How much are curators really paid?
Germano Celant’s pay for Milan is at the top end of the festivals and biennials league table
By Julia Halperin, Gareth Harris and The Art Newspaper. News, Issue 259, July-August 2014
Published online: 18 July 2014
Many in the art world were staggered by recent reports that the Italian curator Germano Celant is being paid €750,000 to organise a pavilion for the Milan Expo 2015. Celant’s fee, and the incredulity it provoked, raises questions about how much curators are typically paid for organising biennials and large-scale international exhibitions.
The Art Newspaper surveyed around 40 international curators and biennial organisers; our research shows that biennials usually pay their top curators less than one-sixth of Celant’s total fee.
Celant’s exhibition, which is expected to explore the relationship between food and art, is one of dozens of pavilions at the event, scheduled to open in May. A representative of the Expo defends the fee, saying that Celant has three years to work on the show and that he will use some of the money to pay eight assistants. “His tasks include developing the visitor experience and selecting works from galleries in Italy and abroad,” she says.
Freelance biennial curating is highly visible but relatively new as a paid occupation. Remuneration is shrouded in secrecy: most of the biennials mentioned in this article refused to comment on our findings. But our research suggests that top curators’ salaries typically comprise between 1% and 5% of a biennial’s total budget.
Some fees have grown ten-fold over the past decade, according to one former festival curator. But compensation can be highly negotiable. “We’re not talking about the kind of field where you say, ‘A senior vice-president makes this and a schoolteacher makes that,’” says the museum consultant András Szántó. “One of the interesting things about the art world as a labour market is that it is so fragmented.”
Some organisations cover travel and other expenses or offer non-cash benefits, such as an on-site apartment; others do not. And budgets fluctuate according to the changing political climate and agendas of sponsors.
The curators of large, high-profile events such as Documenta, the Venice Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale are, unsurprisingly, the best paid in the field. Our research suggests that curators of the Venice Biennale earn around €90,000 a year; the total fee ranges from around €120,000 to €180,000, based on the amount of time they have to prepare. We estimate that the Gwangju Biennale, around two years’ work, pays between €100,000 and €150,000.
The salary for the artistic director of Documenta—which takes place every five years, requires around three years’ preparation and had a reported budget of €25m for the 2012 edition—is roughly equivalent to that of a tenured university professor (around €100,000 a year), says Roger Buergel, who co-organised the Kassel-based exhibition in 2007.
With a few well-funded exceptions, most medium-sized biennials pay the equivalent of a museum curator’s annual salary (but require between one and two years’ worth of work). A survey published by the American Alliance of Museums in 2012 reports that an assistant curator makes around $30,000, while a chief curator can make more than $100,000 a year. Salaries for entry-level curators in UK national museums range from around £23,360 ($38,320) at the Tate to £27,089 ($46,122) at the British Museum, according to figures provided by the institutions. Senior curators can expect to earn up to £60,000.
Events believed to pay fees around the level of an assistant curator’s salary or somewhat above include the Istanbul Biennial, the Berlin Biennale, the Taipei Biennial and the nomadic biennial Manifesta. (Representatives of all these events declined to disclose their curators’ fees.)
“The fees paid for biennials are probably far less than most people assume, partly because curators have a real incentive to do them… they let us develop our ideas on a large scale and can provide a real boost to individual reputations,” says Dan Cameron, who organised the Istanbul Biennial in 2003.
The best-known, often male, names tend to command the highest fees. “As is the case in most economic sectors, most professionals are either grossly underpaid or grossly overpaid,” one former biennial curator says. “It’s basically a matter of need versus greed, with the institutions trying to low-ball serious curators with limited bargaining experience while actually preferring those eager to cash in and ready to sell their souls at the highest price.”
Most agree that a baseline of adequate compensation is integral to securing a curator’s independence. The stakes are high for all involved: artists’ presence in a particular biennial can have a substantial effect on their market value, while freelance curators’ performance can make or break their chances of securing the next appointment.
Lacklustre compensation “is the reason why curators do a project in order to get the next project”, Roger Buergel says. “This perfect synthesis of hamster wheel and rat race causes the utter conformity that characterises biennale-making today.”
Most curators say that they are not in the biennial business for the money. (One recalled spending more than he was paid, even borrowing money to finish an exhibition.) Jessica Morgan, the curator of the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, says: “At the end of the day, I think there’s a certain point where you are so invested in it that you would give everything just to make it happen in the way that you want to see it happen.”
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