Navigating the hierarchy or ‘chain of command’ within an art museum’s acquisition process.

Taken in part from my forthcoming artist’s book:

Presenting Photography to Curators and Museums

Over the years I have learned a good deal about dealing with art museums. Pretty much all my knowledge came from the school of hard knocks. It would have been nice if I had someone breast-feeding me the scoop…but I didn’t.

BMG 2014 Daniel D. Teoli Jr. mr

Well, one photog did help me…Les Krims. So, let me give Les my thanks and acknowledge he was not too high and mighty to help someone clueless on the subject.

I started out in earnest in January of 2013 with museum placements. Within 1-1/2 years I had placed about 6000 prints with 91 public institutions (Museums and special collection libraries.)  edit: as of August 2016 I hit the 121 institution mark with my placements.

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/biography-of-daniel-d-teoli-jr/

Most likely this is the world record for placing the largest amount of prints in the shortest amount of time with the most institutions. But, I didn’t set out to break records, my goal with museum placements was simply to put my photography to work as well as archive it. A photograph is not of much use unless it can be used for its intended purpose.

If you know anything about museum placements you know completing 91 institutional placements in 1-1/2 years is a lot of work. I failed much, much more than I succeeded in my work. If rejection is debilitating to you, you may want to pick a different field to work in than museums placements. But, if you can handle the rejection, museum placements can be a very gratifying area for the artist to work in.

I talk a lot about rejection in this post because rejection is what you will get most of the time for all your hard work. (Or no reply at all.) You may be lucky and not be rejected that much. But from my experience I received between an 80% to 98% rejection rate on various acquisition proposals I made to art museums and institutions. (Many times the rejection rate was 100% for some projects.)

So be warned, that in a world of 2 billion cellphone cams at large, photo curators may treat you with the same amount of respect that is shown to a homeless man offering someone a sack of shit.

大 20 億の携帯電話カメラでは、学芸員が扱うことです誰かに提供しているホームレスの男性に尊敬の同じ量をつけ、たわごとの袋。

Scape Martinez gives the rundown on how a successful artist must work…

“Never give up! Don’t listen to the haters. Don’t try to be an artist unless you can work and live in isolation, without any thanks….bleak, but needed until you get to the much lauded place.”

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The hierarchy or ‘chain of command’ within an art museum’s acquisition process.

In a previous post, The reality of being an artist, I talked about rejection. Rejection is part of life when you promote your art. When it comes to getting work accepted into top tier art museums…it is very, very hard. Even if you are lucky enough to be wanted by the Curator, it sometimes can take a year or more to get approval from all parties of the acquisition team. You not only have to be favored by the Curator, the Head Curator, the Deputy Director and Director but the Acquisition Committee and Board of Directors must approve of the acquisition as well.

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/the-reality-of-being-an-artist/

Now, every museum is different. In small size institutions the Director may be able to make the decision in short order. But in larger museums there is most definitely a lot of hoops that the artist must jump through working their way through the museum’s management hierarchy and acquisition process.

In my early days of museum work I learned an important lesson. My work was accepted by the Curator and I was told it would be presented to the Board by the Director at the next meeting. I felt sure the Board would accept it – so much so that I listed it on my bio as already being in their permanent collection.

When the Board met 4 months later I got the news the Board voted against acquiring my work. I had to rush and remove the placement credit from my bio. Luckily for me the mishap did not go any further – there is nothing worse than lying on your bio.

A better approach would be to list the acquisition as ‘in process – pending Board approval.’ Then you can get a partial credit on your bio and still have a legitimate out if you get rejected.

No matter which way the tide turns…don’t ever let the rejection get to you. As I wrote about earlier…you must work blind.

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/06/13/dont-quit-before-you-even-start-work-blind/

If you do experience lots of rejection, it may be of some comfort for you to know the Curator of Photography is generally not a museum quality photog…they are most likely just an academic. From my experience of dealing with many, many hundred Curators, I found roughly 70% of the Curators to be female and 30% male. I was worried at the start the women would not like my work due to sex bias. But I did not find that to be the case. The men were just as prone to dishing out rejection as the women Curators.

Here is a job description for a Curator of Photography. I’ve bold faced the main hurdle facing the artist when it comes to a museum acquiring art.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Curator of Photography will be responsible for conservation and development of the Museum’s holdings of photographs and will be responsible for, but not limited to, performing the following jobs:

• Provides direction to the department and its activities including the mission, goals, and strategies of the Art Museum.

• Cares for, researches, documents, exhibits, preserves (in consultation with the Conservation Department), and publishes works of art in the permanent collection.

• Maintains curatorial responsibility for art objects within the scope of the curatorial department, and works in cooperation with other departmental curators.

• Responsible for the generating temporary exhibitions by the Museum. Exhibitions involve researching, writing, supervising and coordinating details such as lectures, catalogues, brochures, labels, installation, photography, gallery tours, publicity and fund raising.

 Seeks and recommends new acquisitions within the curatorial specialties, including research and background studies to justify acquisition of an art object. Gifts and purchases are recommended by the Curator to the Chief Curator, who recommends them to the Deputy Director, who recommends them to the Director, who ultimately recommends them to the Acquisitions Committee and Board. No works of art may be purchased or accepted as gifts without the Director’s and the Board’s approval.

• Lectures and writes on works of art in the Museum’s permanent collection.

• Responsible for maintaining and adhering to budgets, including those related to permanent installations, temporary exhibitions, the department and special projects.

• Furnishes consultation and advice on art matters to other museums, public and private collectors. At no time does the Curator suggest financial appraisals.

• Labels and installs works of art in the permanent collection.

• Responsible for docent training, public lectures, gallery talks, supervising volunteers and press education for projects. 

• Facilitates fund-raising and public relations efforts for the Museum.

• Represents the Museum at social and civic events.

• Serves on committees and attends meetings as required by the position.

• Acts as a courier in the U.S. and internationally. Attends conferences and lectures, and visits museums and dealers worldwide.

• Performs duties as assigned by the Chief Curator.

Requirements for position: M.A. in Art History with five years experience.

Skills necessary: The successful applicant must possess a broad knowledge of photographs and photography; a demonstrated knowledge of museum practices. Excellent written and oral communication skills; good working knowledge of database, word processing, and other relevant computer programs are required. A commitment to both scholarship and the ability to present information effectively and respond to questions from museum staff, donors, members of the museum, and the general public.                              

—-End—-

You can see that nowhere in the job description does it say the Curator has to be a museum quality artist themselves. That is pretty much how it is up and down the chain of command with an art museum…non-artists judging art. So don’t take any of their rejection to heart.

It can be very discouraging to work on a museum acquisition for 6 months or a year, then have the Board of Directors vote it down. Museum placements can be tough, soul crushing work.  I’ve worked on projects for almost a year full time, investing nearly $15,000 of my own money in it…and I failed to even give it away for free.

The projects were landmark and had outstanding content. If you’ve seen my work you know I don’t sign my name to garbage. But that is how it can be with art. Whether success or failure, you just keep moving on to the next project. Expectations are pre-planned resentments. This is why I tell you to work blind and not build up expectations. If you don’t like it…don’t be an artist.

Two Blind Beggars copyright 1972 Daniel D. Teoli Jr. mr

The facts are, unless your a very desirable artist, that is already on the radar of a Curator desiring to acquire your work, there is a good chance the museums won’t be knocking at your door. Consequently it is YOUR job to be knocking on the art museum’s doors.

Museum placements can also be easy going and pleasant. Just depends if the Curator and their team takes a liking to your work or not. If they do like you, most of the battle is done. In my own experience I may have had good success with a certain Curator…until they left the institution. Then a new Curator comes on board and dislikes my work…I’m effectively done with that institution.

It all boils down to the personal taste of the Curator.

Further reading:

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/if-your-serious-about-getting-ahead-only-have-your-best-work-connected-with-your-name /

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/the-importance-of-naming-your-digital-files/

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/opinions-are-like-assholes-everyones-got-one/

De Wallen Graffiti copyright 2014 Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

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