The Glamorous Life of a Biennial Curator

It is very easy to lash out on curators. I just did. Simply put: there are many reasons curators are called "the scapegoats of the art world". Just think about it, if a show is considered bad, it is of course not the artists faults, neither is it the institutions faults: it is the curator's. And who to blame if an art piece is badly installed? The curator, of course. The list is long. So I'd like to just send out a quick (defending?) thought re: what I wrote in the previous post ("I really do think that the curatorial work are constantly being ignored, under-estimated, under-paid and overseen."). This mostly because of a link to an article from The Art Newspaper that has been shared over the past couple of days all over social media that starts off with a horrendous example where the fee for a curator (Germano Celant) is, well, extreme (at least from the outside). 

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.”

The  above quote is from the mentioned article which is about the fees for curators, in particular curators for biennials. I don't know if the writer of the article were in contact with the crew from the Momentum Biennial to do research or not, but I would like to share the details of my own contracted fee for being one of two curators of the Momentum Biennial in 2013. This is the highest fee I have ever been given to curate a show. It was absolutely luxurious for me, and I deeply miss the days when I went to the grocery store and got what I needed without remorse. I was contracted already 18 months before the opening of Momentum which is good enough time to do something; most curators only have only a short year or less to prepare for a large biennial event. There were 99 problems involved in the making of the biennial, but time was (initially) not one. We were offered the same fee like the curators had in 2011, but we asked, and got, just a little bit more than this. We were able to negotiate only because we knew the curators from 2011 and could ask about their fees. This is also a reason for me to post about it, we need fees to be out in the open so that others in the future can negotiate!

The pay was a fee for each day we worked, and this was a rather high fee: €269/day, but we were not supposed to work all days of the week. If one considered the pay over an average per month it was €2.012 a month, which is not a very high salary for making a rather large exhibition.  If one considers the full amount (NKR 269.000:-) it totals something like €36.232. This is a lot of money. For me. But please consider that all amounts here are before taxes (approx 30%) and social security (ca €200/month in Germany where I live).

The monthly salary as a "biennial-curator" in Norway after taxes and social security amounts hence to approx. €1.200 (had I lived in Norway the amount would have been somewhere around €1.300). This is more than nothing. But not a lot, it is less than the minimum wage in Norway and also less than what you get as an unemployed (in most cases from what I can discern from the interwebs, but if you do have an exact number, please publish in a comment!). But we were supposed to work with other things on the side to make ends meet over the course of the making of the biennial, of course. 

Ok, so, no, just like all other curators I know, I'm not either in curating to make money. But there are huge problems connected with not getting a financial reward for doing my job. Not only with paying my rent on time every month, but also connected to how much focused work I can actually afford to give an employer, biennial or not. I mean, it is not like the institutions "get what they pay for", they in fact get 150% of my time and effort regardless of what they pay. On top of that, I have to juggle a lot of different jobs at the same time to make ends meet.

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.”

I can't help but to understand that curators also feel a need to get gratifications from other areas than the paycheck, which does not compensates for much, and certainly not for the great responsibilities that comes from being the official scapegoat!