The Differences Between Chief and Assistant Curators

Woman admiring a painting

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Within the world of art curation, there is a pretty well-established hierarchy. In addition to an educational background in art history, most museum curators are knowledgeable in art and culture, including current trends. Many have training in another area of the humanities, like literature or philosophy. 

But there's much more to the job of an art curator than just cataloging paintings and arranging exhibits. In the modern era, art curators need to wear many hats. If they hope to rise to the position of chief curator, they'll need to be skilled in business strategies, such as hiring staff, managing a budget and overseeing assets and resources. 

What Does a Curator Do?

Curators are often the voice of the museum they represent, especially when it comes to high-profile exhibits and collections, so they need to have some marketing and public relations talents. They're skilled and polished communicators, who must feel comfortable being the museum's liaison between the artist or art owner and the museum's audience and general public.

Another critical skill that curators need in the 21st century is fundraising experience. Art museums, especially smaller ones, have to be creative and nimble when it comes to juggling resources, and an ability to persuade philanthropic donors to give is highly valuable.

But perhaps the qualification that serves art museum curators best is experience. This is where an assistant curator's skill set is going to differ from that of a chief curator.

Chief Curators Run the Show 

Think of the chief art curator like a movie director. He or she has to oversee all details of a production, organizing artists (or actors), which can often feel like herding cats. People skills are paramount; it would be difficult to do the job effectively without the ability to work as part of an often-changing cast of characters. Much like making a movie, it often takes many skilled people to pull off a successful exhibition.

Unless they're especially small and have only one curator, most art museums typically have one chief curator and several assistant curators.

The chief curator's most basic responsibilities involve overseeing the museum's programming, exhibitions, and its permanent collection. It's their vision and their strategy that are most apparent in the museum's overall image, so it's a powerful job that requires someone with confidence and drive. 

In addition to managing the exhibitions and permanent collection, chief curators have to oversee staff, including assistants. So an excellent chief-assistant relationship is pretty crucial for things to run smoothly.

Assistant Curators Play Backup

Assistant curators function more like administrative assistants and help the chief curator fulfill the art museum's mission. They'll be called upon to perform a variety of tasks, and should be prepared to step in for the chief curator when needed.

Working as an assistant curator is one in-depth way to learn about art museums. And it's a step toward becoming a chief curator.

The role of assistant curator is different (and lower on the totem pole) than that of an associate curator. Most associate curators are specialists who work in a specific department of an art museum such as Renaissance art, or Impressionism.

Associate curators' work ranges from research and cataloging to helping develop the museum's permanent collection. Associate curators may also be called upon to help with an exhibition that falls into their area of expertise.