What can an ex-curator do?
September 10, 2017 5:20 PM   Subscribe

I have hit a ceiling and know I need to begin pursuing something else, but I have no network outside of my current field, no sense of how my skills might translate elsewhere, and only the foggiest sense of what kinds of jobs even exist outside of the art and academic worlds. Help?

I am in my early thirties and have run out of track, so to speak, at my current institution. I’m an assistant curator with an M.A. in an area of art history that is not well represented outside of a handful of cities globally (including the extremely high cost-of-living area where I live now). I left my Ph.D. program because I was unable to finish my dissertation while working full-time, so moving to a different curatorial job at a different museum is off the table, as are academic jobs.

My current institution is extremely small, and my coworkers and I all do tasks that would be distributed among two or three different departments in a larger museum. This might sound like it would make me a good applicant for other museum jobs, but I’ve tried that, and what it really seems to mean is that I don’t have a strong enough grasp of the basics or the right degree for more specific roles in exhibitions, collections management, education, etc. (It doesn’t help that we don’t use industry standard software, either; nor do we do any kind of development work – grants or otherwise.) There are no opportunities for promotion internally, since my supervisor’s job will go to someone who is familiar with another part of the collection, not the niche where I work.

I feel trapped. I can’t imagine staying here, in this role, for another five years, let alone the rest of my working life, but I have not been able to make a lateral move (or even a step backwards) at another arts organization. My professional network is mostly other people like me (and as I’d like to keep this job until I have other options, I’m not keen to let on that I’m looking for other work, since it’s a small community). I’m also having a hard time imagining other kinds of jobs that I could do. My family, my spouse’s family, and most of my friends are in professions with high barriers to entry (medicine, architecture, law). I have student loan debt in the mid-five figures, so going back to school isn’t an option right now – not that I know what I’d be aiming for – and working 9:00 – 5:30 with a 40-minute commute means that there aren’t many opportunities to get a foot in the door elsewhere through volunteering or part-time work.

Where do I go from here?

Other things that I can do/have done:

- I have a B.A. in art history & philosophy (I know, I know; I wouldn’t do it again). My M.A. is in art history.

- I’ve taught undergraduate courses at large state schools and small, private liberal arts colleges. Teaching – and making presentations, in general – really depletes me mentally and emotionally, and I do not want a job that requires doing that regularly. That said, I always had excellent student and faculty reviews of my teaching, and I am still kind of proud of the fact that my former students have told other people that they feel like they finally learned how to write a paper or conduct research in my classes. I did enjoy organizing courses and assignments and evaluating student work.

Other relevant information:

- I am seeing a therapist.

- I met with a career counselor a few years ago, but it was not particularly helpful. My impression is that the kinds of assessments and advice they offer are very general, and not really tied to prospects for employment, which is what I need most right now. (For example, the fact that I'm a decent writer/project manager who prefers to work as part of a small team and is driven to help solve problems does not really help if the jobs that are out there require different degrees and experience than what I have.) If there are specific kinds of services or identifiers that I should look for in a counselor, though, I’d be willing to try again.

- I have no special technical or quantitative skills.

- I don’t have any passion projects/side hustles, as I have been trying (until recently) to finish my dissertation and simply stay healthy in my spare time.

posted by Anita Bath to Work & Money (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Thinking of people I know who left curating for other businesses--one spun her writing and organizing abilities into a PR position, and another got a job at a small regional historical museum.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:25 PM on September 10, 2017

Well I worked (until recently, when I switched to being a stay-at-home-mom) in the museum world so I know a few ex-curators. In my experience, most of them switched to a project management type job, usually at a different institution. They were able to spin the work they had been doing on their own collection (or department, or museum) in that direction, and they were able to provide a convincing narrative of why they wanted to switch out of the curator/academic track. But yeah, it's a hard slog of applying and applying and applying.

I know a couple of former curators who became teachers, but it sounds like you don't want to do that!

What I can't work out from your question is: what do you actually want to do? Like, are you looking to leave the art and museum sector completely behind, or do you still want to stay in museums but do something else, or do you want to essentially find a similar job to what you have but with more career advancement opportunities? Also - where do you live, and do you want to stay there?

To start with, if you're in a high-COL area I'm going to assume there's a fairly large arts scene, since those often go together. You could certainly start growing your professional network - there's no reason you have to tell people explicitly that you are seeking work. Are you a member of AAM and do you go to the conference? Or any of the regional groups/conferences for museum work? Attending things like that can be quite valuable even if you do want to make a lateral move, because you just get exposure to a lot of people who have job titles or work for types of institutions that you had no idea existed.

If you happen to be in the NYC area and feel comfortable sharing where you work, feel free to memail me and I'll see if I can hook you up with some people.

Museum work, particularly curating, is hard and it's very easy to get burnt out and also to hit a wall with job applications (especially if your area is NOT arts-friendly and there's a limited number of institutions or positions available). So I do not blame you if your goal is to move out of that sector entirely. I think a good way to get a handle on what jobs are "out there" is to start reading the Ask A Manager blog and comments - people frequently share what sort of work they do, and it can be pretty eye opening.
posted by cpatterson at 6:37 PM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a B.A. in art history & philosophy (I know, I know; I wouldn’t do it again). My M.A. is in art history.

Don't assume that will hold you back - one of the best project managers I worked for had degrees in something like medieval literature and vocal performance. If you're good at writing, organizing, and managing a team, there's a variety of office work out there.

I’ve taught undergraduate courses at large state schools and small, private liberal arts colleges.

Are you close enough to finishing your PhD that you could afford to do so on a stipend?
posted by Candleman at 7:09 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

This answer depends heavily on the system for where you live:

Built heritage and heritage conservation can be a great industry to get into and, where I am, takes a lot of former museum and curation experts. Cultural heritage in the built environment is kind of a grab-bag of professions, it takes architects, archaeologists, historians, town planners, engineers, and definitely former curators. You've probably already got a background in materials conservation, you'd likely pick up building fabric conservation quickly; again, where I am, you wouldn't necessarily have to re-train, at least not at first. Have a read up on how your locality (city? town? state?) protects built cultural heritage, and consider moving that way.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:37 PM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry; it's a hard sector to find work in. I hit that same wall, where because I could do everything, I wasn't considered for anything.

Do you want to stay in the museum/heritage sector? I've actually found a lot of interesting support for that coming from working as a temp. My agency has been really good about placing me in museums, and although I'm about as far from conservation/curation/collections care as you can get, I'm finding the work interesting and challenging, and my knowledge of collections care is a help. Beyond that, the only thing I can suggest is that I've found the non-profit and B-corp world very, very open to people who don't follow a traditional training track. Smaller companies in particular are much more willing to take a chance on hiring someone who isn't a thousand percent perfect on paper. You'll get less pay than you would working for-profit, but it's entirely possibly it'll still be a raise from working as a curator.

(By the way, if you just want to talk/vent about the job market and ability to move within it in the collections care/curation world, please do drop me a MeMail. I just posted this question, which probably doesn't answer yours, but...I mean, I feel you.)
posted by kalimac at 7:54 PM on September 10, 2017

If you don't need health care I'd go after contract jobs. Archaeology firms are always looking for people to do SHPO work and pre-construction surveys and they will take you with an art history degree, because a friend of mine was in our position 10 years ago and has made a real career out of arch/ SHPO/ cultural surveys. She started out walking straight lines in the desert one summer after quitting a gallery job but was rapidly promoted to managing a crew then, once they saw her writing and presentation skills, to working on contracts for preservation or interpretation. Basically, if someone wants to knock down a historic thing in her half of the state, she is probably the one who does the documentation of the thing and the historic exhibit etc. They also get contracts sometimes to help put together exhibits for local governments or private institutions. It's pretty interesting work.
posted by fshgrl at 12:03 AM on September 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

...the fact that I'm a decent writer/project manager who prefers to work as part of a small team and is driven to help solve problems...

Large universities seem to have a dean offices, research centers, library initiatives, research support offices, and news/PR departments that look for personnel with these skills, and respect the advanced degree work regardless of the domain a person was pursuing. In my experience, getting in the door at a university can mean starting off from a fairly lowly/temporary administrative position, but once in the door, jumping departments and redefining oneself can come quickly.
posted by bendybendy at 4:14 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m also having a hard time imagining other kinds of jobs that I could do.

This was my biggest hurdle when moving out of academia. When you've been part of a very self-enclosed world like that for so long, it can be really hard to even visualise what other career paths could look like. I had a vague handle on the careers that required very specific professional training and qualifications, like (as you've mentioned) law and medicine, but I couldn't get any kind of mental picture of that whole big vague world of jobs outside that. So I do get how stuck you must feel and how it can seem like you've career-path painted yourself into a corner, and how it's hard to even get to the point of asking yourself questions like "what do I want to do?" BUT! There is light at the end of the tunnel, and you have skills people will want.

What helped me: first, a career counsellor who specialised in advice for postgraduate students & postdocs. Mine was part of the career services for the university I worked in at the time (my contract was coming to an end, and I wasn't sure if I was eligible to make an appointment with the careers service but went for it anyway). That specific route might not be an option for you (although, if you have an incomplete PhD from some institution it's worth checking) but at any rate there are career counsellors out there who do that kind of work and can help you identify, even very very broadly, the next steps to take.

Second: combing through job adverts. (Route to doing this: find some vague thing at a place that I thought I maybe vaguely could do (iirc someone I worked with said "oh [organisation] was looking for a PR person a while back I think?"), find out where that was advertised, look at other things advertised in the same place or with the same keywords.) Didn't apply for most of them but it was still reassuring to see things I at least could have applied for.

Third: once I started to apply and got a few interviews, it was an amazing boost to my confidence regardless of actually getting offered jobs. That affirmation that yes indeed I did have skills someone somewhere might want was the last step it took to go from "I am doomed" to "I have options!".

I have degrees and postdoc experience in areas of literature/language/philosophy that, let's just say, don't translate very well to most professional jobs. I now work in policy (I've worked in government, charities, wider public sector doing that). I also applied for jobs doing policy and communications work in funding bodies, education institutions & philanthropic organisations. None of them needed a specific degree subject, but all of them wanted project planning and communication experience and loved anything digital on my c.v..

I would also echo the suggestion upthread about heritage - I know several people with a museums/galleries background who've gone into built heritage. (I know them through my husband, who works in this field now despite having an academic background in lab sciences which is nothing to do with his current career. People find paths out to bright and better futures all the time, and nothing about your current job or undergraduate career choice has locked down your future forever!)
posted by Catseye at 5:32 AM on September 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

How about becoming an archivist?
posted by mareli at 8:18 AM on September 11, 2017

I am amazed to have received this many responses. Thank you all! Some answers to your questions:

How about becoming an archivist?

I had considered going to library school at one point (and kind of wish I had done that before/instead of going the art history route), but I can’t imagine taking on additional debt for an MLIS now when the prospects for archivists and many librarians are even bleaker than what I’m facing in museums. I know several librarians - some with the same M.A. as me – who are patching together temporary and part-time jobs at two or three institutions.

Are you close enough to finishing your PhD that you could afford to do so on a stipend?

This is... not an option. I left my program and would need to reapply (or apply elsewhere, I guess) and jump through years of hoops for coursework, exams, etc. just to return to where I left off with my project, and I highly doubt anyone would admit me after I failed to finish the first time around with my former advisor. I applied for lots of different kinds of fellowships while I was working on my dissertation but did not receive any of them, which is why I went to work in the first place. I can’t afford to stop working all together, or to go without healthcare, as someone else asked.

What I can't work out from your question is: what do you actually want to do? Like, are you looking to leave the art and museum sector completely behind, or do you still want to stay in museums but do something else, or do you want to essentially find a similar job to what you have but with more career advancement opportunities? Also - where do you live, and do you want to stay there?

At this point, I most want advancement opportunities (in terms of responsibilities and professional development as well as compensation), whether that’s in the art and museum sector or somewhere else. I have gone as far as I can hope to go at my current institution and I'm earning less than $50,000, which simply isn’t enough to live on in this area (Los Angeles), especially with student loan debt.

The way that I’ve been framing my situation in conversation is that I could be happy with my job if just one of these things were true, and over the moon if two were true:

1) I felt like I was doing work in support of a meaningful goal or mission. (Current institution’s mission is mostly “Keep things exactly as they are.” No acquisitions, no special exhibitions, no interesting grant-funded projects.)
2) I loved the work I actually have to do each day. (It feels like I spend most of my time putting out small, preventable fires and interviewing or training new employees, as we have extremely high turnaround and few specialized staff.)
3) I earned enough (or had better benefits, like more than 2 weeks’ leave) to make my life outside of work run smoothly.

Right now, none of these things are true, and I feel like there must be somewhere that would be happy to have me that hits at least one of these points, even somewhere in the private sector. My spouse and I are definitely open to leaving Los Angeles, but not without something lined up that would support both of us (whether that’s one job or two between us).

I would be happy to talk further via MeMail, too. Thanks again, everyone.
posted by Anita Bath at 11:17 AM on September 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi, this is my first ever comment here, but your situation speaks to me! Am also in an arts institution, and while I am very happy with it (sorry) I also know that it is not a forever job and worry about 3-5 years from now when I will have to seek a new job with an MA in Art History and a bunch of specialized work experience that will need careful framing to be legible to whomever I am trying to impress.
LA is full of arts orgs. I am sure you know this. Have you looked at single artist foundations? I work for one (elsewhere in CA) and when we need help we just... hire someone. Because of our small governing structure, my executive director has a lot of latitude in our staffing, and we were expanding to complete a book project.
If you have a busy work life and a commute, I know it's hard to add job search to your list. But do you socialize in the art world? Could you start going to (more) openings at other institutions, or join a young curators group in your particular field?
Informational interviews. An informational interview got me my current job - the resumé I left with that person was forwarded to my non-profit when they asked her museum for leads for their new hire. I hear you when you say you don't want to let your professional network know you're thinking of moving on - so don't tell your friends who would be most interested in replacing you; look for people who are doing the job you might want to do next, not the people who are in your position. I hated cold contacting when I was job hunting, but it worked for me, eventually.
Have you worked in galleries? Would you consider a gallery with a strong research program? A friend of mine who did finish the PhD and could not find academic work went in this direction, worked as a researcher supporting their (relatively academic, for a for-profit gallery) exhibition program, and has been an independent curator and writer for the last several years.

I think the feeling in your Ask that most resonates with me is the sense that you don't want to go back to school/just want to get on with it, dammit. I enjoyed the MA, had real qualms about taking on more debt, and felt a lot of urgency in getting to work. I did not want to write a dissertation. THIS IS OKAY and you have been doing art history! You are a working art historian! This is one way the field can look. I hope that you find a way to make it satisfying for yourself. For me, realizing that I did not want to be the next [insert towering art world figure here] was really freeing.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:54 AM on September 12, 2017

A couple of specific tips, if you are interested in moving out of the historical area:watch out for jobs at the consulates and offices of foreign embassies located in LA. A friend of mine just got a job at one of them (in a different city) doing pubic/cultural affairs and she has a background quite similar to yours.

Also, once you have decided which areas to target, could you start focussing a bit more at work and maybe getting your current employers to add a descriptor to your title, e.g. "Assistant Curator and Events Manager" or something like that? Make yourself the "expert" on the area you're interested in without making any big announcements. That would help future employers identify your skills more easily.
posted by rpfields at 12:02 PM on September 12, 2017

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