Williams women who run museums and galleries discuss their experiences, their influences and the future of their organizations.
“How can museums be spaces for healing, for re-examining some of our prejudices, and also be sites for celebration and inspiration for new generations?”
Leaders of arts institutions and organizations are thinking deeply about that question, posed by Victoria Sancho Lobis MA ’02 of the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College during a recent online conversation hosted by Williams. The event marked 50 years since Williams opened its doors to women as well as the 50th anniversary of the Graduate Program in the History of Art—two important channels that have fed Williams graduates into arts leadership roles and, over time, have helped grow the share of women working in museums to about 60%, according to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Benton Museum, having been shuttered due to the pandemic, opened to the public the same day as the Williams event. Lobis joined six colleagues for the discussion, led by Pamela Franks, the Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). Also participating were Lucinda Barnes MA ’78 of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Laura Hoptman ’83 of The Drawing Center in Manhattan, Shamim M. Momin ’95 of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Sarah Needham ’08 of the Hill Art Foundation and Sasha Suda MA ’05 of the National Gallery of Canada. During their wide-ranging conversation, a few excerpts of which follow, the women reflected on how Williams influenced them and the ways they are addressing the challenges of our times.
Noting the number of art history professors and museum staff from campus and the broader Williams community in attendance, Lobis called the event “a great space to remind each other how critical mutual support and mutual aid is, particularly as we women look to take on greater roles of leadership in the arts and elsewhere.”
Pamela Franks, Class of 1956 Director of WCMA: Were there specific experiences that might have been transformative in your education—moments during your time at Williams when you clarified your goals, hopes and dreams?
Shamim M. Momin ’95, Henry Art Gallery director of curatorial affairs: I spent a year abroad in Paris and came back early to figure out what to do for the summer. I went to WCMA and asked for a meeting with [then director] Linda Shearer, and we just talked about ideas. That’s how I discovered curatorial work. I was involved with the museum already but hadn’t thought about the translation of my education—all the amazing experience with ideas I was having—into making things happen in real life. That was my “eureka” moment around what curatorial work could be and how that could lead to opportunity to help shape and lead a vision within an institution.
Laura Hoptman ’83, The Drawing Center executive director: I think of two trajectories at Williams: the art history trajectory and living artists. It may have been an alumna or someone involved with WCMA who told me that once I got to New York City, where I was going, I could find a job not necessarily at a museum but at a place where living artists were. I stumbled my way to Franklin Furnace, a hotbed of performance artwork at the time. I began my life in the arts. But being at Williams in the early 1980s—especially in the art history department—was a moment of transition, with young, awake professors like Carol Ockman, who is enormously important, not only in classes on 19th- century French painting but also [during Winter Study], when I began my Italian studies, which I kept up. I spent my junior year abroad in Rome. All of it really has marked the rest of my life.
Sarah Needham ’08, Hill Art Foundation executive director: I was Laura’s intern in the summer of 2007. We were working with Elizabeth Peyton—all these artists I hadn’t heard of—and now any time I see their names, I think back to that summer. I also took a lot of education courses with Professor [Susan] Engel [senior lecturer in psychology and the Class of 1959 Director of Program in Teaching], taught at the Williamstown Elementary School, and took a public art class my senior year, where we went to Dia Beacon and Storm King Art Center [in New York’s Hudson Valley]. I’m passionate about arts accessibility and arts education. The art history classes were amazing, but being able to take classes in all different areas and to shoot an email to the amazing alumni base has been hugely impactful in my career.
Sasha Suda MA ’05, National Gallery of Canada director and CEO: At Williams, museums can be a serious place for reflection and discourse, a place to go deep but also to invite a broader audience into that conversation. I haven’t quite experienced a place like it. The academy and the museum lived on a level playing field where visiting scholars and academics I’d only seen the names of in bibliographies became humans. They walked up and down the same street I did and were interested in what I had to say or questions I had to ask. It might just be the density of brains and art lovers in a single place in the world who come together on a regular basis. You develop a kind of comfort in sometimes really easy conversations but also in tough conversations that feel somehow more real because they’re in person.
Lucinda Barnes MA ’78, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive curator emerita and former chief curator and director of programs and collections: I was asked to introduce [art historian and critic] Dore Ashton when she came to speak [at Williams]. It was terrifying, but those kinds of introductions to professional life and to colleagues—to sit down at dinner afterward with Dore and talk to her about her writing, her experiences—were transformative. They built our confidence as emerging professionals in the field. In my time in the [Grad Art] program, I created an exhibition presented at WCMA with artist George Rickey, who lived in the area. I essentially did an internship with him, and there was a publication. Who does this as a graduate student? All of these things coming together—the scholars, the museum, the library, the community—and being able to go to any faculty member, audit any class. It was unlike any community I’ve ever been a part of but one that I hold as a model.
Franks: Could you share some of your thinking about what the future holds for the arts and what you’re trying to accomplish from where you sit to try to create a better future for all of us?
Lobis: At the Benton Museum of Art, we’re in a brand new building—and today is a milestone for us, the first day that members of the public can make an appointment to come into our galleries. So the pandemic has been remarkable in all the ways you would anticipate and then some extra ones that have to do with trying to open a new space, learn the space, doing a very slow-motion installation of our building and now just being able to share our beautiful building and exhibitions with the public. The pandemic has laid bare anew so many of the profound inequities in our society, and we’ve all been called on to consider how the work we do in our museums can make those injustices more just and to make our communities more equally able to access the resources that those of us who are fortunate to have relative comfort and security can also have. We had thought a lot about our exhibition program, about making museum work itself more transparent and accessible, and about designing new and more outreaching pipelines into the museum field so that we can recruit younger emerging professionals who can help us reflect the diversity that we want to represent in our collections, programs and certainly through our staff makeup.
Barnes: On a curatorial level, I’m thinking of how we investigate and bring voice to new ideas and how we bring to fruition ideas in ways that address the issues that are of concern to us today. One of the big issues for me, because I have been on the operational side of curatorial work for so much of my career, is: Are we improving how we care for our museum communities? Many of our institutions have reduced staffs and resources. But the care for our collections doesn’t go away. We have to keep that balance in mind.
Momin: When I left the Whitney Museum [of American Art], where I was for 12 years following Williams, I moved to Los Angeles to start a public arts organization. It was key to think about how to take mission statements and vision statements, all of which were very admirable and thoughtful, and create structures that reflected them accurately, which is very hard to do at a large institution like the Whitney. Whether it’s the vendors you use, the way in which you pay, the way in which you hire—how those are built into those systems is nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts work. The Henry is already an extraordinarily progressive, thoughtful place. I was struck by how deeply a lot of the [diversity, equity, access and inclusion] work, the internal investigation, the self-reflection was already happening there. During the pandemic, we were closed. But we turned then toward the strategic plan priority of our deep relationships with the community and our audience—which we’ve always prioritized, but not to the degree we were able to do this past year—thinking carefully about what it means to build those relationships in an ongoing way, where they’re reciprocal and not, “Look, we’re doing this nice thing for you,” which can often be the notion of community and partnership.
Needham: The Hill Art Foundation is free and open to the public, and we want young people to come to our space. We have a program called Teen Curators that works with a small group of high school students here in the space every Tuesday, and they can come work on Saturdays if they want. They’re all paid positions. It’s a little bit of Art History 101 and also learning about all the different opportunities in the art world, from being a registrar to an art handler to working at a gallery or museum. In the past we’ve had an amazing array of speakers and gone on field trips. Now I’m working on relaunching the program [since we have reopened], finding a new cohort of teens. I’m really eager to get that back up and running.
Hoptman: Paying an intern a living wage is an issue of the greatest importance in terms of equity, as is paying our staff members living wages. This opens up the field to the possibility of people from all walks of life joining us in these endeavors. It excites me to think that our field will be forever more changed and different. Who would have thought in 1983 that there would be curators of inclusivity, that those kinds of positions would [be created] in these past few years? Our field, which is so exclusive, didn’t allow for the kinds of dreams that we’re dreaming now. These opportunities have happened in culture in the U.S. on every level, and it’s up to us to seize them, whether writ large or small. I’d advocate for power in smallness, in depth as opposed to breadth in terms of growth.
Suda: The art world leadership needs to have a closer look at intersectionality, not just gender, and how we position ourselves as a community trying to interact with the outside world. The National Gallery of Canada has a team of extraordinary Indigenous curators doing some amazing programming. But that programming has had to shoehorn its way into our mandate, our budgets, our operational structure and the program calendar. When we really listen, the ideas are so expansive and have the potential to transform us. Reciprocity is everything. It’s about working with community to identify which objects belong as part of a narrative and then working [together] to recreate those objects—not take them out of the community but recreate them. We’re also going to support that community in revitalizing those traditional methods of making that we’ve abolished through colonial settler practice. Each project is different and requires us to build new relationships, relational ways of working and more expansive thinking, which starts to dismantle some of the old ways of working. And, frankly, it requires me to have a partner in thinking with me, because we have to stop assuming that we can speak on behalf of the communities that we exist to serve.
Watch a video of the full conversation at bit.ly/wwartsleadership.