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Behind the canvas – The changing role of the curator

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Behind the canvas – The changing role of the curator

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5 min read

What is a curator in today’s world? In Ancient Rome, curators were senior civil servants in charge of various departments of public works, overseeing the Empire’s waterways, bathhouses and sewers. In the medieval period, they took on the role of priests devoted to the care (or cura) of anyone and everyone put in their guardianship.


By the end of the 20th century, the word ‘curator’ had developed to describe a broad category of exhibition makers including museum employees who spent years cataloguing artefacts and putting together modest, scrupulously researched displays for those with treasured and specialist knowledge on a niche subject matter, who acquired and placed unique pieces of art in private spaces.

Today, the role of the curator is at the cusp of change yet again, with fierce debate about their relevance in a techno savvy world. Some critics claim we are experiencing the death of the curator. Perhaps the curator of old is dying out, but the role certainly isn’t – it is simply evolving, just like everything else, in order to accommodate an ever-changing society. 

In our interconnected world, it is essential that curators become user-friendly and have aims and objectives that go way beyond the walls of museums. Art galleries need to empower the audience, seek exciting collaborations and innovate – both in a physical space and in the virtual world.



Traditionally, a curator was required to obtain undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, usually in subjects such as history, history of art, archaeology, anthropology, or classics, and possibly even a PhD in their specific area of expertise. They were also expected to have contributed to their academic field and only after a great deal of research and individual publishing was the curator deemed worthy to dispense their pearls of wisdom. In essence, becoming a curator was by no means a swift career with immediate results, but one that took years of refining and polishing.


While being knowledgeable about the subject matter is important for the integrity of the arts, it’s only one slice of the pie for today’s curators. Recent advances in technology have given people access to information on virtually everything, and thus the idea that only a small, select group of people can determine the best way of displaying and contextualising artistic programming is ineffectual. Greater emphasis on the user experience in museums and art galleries, racial demographic changes, as well as the coming-of-age of the millennial generation, have opened the arts to a whole new audience that doesn’t necessarily have the time, patience or care for those finer intricate details. The change in demand has transformed today’s curator from being an academic scholar to a giddy blend of an art locator, marketer, social media manager and business developer all in one. Not only do they need to select and organise arts programmes and exhibitions, but today’s curators also need to be able to diagnose local community needs, seek out new and competitive settings for their work, forge partnerships with a wide array of contrasting stakeholders, and, in some cases, cede a certain amount of artistic control in order to gain broader impact and prevent extinction. They need to be open to change, be curious, communicative and collaborative, and as well as being art historians, they now need to play in the space of sociology, anthropology and economics too.

The breadth of this new job description may appear overwhelming, but it does unlock the industry to a whole new market. The new complexity of the role and the move away from expert knowledge – coupled with the emergence of professional programmes in fields such as public history, museum studies, arts management, and curating or curatorial practice – certainly make it a more appealing career choice.

A number of contemporary art institutions have launched curatorial study courses as an alternative to traditional academic programmes. In 1992, the Royal College of Art established an MA course co-funded by the Royal College of Art and the Arts Council of Great Britain, the first in the UK to specialise in curating with a particular focus on contemporary art, and in 2010, Wesleyan University in America launched a graduate-level certificate programme called the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP). Designed specifically to develop entrepreneurial skills, the aim is to spark innovation and collaboration and challenge aspiring curators to think about their role beyond the confines of their institutions.

The next decade is going to be crucial in the life of a curator. People still want to go to museums and attend gallery shows, but they want to be stimulated and interested, and if this means that curators need to capture the attention of the audience through entertainment and engagement as opposed to simply educating, then so be it. Whilst they remain the thread that connects ordinary people with the arts and encourages them to invest in this by sharing their knowledge with audiences on many levels, existing or aspiring, today’s curators are also guiding the way to change that will hopefully address the adaptive challenges facing today’s arts-centered non-profit organisations – keeping audiences coming back and nurturing new patrons of the arts.

Ané Dallas-Orr

Cape Town-based artist and photographer Ané Dallas-Orr is inspired by natural beauty in all of its guises.

With several successful exhibitions under her belt, Ané’s profile is on the rise. Her clarity of vision is a timely aesthetic antidote to the relentless barrage of graphical clutter that now dominates our increasingly digitised lives. The lucidity of her style is instantly calming and genuinely appealing. Ané’s magical brushstrokes and sketch marks do more than just please the eye – they soothe the soul.

Ané has three clear areas of focus. These include sleek line drawings, striking abstracts and an impactful Fynbos Photographic Series. The latter is inspired by the incomparable beauty of the Cape floral kingdom. The resulting imagery is bold, bright and captivating. Printed on Perspex, each piece has a modern high-gloss finish that is both elegant and edgy.

Ané’s popular acrylic and ink abstracts are a vivid celebration of regeneration and renewal. Her latest collection of Spring and Summer themed paintings are imbued with positivity and creative energy. These colourful canvases are fresh, fantastical and effortlessly engaging.

Finally, Ané’s ink drawings juxtapose crisp, clean lines with alluring softness and sensuality. The result is an evocative body of work that is playful yet powerful.

Ané was born in Cape Town and studied Graphic Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

076 072 1886

Instagram: @anedallasorr

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