How does a museum work?
July 20, 2015 7:41 AM   Subscribe

A series of questions about what happens behind the scenes of a museum. How does an idea turn into an exhibit, and who ultimately approves its content?

I'm writing about a character who is a collector with artistic ambitions of his own. He's a photographer. Art is not his primary occupation, but after years of purchasing art he has some connections in that sphere -- plus a portfolio of his work.

What are his chances of showing in a museum or small gallery?
How would he approach the people in charge, and how would his exhibit develop from start to finish?
I'm especially interested in what happens among curators and at the executive level.
What is the hierarchy of jobs? Is there a person at the top with the power to veto decisions?
posted by fromspiderhead to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I work in a different type of museum (not an art museum), but here is the process I have worked with.

1. Someone comes up with an idea for an exhibit. Where I've worked, this could be anyone - staff, a board member, community members, visitors.
2. Museum staff - usually the exhibits staff - develop the idea a bit further. What is the message of this exhibit? Does it fit into our goals as an institution? What's the audience for this exhibit? What resources (objects, photographs, media, etc.) do we have or have access to? What resources are we going to have to acquire? How much is this going to cost? Does it fit into our exhibit schedule? Can we raise money for this, if needed? Your artist's chances of succeeding depend a lot on the answers to these questions.
3. Once the idea is a little more concrete, highers-up (sometimes senior leadership, sometimes the board, depending on the institution) decides yes or no.
4. The exhibit is given a lead developer or lead curator, whose job it is to determine the exhibit narrative, all of the objects, media, and other components in the exhibit. They work with a lot of other people to write text, determine what goes where, what needs to get built, how to publicize the exhibit, what events and programming accompany it, etc, etc. Generally, there are set review points in the project timeline where other staff, especially senior leaders, get to review the project and suggest changes.
5. Exhibit projects can get killed at pretty much any time for lack of funds, lack of progress, changing institutional missions, etc.

I do this stuff for a living, so if you have any other questions, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by heurtebise at 7:55 AM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, heurtebise! This is extremely helpful.
posted by fromspiderhead at 8:50 AM on July 20, 2015

Best answer: Hey, I also work in a museum. What heurtebise says above is definitely correct. A few other points from my experience:

Whether your character would even get a foot in the door will depend a lot on the type of museum and the level of fame/artistic reputation he has. I have had this exact job (coordinating incoming exhibition proposals) and where I've worked, any exhibition proposal from an unknown individual that came in "cold" would go straight in the trash can, to be completely honest with you. It would help a lot if the character had connections with contemporary art or photography curators, either independent curators or those who work for a museum. Then they might be inclined to propose that the museum does a show of his work, or (if independent) put together a curated show that they can then "shop around" to museums.

Galleries can be very different and I don't know much about that world. My vague understanding is that an artist is represented by a gallery, who handle exclusively all of the sales work for his pieces (and take commissions) and organize shows in the gallery as needed. But I know nothing about that process. I think the character you're describing would be much more suited for a show in a gallery than a museum. Museum exhibitions (in general) take longer, involve more moving parts/decision makers/accountability, and usually focus on established artists or retrospectives of individual artists who have made a significant impact in the art world.

If you do go the museum route, I can talk a lot about hierarchy and decision makers and can provide examples of "how it works" from my own career if that would be helpful to you - feel free to message me.
posted by cpatterson at 10:29 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Many thanks, cpatterson! I'll keep writing and see where I end up.
posted by fromspiderhead at 11:46 AM on July 20, 2015

Best answer: Hi, this is also my field and I work on exhibitions.

1. What are his chances of showing in a museum or small gallery?

I can't tell if you mean showing his own work or showing his collection? If his own work, he would have a much better chance of showing his own work in a small gallery than a museum. Usually when people say "art museum" they're thinking about a nonprofit entity that's accredited and is audited and has professional ethics. Many of those constraints prevent museums easily hosting shows by living artists or private collections, especially by non-professional artists. It does happen, but usually those artists (or collections) have to be significant and have strong educational value, so as to avoid any appearance of cronyism.

2. How would he approach the people in charge, and how would his exhibit develop from start to finish?

Most ideas are generated from within a museum, not without. But a plausible approach would be for him to contact a curator or executive director and propose a show of the work, or offer it for potential loan to future exhibition projects. This access is much better if the person is already a stakeholder in the museum - a member or donor who has contacts in the institution who take him seriously - or a well-known figure in the art world in their own right. cpatterson is entirely right that the person's position in an existing network of artists and curators is extremely important. Random people with ideas, even if they are good ideas, do not get shows approved. The proposal would then go through some sort of proposal review process at which many different staff members would weigh in as to the perceived value the show would offer: attendance, educational, fundraising, national/international profile, press, etc. - all of this is described above by heurtibise, and the questions they listed are asked. In some places, a curator brings this project to the exhibition proposal process; in other places, projects come through various other means (say, a peer museum is offering yours a chance to borrow it).

If approved, as mentioned, a curator is appointed (if it was not already a curatorial project) and a project team is assembled. Members of the team might include designers, researchers, educators, interpretive specialists, fabricators, and others. Most of the look and feel of the show is developed by that team, collaboratively. The originator of the work may have very little contact with that team; the curator would be their designated channel into the process. They would not sit in team meetings or participate in design decisions. If they are a high-level donor or really famous person, the curator might bring them drawings and ideas to get their OK, but they really don't have shaping power unless the very design of the installation is a collaboration with an artist.

What is the hierarchy of jobs? Is there a person at the top with the power to veto decisions?

Most art museums have an ED who might assert veto power (and certainly can if they want). They might sit in the exhibitions approval process. There's usually a head curator (in small museums that's all the curators there are), and beneath them, curators of different areas that are called 'departments' - as in, the Egyptian Art department, the European Sculpture department, etc. The curator whose area is closest to the work in the proposed show would likely get assigned to the project. There are occasionally disagreements among all these team members, comparable to those in an academic department in a university, but when push comes to shove, it is hierarchical. Curators propose many show ideas that do not go forward.

Then, usually, as the show is being developed, the project team works away in their own process, but there are designated points at which plans are shared with the higher-ups, and that is a point at which changes are demanded and/or recommended and/or suggested. There is malleability throughout the process, really until the day the show opens (and sometimes after). The team process is collegial; curators are an important team member but museum culture is moving away from them being the sole planner of a show, and taking advantage of specialized skills across museum areas, so now the team is much more level. Whoever is the VP-level curator, though, generally has final sign-off on what is decided.
posted by Miko at 5:12 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

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