How did JTD shape where you are today?
JTD did two things. One was the rigorous academic curriculum which really worked for me. I loved Mr. Lee's history classes in particular—history is critical to being a curator. Two was that JTD broadly encouraged the arts and creativity, whether that was in visual art classes with Ms. Bluhm, music classes with Ms. Cramner, Music for Lunch Bunch, and the sixth grade play.
Tell us a little bit about your path from JTD to where you are now.
The summer between eighth and ninth grade I went to Idyllwild Arts Camp, and that really set a trajectory for me. Their mixed media class opened me up to a different, broader way of conceptualizing visual art. The instructor of the class didn't hold back just because we were high school students and taught us about people like Robert Rauschenberg and Buzz Spector who were using everyday objects to create art, marrying that strategy with conceptual rigor.
When it was time to go to college, I knew I wanted to do something with art professionally. I decided to go to Cornell because it was the only Ivy League school that offered a BFA and not just a BA in art. While I knew I wasn't going to become an artist, I felt (and feel!) like it was important for people who work in art to understand what it is like to make art both in terms of the materials involved and the experience of being an artist and what it's like to be in studio and be confronted with the creative process.
I went to the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU to get my masters and started interning at the Whitney the summer between my two years of graduate school. A summer internship got extended to a fall internship, which got extended to a spring internship. As I was finishing my degree, a curatorial assistant position opened at the Whitney in pre-war art, and I had been working on an Edward Hopper exhibition, Hopper Drawing when I was an intern, which also then ended up informing what my master thesis topic was. I remained at the Whitney for nine years until the middle of September.
What is the focus of your curatorial work?
As a curator, you have to be a bit of a generalist and know a little bit about everything, but then you also have particular areas of focus. I would broadly say that I am an expert in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American art, but that I specialize in American modernisms from 1900 to 1965 with an emphasis on the contribution of women artists.
What has been your favorite project as an art curator?
An exhibition that I organized a little less than a year ago called Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930—1950, which was a small show from the Whitney's permanent collection of drawings and prints that focused on the impact that women had in the development of American abstraction.
The show brought to light not only how diverse and vibrant abstraction was in the '30s and '40s before Abstract Expressionism took over, but also how crucial women and printmaking were to that story. It ended up being a surprise hit for the museum with a lot of great press attention, which was really exciting.
What is a day in the life of a curator?
One of the things that's always been great about this work is that there's not a standard day in the life, but if I had to sum it up, one of the real joys of curatorial work is that it enables you to professionally be a lifelong learner. Working with art, with history, with artists, all of that is a real joy and professional privilege—I’m grateful to have found a way to get paid for what a lot of people are doing in their free time!
What are three key skills that lead to success in this field?
An ability and an interest to doggedly research is critical—you're the person who's willing to jump in and read absolutely every single thing that's ever been written about a subject. The second is having a sense of creativity and applying that to the research. It's not just about accumulation but being able to relate historical research to present-day audiences and the contemporary moment more generally. The third thing is understanding how to relate to people. Curators are essentially art historians for the public. You have to know how to engage with a lot of different audiences and be able to offer a point of entry whether someone is a first-time museum visitor or a professional art historian and everyone in between.
What has been your biggest professional challenge to date?
COVID. When COVID hit, I had two exhibitions at the Whitney up on view, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, and a huge exhibition that I spent five years on, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945. The latter had opened only three weeks prior to the shut down and had about 200 objects in all different media from 80 lenders around the globe. On top of being an incredibly challenging time for the world, it was emotionally devastating, and the logistics of figuring out how to extend shows when you have no idea about what's going to happen were extremely complex. We had to reach out to every single lender not only to assure them that their works were safe, but also to convince them to let us keep their artwork for much longer than originally anticipated. The State Department was even involved with international loans. We were ultimately able to keep all the works in the show and to extend it through the end of January 2021.
What is your favorite JTD memory?
As a sixth grader, I won the very first Geography Bee in triple sudden death overtime—all of the sixth graders stood up and erupted in cheers when Mr. Lee announced that I had the right answer to that last question.
Favorite JTD tradition?
Sixth grade Kidnap Breakfast or the dunk tank at the fair.