Exhibiting at a Museum
If you started with an educational proposal for a museum and produced that, it is a good way of getting to know the museum staff. Then the next step might be a curatorial proposal. That is, you want an exhibit of some kind. The first step is to determine which museum you are approaching (university or public) and then contact the museum by email and arrange a meeting with a curator. To make the meeting and get the curator’s email address and phone number, you must do some research. First, after deciding on the museum you will pursue, research their curatorial staff, and decide who you would like to talk to. Perhaps you want to talk to the chief curator of the museum. I would suggest that rather than talking to the top curator, you choose a lower level curator. The reason is that, in my experience, talking to the top curator, who is often very busy, is harder than doing the same with a new curator that is just starting at the museum or someone who does not have as demanding a role.
Writing to the Curator
So after careful research, write to the curator. If you don’t have the curator’s email, there is a fairly easy way to get it. All museums as well as most nonprofit institutions in general have the same format of email for all employees. You can easily see the format by seeing just one email address from the museum. If you can’t find one on their website, call the membership department and ask for information to be emailed to you and you will see the address of the person writing to you. The format will be something like, first initial, a period, then last name, at the name of the organization]. For example, using my name, that one would be email@example.com, or it could be something else, like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com—but whatever it is, that will be the format for every email address in the museum. So let’s say you find that it is first initial then last name at the museum name. All you need to do is know the curator’s name you are after. Let’s say the name is Susan James, then her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now that you know how to get any curator’s email, it is time to write a letter to the curator that you think is not too busy at the institution that you are writing to. By busy, I mean what I said earlier—not the top curator, but someone who is newer or has less power and is not so sought after.
Also, think about where in the museum you could actually exhibit. If you have found a space that would be appropriate, meaning that you have seen other artists similar to yourself exhibit there, then that might be the place you are proposing. But be sure the spot in the museum actually shows contemporary work. When I proposed a show to the Whitney Museum in New York, it was for their Altria space. I emailed the curator of live events, someone who was new to the Whitney at the time and was not a star like the chief curators. In the letter I wrote to that curator, I asked for a meeting in the museum café for fifteen minutes to discuss a proposal. She agreed and we met. I had three proposals prepared, a small one, a medium one, and my ideal one—a very large installation that would use the entire Altria space.
When I sat down with the curator she asked me what I was up to, and I told her there were three projects (exhibits) that I wanted to have. After I explained the smallest one ( a group of prints) and what I thought it was about, I asked her if she knew of any appropriate venues for that. Then I paused. By asking her if she knew of a venue, I didn’t back her into a corner by asking about the museum—that way she could think about the possibilities she might know. After she gave me a few names of nonprofit institutions that I might propose to, I thanked her and we moved on to my second proposal, which was small sculptures and prints, and I asked her again if she knew of possible venues, and she again named a few. Then I told her about the dream project—a large installation with sculptural and architectural elements and explained that it would need at least five thousand square feet. I spoke with great enthusiasm about this idea. Again I asked if she knew of possible venues for this. Then she mentioned the Altria space and said the top curator might be interested, Shamim Momin. Then she told me she could mention it to Shamim, or I could send her something about it to pass along. When I got home I wrote up a description of it for her to pass to Ms. Momin, the Whitney curator of the Altria space. After several meetings with Ms. Momin, the show was on.