasso biographer John Richardson as a consultant in 2008. That relationship led to six Picasso shows at Gagosian in addition to several others. In 2012, John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, joined Gagosian as senior curator for special exhibitions.

The next mega to follow suit was Pace Gallery, whose first designated curator, Andria Hickey, joined the enterprise in 2018. Pace’s curatorial team now numbers three and is now led by Oliver Shultz, who was previously a curatorial associate at MoMA PS1, and also includes Mark Beasley, previously a curator of media and performance art at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (Hickey left Pace in 2022 to be chief curator at the Shed in New York; she is now a curator at large there.) 

One recent hire to that team is Kimberly Drew, who had worked as an independent curator and writer after a role as social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having worked at Pace since early 2022, Drew said that, compared to the Met, roles at Pace are less predetermined and there is more opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across departments. “One of the things that I find to be deeply fulfilling about being back in the gallery space is that there is not the same intensity around delineations,” she said, adding that even though Pace is itself a huge enterprise she has felt that there is more space for her to shape her role than she has experienced in past jobs.

With their robust exhibitions, public programs, and global reach, mega-galleries like Gagosian, Pace, and Hauser & Wirth are in many ways beginning to operate like public museums. But unlike museums, galleries are not scrutable to public accountability. They are set up to serve artists, even if they pursue ambitious programs outside the scope of their primary roster. Beasley, who was hired by Pace in 2019 to oversee their new Pace Live program, said in an interview “Live commissions and restaging of works’ overlaps directly with my work at the Hirshhorn and with the Performa Biennial.”

If there are consequences for curators leaving museum positions for galleries, it is likely still too early to tell. Fearing many former curatorial colleagues would make a “going to the dark side” comment when she shared her job news, Rochester said even she was surprised by the responses she received: “Some people have said, ‘Oh, amazing. That’s going to be my next move too.’”

Correction, August 9, 2023: A previous version of this article misstated the leader of Pace Gallery’s curatorial team. It is Oliver Shultz, not Mark Beasley.

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