I Want Your Job: Art gallery curator

'You have to bring the art to life'

Alex McRae
Thursday 29 May 2008 00:00
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Knight says the opportunity to get close to extremely valuable, famous paintings is an extraordinary privilege
Knight says the opportunity to get close to extremely valuable, famous paintings is an extraordinary privilege

Vivien Knight, 54, is head of the Guildhall Art Gallery in central London

What do you actually do?

I look after the collection of paintings and sculptures owned by the City of London Corporation. I'm responsible for making sure that we know where everything is, and that all the art works are conserved, restored and cared for properly. I organise exhibitions at the gallery, and lend to other galleries in the UK and overseas. I also write the booklets, leaflets and labels that tell people more about paintings and sculptures in the gallery.

What is your working day like?

The official hours are from 9.15am until 5pm, with 45 minutes for lunch, but I usually get in at 8.30am and leave at 6.30pm, and I often take work home with me. If we're planning an exhibition, it can get very intense as the opening date draws closer. I have to plan which paintings to include, and I spend a lot of time talking to people about lending us art. We're a fairly small gallery, but we still have 250 or so works on display at any one time, and each piece has to be catalogued and labelled. I can spend an entire day at the National Art Library or British Library, researching artists and paintings, so I can write all the pamphlets and information panels that accompany an exhibition.

What do you love about it?

The opportunity to get close to extremely valuable, famous paintings is an extraordinary privilege. I also love writing and researching. One of the most appealing parts of my job is seeing people read the labels I've written, and knowing that they're getting something out of it. People often leave comments saying how much they enjoyed reading the labels. Portraits and battle paintings often have fascinating stories to tell – a good label can be the key that unlocks the door.

What is not so great about it?

No museum or art gallery ever has enough money. We never have sufficient resources to expand the collection and hold exhibitions in the way we'd like. Handling and transport are a major expenditure.

What skills do you need to do the job well?

You should have a love of the wonderful things you are looking after, and be able to communicate your enthusiasm and pleasure in looking at pictures to others. You've also got to be able to engage with people, and make the art come alive.

You should be educated to at least degree level, and a postgraduate degree would be even better. You need to pay attention to detail when you're cataloguing or researching, and you need to know all about the latest conservation techniques.

What advice would you give someone with their eye on your job?

It has become a very competitive field, so it's essential to get as much experience as you can. Do masses of voluntary work, in a variety of museums or galleries. Look out for listings for voluntary positions in the Museums Journal, the magazine of the Museums Association. It is also worth thinking about applying for a postgraduate degree in museum and heritage studies or art history.

What's the salary and career path like?

The starting salary for a young curator could be between £15,500 and £23,000. You could start as a museum assistant and then work up to director. Most people spend about four years in each job before moving up. Of course, you don't have to be a curator to work in a gallery or museum – there are a lot of other careers, such as education officer, registrar or marketing officer.

For more information on careers and training as an art-gallery curator, visit: the Museums Association at www.museumsassociation.org; the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council at www. mla.gov.uk; and Creative and Cultural Skills at www.ccskills.org.uk

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