Today, the word “curator” conjures an erudite, jet-setting figure who attends biennials around the world, but the job wasn’t always a glamorous one, and during the mid-20th century, a group of figures helped define the profession as we know it today by working tirelessly behind the scenes. In most cases, their names weren’t household ones at the time, but their impact is far-reaching, shaping the way contemporary art was seen in the years to come through groundbreaking surveys, experimental modes of presentation, and world-class biennials.
This list surveys the curators who aided in defining what the profession would later become. (For the purposes of this article, the purview was limited to figures who have died or no longer active.) Those included run the gamut from founders of major biennials to directors who transformed institutions with their boundary-pushing exhibitions.
Some of the curators here advocated for a merger of art and politics, others found innovative ways of presenting conceptual art, and still others injected new life into the art scenes of their respective countries. While hardly exhaustive, this list offers a glimpse at the people who pinpointed various art movements and launched the careers of artists involved. In the process, they showed that curating need not only lend itself to retrospectives and surveys—it also could encompass something close to an art form in and of itself.
A list of 20 of the most influential curators in art history follows below.