“I am lucky enough to know Shannon because my sister was lucky enough to have met her while studying abroad in Paris. As the pesky, younger sister, I jumped on an opportunity to come along on dates with Shannon and was thrilled when I earned my stripes to get invites of my own. By day, she’s brilliantly smart and works as a research associate in the American Wing at the world renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Outside of the museum, she is a committed yogi, intrepid traveler and a crazy great hostess, chef and mixologist; her cocktail hours on her patio are always something to look forward to, and I can thank her for introducing me to the magic that is Rubirosa. She may be an expert in historic American art, but to me, she’ll always be the ultimate Renaissance woman.” – Michaela
I don’t think you can do what you do so successfully without having a deep rooted love for your work and an insatiable sense of curiosity. How did you turn your love of art into a career as an art museum curator, specifically a research associate, in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
Although I grew up visiting art museums, I only began seriously studying art history as an undergraduate at New York University. I benefited from having amazing professors and advisors at NYU, and quickly decided to pursue it as a career, prompting many to ask the inevitable (and mildly annoying) question: “What on earth will you do with a degree in art history?” Living in New York, however, I was exposed to the excitement and activity of the city’s art world and truly felt that the possibilities were endless. In my senior year at NYU, I interned at the Guggenheim Museum, and I was totally and completely enamored with the work of museum professionals. I’ll never forget the first day I visited paintings storage and was surrounded by works of art that I had only previously seen in my college textbooks. I still get chills thinking about it! But that was it – I was hooked. Soon thereafter, I applied to graduate school, since the education pre-requisite for most museum curators is a Ph.D in art history. And after 8 long years of course work, qualifying exams, internships, fellowships, and a 300-page dissertation, I applied for a research assistant position in The American Wing at The Met. Five years and many amazing projects later, I am thankfully still employed at the greatest museum in the world (in my humble opinion!).
You travel a good amount and your trips often provide diverse opportunities to check out the locale’s art. What draws you to a particular place to visit and how do your travels inspire you both professionally and personally?
I am fortunate that my current job allows for so much travel – all over the US and in Europe. There’s nothing that can replace seeing an artwork in person, and traveling for work has afforded me the opportunity to visit museums and collections that I might not otherwise have had the time or resources to see. No matter where I’m traveling, I have two priorities: to see good art and to eat good food (although not necessarily in that order!). When exploring a new city, I try to visit both well-known institutions and off the beaten path art spaces and galleries. Even though my professional work focuses on historic American art (i.e. the art of the 18th and 19th centuries), I love seeing what artists of today are creating, especially since – for better or for worse – many contemporary artists continue to grapple with the same questions and issues that informed artistic production two centuries prior.
Besides the obvious visual beauty in a painting, there’s a beauty in the diversity of works and artists that are part of the Met’s permanent and rotating collections–from historically “ordinary” depictions, like William Sidney Mount’s “Cider Making” to more historically “extraordinary” depictions, like Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crosses the Delaware.” You recently curated the Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America exhibit – what goes into the curation process and what visual stories you wish to convey to visitors?
Every exhibition has its own narrative, its own story to tell. In the case of Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America, I wanted to explore how European and American artists represented or, as I argued, misrepresented America’s Indigenous population in drawings, prints, and photographs from roughly the 17th to the early 20th century – a period of violent colonization, genocide, and cultural destruction. Working exclusively with The Met’s permanent collection of works on paper, I spent quite a bit of time researching artworks related to this subject and then selected those that best expressed the exhibition’s central thesis. I also felt that as a non-Native art historian it was of the utmost importance to include a Native voice in the exhibition, and I was fortunate to partner with contemporary artist Wendy Red Star, who authored a series of interpretative labels for the show. Wendy’s work on the exhibition was critical to it success, and her labels underscore the importance of presenting audiences with a multiplicity of perspectives.
We have expanded this project into The American Wing’s galleries, inviting contemporary Native artists and historians to write interpretative labels for Euro-American works in the permanent collection. These include some of our most iconic paintings, such as Washington Crossing the Delaware, and can be found online as well here.
Such collaborations allow us to provide visitors (or readers online) with alternative narratives, as we continue ongoing efforts to broaden our understanding of American art and history.
I can only imagine how dreamy it can be to work in such an iconic place like the Met. I recently met up with you at work, and while there, spent a considerable amount of time wandering the museum. One thing that really horrified me were the people seemingly ignoring the art to stage what were presumably shoots for their social media accounts with big old cameras, some of the poses being borderline offensive. I recently read an older article about how a group of visitors to the Whitney were so busy snapping and filtering photos that they managed to miss that the artist of the works themselves, Frank Stella, was sitting on a bench in the same room. I’m curious about your thoughts on this kind of collision of social media and “staged” art in the context of a museum?
This is a tough one. On the one hand, you want visitors to engage with the collection in ways that are meaningful and relatable to them, and maybe that means copying the pose of an ancient marble sculpture for an Instagram picture (let’s be honest, we’ve all done some version of this!). On the other hand, cell phones and social media can be a serious distraction, and in a museum setting there is the potential for someone to damage an artwork, hurt themselves, or worse miss out on the opportunity to chat with Frank Stella! As with everything in life, we have to find a balance – one that allows people to engage with art in diverse ways, yet promotes the museum as a place of learning and reflection, not simply as a beautiful backdrop for a photo (although we have plenty of those at The Met!).
In a world of possibilities, what would you do with your life if failure wasn’t an option? What advice would you give your younger self just starting out yourself or yourself at a trying time in the past that you’ve since overcome?
Just as I was beginning graduate school, a professor asked me a really poignant question, and I often try to pass this along to younger art historians in the field: “Can you imagine doing something else? If so, go do that instead. If not, then stick with art history.”
While I often fantasize about what life would be like had I gone to law school or opened that beach café in Nice, I honestly cannot imagine doing anything else. And I feel so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do it every day.
What traits do you value most in your circle of friends? What traits do you most value in yourself?
A good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself. Although I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself that seriously – and as my friends and co-workers can attest, I spend quite a bit of time (maybe too much time?) laughing at myself, both in success and in failure.
And in typical The Modern Bee style, let’s wrap up with some fun rapid fire questions. Where do you stand on:
Madame X or Lady with the Rose? Madame X Central Park in the fall or Central Park in the spring? Fall, always and forever Whisky or gin? Gin, always and forever The Met Breuer or The Met Cloisters? The Met Cloisters Travel journal or photo album? Photo album (I’m a bit biased toward the visual arts)
You can’t visit the Met right now, but you can catch up with Shannon here. I’m thinking we might also need to whip up one of her fave cocktails later this week and check out some art…if only online, for now!