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Curator salary & career outlook

Whenever you're perusing a museum's collections, familiarizing yourself with the animals at a zoo or examining exotic plants at a botanical garden, you're viewing the work of a curator. Curators oversee collections, working behind the scenes to procure, store and exhibit artwork, historical artifacts and other groups of items and entities that are displayed to the public.

Job profile

Curators are often employed at museums. At a small museum, the museum director is usually a curator who is also responsible for the museum's management and administration. Larger institutions, such as national museums, typically employ multiple curators, each of whom has a specialty and whose work is generally of a narrower scope.

In addition to managing collections, curators may design exhibits, organize events for the public, supervise staff, conduct public outreach and raise funds for the institution. Because curators are increasingly "jacks-of-all-trades," there are a number of skills curators generally possess, including analytical and critical thinking skills, the ability to work well with members of the public, organizational and technical skills, and even stamina, especially when the institution's exhibits are outdoors.

Curator salary data

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national median annual salary for curators in 2013 was $50,550. Curators in the top 10 percent nationally with respect to earnings in 2013 had annual salaries of at least $87,980, while those in the top 25 percent made at least $69,030.

As with many jobs, curator salaries varied from industry to industry. In 2013, the ones paying the highest mean annual wages included grant-making and giving services ($95,640) and the federal executive branch ($79,200).

In 2013, four out of the five top-paying states were on the East Coast, according to the BLS. The areas with the best average annual salaries included:

  • District of Columbia: $73,260
  • Connecticut: $71,890
  • California: $71,440
  • New York: $67,430
  • Massachusetts: $60,150

Unlike the states, the top-paying metropolitan areas hailed from a broader geographical spread. Included in the top 10 metropolitan areas for mean annual salaries in 2013 were the following:

  • Philadelphia, PA: $66,910 average annual salary
  • Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH: $64,830 average annual salary
  • Southwest Maine nonmetropolitan area: $55,340 average annual salary

Some states in which the cost of living is relatively low also offered higher-than-average salaries. According to salary data from the BLS and cost of living data from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, the following states might be good choices for curators wanting their incomes to go further:

  • Georgia: 11th in cost of living, $54,070 annual mean salary
  • Michigan: 16th in cost of living, $53,500 annual mean salary
  • Mississippi: 1st in cost of living, $52,890 annual mean salary

Curator training: online and in the classroom

While some curators hold bachelor's degrees, a master's degree is becoming the standard for obtaining a job as a curator. Schools are increasingly offering graduate-level degrees in museum and curator studies, although most curators hold degrees in their specialties, whether art history, history, archaeology, botany or zoology.

If you are interested in curator training online, consider taking courses in business administration, fundraising and public relations, which may help you gain a competitive edge in the job market. Aspiring curators also need significant hands-on experience working as volunteers or interns in their chosen specialty areas.

Employment outlook for curators

Forecasting a rise in museum attendance, the BLS projects job growth of 13 percent from 2012 to 2022 for curators, which is slightly higher than the average for all occupations. According to the BLS, jobs are likely to be competitive, due to the appeal of the profession and the number of qualified applicants competing for limited positions. Gaining relevant work experience — whether as a volunteer, intern or part-time employee — is often essential for securing a permanent position.

Sources:

Cost of Living Data Series: First Quarter 2014, Missouri Economic Research and Information Center,
http://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/index.stm

Occupational Employment and Wages: Curators, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, May 2013,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes254012.htm

Archivists, Curators and Museum Workers, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/curators-museum-technicians-and-conservators.htm