Art curation involves working with the actual pieces of art – researching them, caring for them, and deciding how best to display them. If the museum is small and has a limited staff, other duties may also fall to the curator. In a very small museum, there may not even be a curator. The director may have to take on the curatorial role.
Part of researching a piece of art is determining whether it is stolen. IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, offers descriptions and photos of presumably stolen works of art. It is also critical that the curator have a deep knowledge and understanding of each piece in the collection. He or she must also be thoroughly familiar with the Collection Management Policy, which describes the mission, vision, and educational value of the collection.
Caring for the artwork is a critical part of art curation. Whether a piece is on display or in storage, it needs to be properly cared for. The humidity and temperature in the storage area should match the humidity and temperature in the gallery/exhibition area. Fluctuation of these conditions can be harmful to the artwork. Smoke and fire detection systems must be in place and working. Lighting should be as low as possible; none, if that can be achieved.
Displaying the pieces of art is much more involved than would seem to the average visitor. The art must be arranged in a manner that supports the Mission Statement of the museum, which explains what kind of museum it is, and defines its purpose. It must make a point. The art should have labeling to let the viewers know what they are looking at and who created it. If the curator feels that it would be beneficial, he or she can request to borrow pieces from other museums to add to the display. If the staff is large enough, the registrar may take on the job of requesting the loan suggested by the curator. The design must allow for convenient viewing and easy movement throughout the exhibit. The lighting must be enough to allow for comfortable viewing, but not enough to harm the objects. Many large exhibits offer a catalog with photographs of some of the art along with descriptions. Depending on the size of the staff, this catalog can be the work of the curatorial department, the education department, or a collaboration of the two. It is not unusual for a well-done art exhibit to take three years to organize.
Art curation is a very rewarding career for those who value art and history. The career fields are not greatly diverse, but museums are not the only places to find art. Universities, large corporations, and historical libraries often have artwork on display, and need curators to properly care for it. If you have a love of art, and decide that this field is for you, you will be able to find a place to use your knowledge.