Ask the Art Prof: How do Art Museums Select Visual Artists to Exhibit?



“How do museums select artists to exhibit? How do museums go about the process of finding artwork to place in their permanent collections? What is museum quality artwork?”

Museums have curators who are in charge of selecting artists to exhibit. Curators are also responsible for finding works to place in their permanent collections. In addition to their own research, recommendations for artists and specific works are made to curators by other curators, dealers, collectors, and artists they know.

Curators actively attend galleries, museums, artist lectures, art fairs, and other contemporary art venues as a means of searching for artists and specific works.

From the point of view of a contemporary working artist, the museum venue can feel nearly impossible to access.  You can’t apply to be in a museum exhibition/collection, and it can take many years before you’ve positioned yourself correctly for the right curator to even notice you.

Then to get to the point that you’ve developed enough of a relationship with the curator to be placed in the collection is even tougher, and even more difficult than that is to be placed in a museum exhibition. You have to be at the absolute top of the food chain to be a contemporary artist showing at a major museum.


Comparatively speaking, it’s actually “easier” to have your work accepted into a museum’s permanent collection. Many of my colleagues have works in several notable museum collections, and I myself have an intaglio print (see below) in the Hood Art Museum at Dartmouth College. How did I get that work into the collection? A print collector who saw my work at a local exhibition purchased, recommended, and donated my work to the curator there.


“Line”, aquatint & drypoint, Clara Lieu, Digging

When a curator is interested in an artist for an exhibition or for a permanent collection, they will request a studio visit to view and discuss the work in person with the artist. Personally, I get absolutely giddy when a curator asks for a studio visit.

The request for a studio visit is a signal that you’ve piqued that curator’s interest enough for them to want to examine your work more closely. The studio visits I’ve had in the past certainly had a range of different outcomes:  on one occasion I was flat out rejected by an art dealer, another curator I never heard back from, and one studio visit was followed up by another by the same curator two years later. Still, I take it as a huge compliment any time I get a request for a studio visit, regardless of what happens afterwards.

In progress

In my opinion, museum quality work is work that talks about contemporary issues, yet is timeless.  The work should be contemporary through its content, technique, and material.

The treatment of the materials and approach to the technique in the work should be innovative, new, and impeccable.  Works in a museum should be able to stand on their own, without the need to be accompanied by excessive verbal explanation to be understood.

Accessibility to people across cultures is highly important as well; the work should be able to make an impact on a viewer irregardless of their background. Museum works go beyond simply having a visual experience, the works should stimulate thinking in the viewer, deal with tough topics, and address issues of contemporary concern. is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.


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11 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How do Art Museums Select Visual Artists to Exhibit?

  1. Hello you said the curators choose artwork to go in the gallery but who chooses where in the gallery to place the artwork??

    1. Museums generally have a giant team of professional installers who do the installation, I’m not exactly sure who determines which piece goes on which wall, but I would guess that the curators definitely have a say in that.

  2. I never realized that curators actively attend galleries, museums, artist lectures, art fairs, and arts venues to search for artists and works. My daughter is interested in becoming an art curator after she took an art history class this past year. We’ll have to look for exhibitions nearby so she can start to be exposed to that scene. Thanks for the information!

    1. Yes! She might also try following some art critics on Twitter, like Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith from the NYT, helpful because the art critics are the ones going around to see all the shows. Good luck!

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