Investing in curatorship benefits us all

Nicola Pollock, Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
Strengthening skills has an impact well beyond the curatorial team
Supporting the basics of curatorship – the often unfashionable “under the bonnet” work that makes collections accessible and engaging – is vital to a successful museum or gallery.

This may seem intuitive, but our recent report, which looked at evidence from the grants made through the John Ellerman Foundation’s Museums and Galleries Fund from 2014-17, confirms how true it is. We found that strengthening curatorial skills has an impact on the wider organisation, well beyond the curatorial team. 

We set up the fund in response to a concern that support for curatorial skills was being squeezed – having suffered cuts during a sustained period of financial austerity, and because the funds that were available were being directed to other parts of museums and galleries’ business. It was suggested that morale and staff numbers were dropping, with core curatorial functions being neglected.

After talking to some key players, we found a positive response to the idea of a discrete fund to focus on the critical role of curators themselves. As an initiative designed to complement and not duplicate other funding, we hoped, in a modest way, to rebalance the funding mix. 

With the fund now in its sixth year, our report describes some of the results of the work that has been supported. It tells a story of how grants to increase curatorial capacity – bringing in new talent, giving time and space for curators to develop their skills and research interests, and protecting existing provision – make a big difference to curatorial staff, and their collections. 

We’ve learned how a strengthened curatorial core has a positive knock-on effect, by building a more resilient organisation: from contributing to capital developments to leveraging further funds; giving headroom to experiment with or extend curatorial innovation; and developing new ways of engaging volunteers and local communities.

There was a further ripple effect, with the organisations’ profile and reputation being enhanced. Some took leadership roles in partnerships across geographical areas or in national collaborations on specialist collections, or fostered new academic relationships.

Having the capacity to develop and share knowledge and skills more widely also extended the benefits of strengthened curatorship beyond a single institution. The return on investment in curatorship is multiplied, as the impact extends to all corners of an institution, and to partner organisations and local communities.

The report includes case studies that bring these conclusions to life. The largest number of grants were used to build curatorial capacity in the context of organisational change, but others focused on digital initiatives, contributed to capital developments, took new approaches to curating, involved a deeper understanding of collections, or saw an organisation taking a leadership role.

The high demand for the fund and the report’s findings confirm the need to support curatorial skills and demonstrate their transformational effect for individuals, collections and the institutions themselves. Together, they present a powerful case for further investment in curatorship.

The Museums and Galleries Fund was an experiment for the John Ellerman Foundation. The outcomes from the work funded have endorsed the approach of putting curatorship centre-stage. A welcome discussion has begun recently on the role of the curator and the future  of collections. We hope the report will contribute to that debate.

Nicola Pollock is the director of the John Ellerman Foundation