Over the last decade, as the contemporary art world has grown to planetary size — more galleries, more fairs, more art-selling Web sites, bigger museums, new biennials almost by the month — it has sometimes seemed as if a new kind of cultural figure has been born as well: the international curator, constantly in flight to somewhere.
The phenomenon is not wholly new. Roaming European curators like Harald Szeemann and Germano Celant set the terms in the 1960s. But the art world’s transformation has transformed the curatorial field, and this week you needed go no further than a few places in Manhattan to sample its increasingly global sweep. One afternoon in a meeting room near Madison Square Park a young Australian curator who specializes in aboriginal art was sitting next to a Yale-trained painter-art-professor-curator from Tennessee, who sat across a table from fellow curators from London, Beijing, Mexico City, Madrid (by way of Brazil) and Berlin (though working in Albania). In previous months curators from 20 other countries, many of them far from contemporary art’s beaten paths — Sri Lanka, Latvia, Nigeria, Bulgaria — had been in the city for the same reason.
Each of the curators had paid $1,900 — and in some cases more, for airfare and lodging — to come to New York for a 10-day training and networking program recently established by Independent Curators International, which has been known through most of its three decades for helping turn curators’ ideas into traveling exhibitions that are rented by established museums.
But over the last three years this nonprofit organization, based in modest offices overlooking lower Broadway, has reinvented itself, and its profile has begun to rise along with the profile of the profession.
While not exactly lucrative — the most recent snapshot by the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the estimated mean salary of a curator, broadly defined, in the United States at $53,540 — the profession has grown rapidly in cachet. The word itself has seeped into the language, a little too deeply. (“Curate your Facebook profile like you curate your life,” a social media blog counseled recently.) And while the term “independent curator” is misleading — curators are usually attached to institutions or programs, if only temporarily — the example of itinerant curators who have become art-world celebrities in recent years, like Okwui Enwezor, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Neville Wakefield, has had an effect.
“This whole phenomenon is really a post-millennium thing,” said Kate Fowle, a longtime British curator who took over as the executive director of Independent Curators in 2009 after working for a year as the curator of a new art center in Beijing. “It’s a profession growing at a very, very fast rate.”
Although precise numbers are hard to come by, Ms. Fowle said that an indication of the field’s size worldwide was that in the two and a half years since her organization started a training program in 2010, 672 applicants from more than 62 countries — “many more than we ever expected,” she said — have vied for what has turned out to be about 150 spots in the program, chosen by a jury. Two sessions are held each year in New York, each with room for only about 14 participants. And the popularity of the program quickly led Independent Curators to begin collaborations with other groups to start parallel training sessions elsewhere: in Philadelphia, Mumbai, Beijing and southeast Brazil, at the privately financed contemporary art complex known as Inhotim.
In New York this week the latest participants, ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, spent time with some of the most prominent professionals of the city’s museums and nonprofit spaces: Nancy Spector, the chief curator at the Guggenheim; Scott Rothkopf, from the Whitney; Laura Hoptman from the Museum of Modern Art; Matthew Higgs from White Columns. The subjects and discussions — from the aesthetic subtleties of plinths and sandpaper tape to ideas about organizing exhibitions against one’s own taste — were as expansive and amorphous as the job description.
Ms. Spector spoke about the difficulties of “grappling with the authority” of the Guggenheim’s architecture (“I sometimes think that I can’t install in a square room anymore”), but also, more extensively, about the dangers of the “helicopter model of international curating,” which too often leads to superficial understanding of cultures and their art — and to bad shows, she said.
Mr. Rothkopf, who was headed to another curators’ conference in Boston the next day, extolled the virtues — those he joked might seem almost “neocon” in an accelerating art world — of working closely with museum collections and with artists over long periods of time to create exhibitions “that shape an argument.”
“I want to have some voice as a curator,” he said, “not just as a kind of movie producer.”
An unofficial theme of the gathering was a desire among many curators to find ways to to define themselves against the juggernaut of the commercial art world while still being able to pay the bills.
“It’s very hard for people doing this in China to find the right kind of place, that doesn’t feel like just a part of the market,” said Su Wei, an independent critic and curator from Beijing. Meaghan Kent, who worked for Chelsea galleries for many years and recently started a nonprofit program, site95, that organizes shows in temporary urban spaces, said that many curators she knows are as creative about their livelihoods as they are in their work with art and artists.
“There are a lot of people out there who are artist-curator-bartender-whatevers, and they just put it all together to make it work,” she said. “They want to be able to have the freedom to make things up as they go.”
Emilia Galatis, a curator from Perth, Australia, who spent part of last year in the desert meeting aboriginal artists, said that visiting New York and talking to curators from around the world underscored for her how far off the radar of contemporary art aboriginal art remains, and how narrow the focus of the curatorial field can be despite its size.
“It’s really hard even to talk precisely about global curating when the world is still so diverse,” she said.
But Mr. Su said that the more he traveled as a curator, the less diverse the art world was coming to seem. “I was at another curators conference just before I came here, in Guangzhou, and all the things we were discussing there weren’t much different from what we’re discussing here today.”