What it’s really like to be a curator in an art museum

The curator of the museum is one of those glamorous jobs that the protagonists of romantic comedies always seem to have. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, the Seattle Art Museum‘s first curator of South Asian art, acknowledges the trope. But his day involves sending far more emails than good television would require, not that being a curator at a major arts institution is trivial. In his post, Di Pietrantonio takes on a fusion of roles – academic, diplomat, conservationist – negotiating a number of competing cultural and economic interests. But first coffee.

7am It takes Di Pietrantonio a good 30 minutes to really wake up. A medium-dark roast eases the way.

10am After catching up on correspondence in his sunny office in the basement of the Asian Art Museum, Di Pietrantonio and his colleague Xiaojin Wu, curator of Japanese and Korean art, show a delegation from the Christie’s auction house. They guide them through the museum’s recent renovations, which involved a massive curatorial overhaul and the addition of a sleek, airy wing to the east side of the building. Then they take them to the newly created conservation studio on the lower floor for a look at the inner workings. Before the studio was set up, with all its equipment, the artworks sometimes had to be transported to the hospital for x-rays. On one occasion, a mysterious foreign body embedded in an ancient sculpture caused a stir among conservation staff. Was it a precious stone? The remains of a ritual consecration? The x-ray revealed a wasp nest.

12:15 p.m. After lunch, Di Pietrantonio sits down to work on his labels, the curatorial statements that accompany a work. Researching and writing for a single label can take up to a week; a matter as seemingly simple as the name of the coin can be very difficult to determine, especially if it has been referred to by several different titles throughout its history.

1 p.m. Another tour, this one for local ArtsFund staff and focused on Embodied change: South Asian art through time. This is the first exhibition Di Pietrantonio has curated for SAM, and she casually mentions that it came together pretty quickly. Chronology ? Two years. The assembly of a major exhibition can take 10 years thanks to delicate negotiations with private donors or foreign institutions (this is where the “diplomatic” side comes in) and expensive insurance procedures.

4 p.m. After a few Zoom meetings and more emails, Di Pietrantonio sets out to meet a local tea collector. They discuss an upcoming exhibit that will feature 14th-19th century works from his collection. He’s very private, so Di Pietrantonio keeps things low-key.

7 p.m. Di Pietrantonio goes from all dense academic texts and carefully crafted emails with The New Yorker evening crossword. Or, once in a while, a “terrible” YA novel.

11 p.m. After playing with his 11-month-old goldendoodle for a bit, Di Pietrantonio calls it a day.

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