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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

What it's Like Working at a Major Art Museum

Whether you’ve wandered through the soaring rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum and wondered what it takes to get art on the (rounded) walls or you're considering a career in the arts, look no further.

We caught up with Nancy Spector, deputy director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator at the Guggenheim Museum to hear from a leader in the field and to get a glimpse at the balancing act required to be at the helm of one of the world's most prestigious modern art museums. Spector generously shared her insights on art in the digital age, starting out in the industry as an intern (writer's note: I did, too) and the first work of art that had an impact on her.

Can you describe what being the deputy director and chief curator of a world-class art museum entails?

In a few words, I would say that it is an intense balancing act. As a deputy director working closely with director Richard Armstrong, I am responsible for content development at the Guggenheim in New York but also at our affiliates in Bilbao, Venice, and Abu Dhabi (which is currently in development). I think about the institution in a global context and what that means for our programming, our collection, and our engagement in cultures around the world.

Then there is the more granular management of our exhibition calendar, working with the individual curators to best realize their programs, ensuring we stay on mission, produce new scholarship, and foreground innovation. We are all fundraisers at the museum, so a lot of my time is also dedicated to cultivating patrons, helping to identify individual donors and sponsors, and formulating initiatives that might attract support. As a curator, I also have my own exhibition projects to research and produce, which has always been the core of my practice.

What does a typical day in your office look like?

I don’t think I ever have a “typical” day to cite. I can be in back-to-back meetings with the other curators, departmental managers, board members, or guests. Topics range from programming discussions, calendar and budget reviews, strategic planning, acquisition preparation, collection management policy, and installation reviews, to name a few. But I can also be in the library or writing for much of the day. Then there are gallery and studio visits, for which I try to reserve time.

How do you balance the research and exhibitions portion of being a curator with the administrative duties of running a cultural institution; how do you wear both hats?

I try to block out time for research, reading, and writing in advance on my calendar so that I have days without meetings. But, to be honest, much of the creative work gets done “after hours,” if there is such a thing anymore.

Maurizio Cattelan: All, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 4, 2011 - January 22, 2012. David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Could you talk a bit about curating exhibitions in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, an artist's statement in and of itself?

The Guggenheim’s eccentric architecture offers one of the most glorious places in which to view art. Clearly, I am biased, having worked there for so many years, but the combination of being able to see an artwork in both an intimate fashion—standing right in front of it in one of our bays—and viewing it across the expanse of the rotunda, is a singular experience. As a curator, you have to take this spatial reality into consideration when planning an installation. We all tend to think linearly, how one thing reads next to another, but at the Guggenheim, you also have to think about how the work will be read vertically, how it stacks up when seen with what is above and below it on the ramps.

My most memorable exhibition projects have been those that involve contemporary artists who respond to the building in amazing, unprecedented ways. Matthew Barney incorporated the building as a character in his film Cremaster 3; he filmed a whole dream sequence there in which he scaled the interior. This footage then quite literally became the centerpiece of an installation comprising sculpture, video, and photography, which summarized the entire five-part, Cremaster cycle. For the exhibition I curated with Tino Sehgal, we left the rotunda completely empty as the backdrop to his conversation-based work, this progress, in which visitors engaged in discussions with four generations of artist-trained “interpreters” as they walked up the ramps. And Maurizio Cattelan, in a provocative, self-deprecating gesture, suspended every work he ever produced from the museum’s skylight in an ironic comment on the totalizing nature of retrospective exhibitions.

What was your first job in the art world?

After I received my master’s degree, I did an internship at the Guggenheim, which, fortuitous for me, turned into a real job. I was hired as a curatorial assistant, and other than a brief stint away, have been at the museum ever since.

What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in the arts?

I always advise to get at least a master’s degree in either art history or cultural theory. It seems increasingly important to do internships; you almost need internships to get internships these days; but hands-on experience is really important.

In addition to the practical and the theoretical, I would suggest finding a mentor, who can help navigate the various realms of the art world. There are different paths if you want to work in a museum or a gallery or an auction house or start your own alternative space or found a journal.

Matthew Barney: The CREMASTER Cycle, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 21, 2002 - June 11, 2003. David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Do you think curating can be taught (in the context of the many curatorial graduate school programs)?

I had a traditional art-history training and learned curating on the job, so it is hard for me to say. I do think the exercise of formulating and communicating an exhibition thesis can be taught, but installation skills and the execution of an artist’s vision can only be honed by experience.

It's an adage that the New York has changed so very much in a generation, from 57th Street to Soho to Chelsea to wherever we are now with dozens of international biennals and art experienced online. What do you think has changed for the better? What has changed for the worse?

The fact that art has become a “lifestyle” with so many wealthy people trying to assemble trophy collections and art fairs becoming party destinations cannot be good. It is not good for the artists who are forced to continually make “product” to sustain all these fairs, which provide a skewed venue for the viewing of their work. Fewer and fewer people are seeing the artists’ gallery exhibitions, where they can present a body of work that makes a specific argument. Instead they encounter the isolated piece in a booth at a fair. That said, this increased interest does translate into higher attendance at museums, which helps support the nonprofit side of the equation.

I do think the expansion of our digital culture offers a positive and promising change in how people make, distribute, and consume visual culture. I am not necessarily supporting “internet art,” but rather how artists use different online platforms to reach new audiences. For example, the Guggenheim collaborated with Google a few years back to launch an awards program that recognized creative videos on YouTube. It was a radical experiment for us, but we believe that YouTube (and also Vimeo and now Vine) offers young or emerging talent the tools to make and distribute work in ways that were never available before. Granted, there is little to no filter, but that is what we provided.

Matthew Barney: The CREMASTER Cycle, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 21, 2002 - June 11, 2003. David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

What is the first work of art that had a lasting impact on you?

Well, my parents had a facsimile of a Jackson Pollock drip painting in our living room, so I was exposed to abstraction at a really young age. The real turning point for me was the Joseph Beuys exhibition at the Guggenheim, which I saw while in college, not knowing anything about the artist (or contemporary art in general, as I was a dance and philosophy major). The installation, which was narrative and fantastical, struck me as urgent somehow and I wanted to know more.

What is the last exhibition that really excited you?

It is a combination of Pierre Huyghe’s recent retrospective at the Georges Pompidou Centre and Philippe Parreno’s survey at the Palais de Tokyo, both in Paris. Both shows animated their environments using sound, light, time, and storytelling in truly unique ways. Pierre used live elements—a dog and costumed performers—as part of the installation. It was the first exhibition I’ve encountered that watched me as I watched it.

Photo of Guggenheim courtesy of f11photo / Shutterstock.