Help Desk

Help Desk: Getting Paid for Curatorial Work

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I’m a professional curator with over a decade of experience, mostly as a salaried professional. I’d like to be doing more freelance curatorial work, but curators seem to either get paid nothing, absurdly little, or astronomical sums. How can I actually get paid for the work I do?

Kerry James Marshall. Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009; acrylic on PVC, 30 7/8 x 24 7/8 x 1 7/8 in.

Kerry James Marshall. Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009; acrylic on PVC; 30 7/8 x 24 7/8 x 1 7/8 in.

Whether you’re a curator, an artist, or a critic, there’s one thing we can say for certain about the arts: Experience, skills, and hard work don’t necessarily equate to a decent paycheck. Unfortunately, there is no secret that I could whisper in your ear that would guarantee you a fair wage for your labor. Instead, you could consider what it is about curating independently that appeals to you, and ask yourself what kind of bargain you might be willing to strike in order to meet your goals. You could also think about setting a minimum wage for yourself, a baseline amount that you won’t go under no matter what.

I reached out to two independent curators to get their perspective on this issue. Kuba Szreder said, “This is the question that many of us ask ourselves every day. I am afraid that no one has found a silver bullet to resolve this problem. Speaking from a systemic perspective, the art economy is a cruel economy in which the winner takes all. The distribution of resources and prestige is skewed to the top of hierarchy; there are hundreds of people who aspire to be in the spotlight, but only a few will ever find themselves there. From an individual perspective, one might need to ask whether competing in such a market is really desirable.

“There are several advantages to being a freelancer, but stability is not one of them. In fact, the majority of ‘independents’ experience self-precarization and other related professional ills. If one thinks about top curators, they usually have an institutional anchorage that provides a stable basis for ‘independent’ exploits. Some of them had episodes of freelancing, true enough, but these were episodes rather than long-term strategies.

“Taking this into consideration, one way to go is to negotiate between the requirements of an institutional position and the demands related to making individual authorial projects. Obviously, concepts such as ‘holidays,’ ‘the weekend,’ or ‘the eight-hour workday’ become objects of nostalgia rather than a lived reality (that is, if they have not already been like this).

“Shifting between episodes of freelancing and more stable, institutional engagements might be worth a consideration, too. At least one will be forced to get some rest. For me, being an ‘independent’ cultural producer is a political choice. It is an expression of disagreement with the institutionalized routines of the mainstream art world. It does not imply leaving art institutions for good, but rather finding different institutional configurations that can support expanded curatorial and artistic practices. Moreover, I think about ‘independence’ in terms of interdependence. In other words, going freelance is not an aim in itself. It is an initial step on a way that leads to different art worlds, shared and instituted with other like-minded people.””

Like you, curator Fatos Üstek has been working independently for over a decade. She suggests that you consider other ways to earn money that are related to your practice: “The ways in which I have managed to earn a living throughout these years is that I have proliferated my modes of production. I not only curate exhibitions at institutions and engage in museum projects, but also write for art magazines, exhibition catalogs, and monographs. Alongside curating and writing, I lecture and give talks at universities and other public institutions, jury for art awards, etc.”

Üstek adds that you should think carefully about a fair wage for each project and then ask for it: “To be paid fairly for your labor is a delicate negotiation. I calculate the time I will be spending on a project and measure with the excitement I have towards it, which allows me to arrive at a rate that I then request. It is an issue of balance, you can never get the same rate for each job you take on board. However, at the end of the day, if you know what you need to turn over in a month, then I am sure you will be able to make it happen.”

Sorting out how to make a reliable living is one of the most difficult parts of being an independent professional, especially in a field like the visual arts; a great many of us (probably the majority) maintain an association with at least one institutional entity in order to work for a regular wage that in turn supports our independent projects. Without the heightened visibility that comes with being a star curator, you may not be able to succeed solely as a freelancer; instead, consider attempting to strike a balance that works for you, one that allows you to achieve your goals but also manages to provide a living income. A crucial first step toward finding such a balance is defining clearly for yourself what your goals truly are, and then asking yourself what they are worth—not just in money but in personal value. Good luck!