Last week I opened a new exhibition. It’s been two years in the works, and to date is my biggest curatorial achievement. People seem to like it. They’re telling all their friends and sending me nice emails. It’s bringing people together. So I’m kind of proud of it.
A friend who came to visit was kind of proud of me too, and passed my catalog onto a friend of hers who happens to be a hugely influential collector of contemporary art. He flipped through the catalog, recognized two of the significant names, and then shared his one comment on the content…
“Oh wow! She’s really pretty!”
He was referencing my head shot.
I laughed when she told me. Inside, I was rolling my eyes.
If I were a man, would he have told her I was really handsome?
There really is nothing more demeaning to a woman in a professional setting than a reference to her attractiveness. Don’t tell me I’m pretty. That’s not going to convince an artist to work with me (well, it might if that artist were Jeff Koons) or a museum to hire me. “Pretty” isn’t something I’ve worked to achieve — it’s not a professional milestone. When it comes to my job, I’d rather a criticism on the quality of my work than a compliment on the quality of my face.
I was a freshman fencing in my very first college meet against Harvard when one of the seniors captains came up to me to say she thought I had “what it took.”
“We’re starting a campaign early to make you Captain for next year,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you ready.”
I was a relative unknown coming onto my college team. A recruit with national standing and some Junior World Cup experience under my belt, sure. But I wasn’t like a few of my fellow first years, who had been fencing since they were 8, had made several Junior World Championships, and were making podium placements on the senior circuit. Our team’s Wall of Fame included national champions and Olympians galore (one of my classmates would go on to win a silver medal in Beijing.) So to be singled out as the next leader of this historic pack was more than an honor.
(It was terrifying.)
For most of my life, I’ve been pushed into leadership positions. Like in the 8th grade when we had to set-up and run our own businesses, I was unanimously voted CEO. I assumed things like this happened to me because I was always the one most likely to do most of the work or I was the one cheering the loudest. I guess that translated into being the one that cared the most, which was true. I care about the things I do, a lot.
Fast forward to this past fall…
When my boss suggested I apply to participate in a 10 month leadership development course, I was both flattered and skeptical. It felt a lot like when Captain Kim came up to me that day at Harvard — someone I had truck-loads of respect for thought I was worth investing in, worth mentoring into a leader of something special.
At the same time, I was doubtful a course about leadership was for me. I lead a lot of things, can’t I just learn more from you, Boss? I need to know more about fundraising. How do I ask people for money for stuff? When she told me that my organization would pay if I were accepted, I figured it was an opportunity not to be missed, and filled out my application.
Going into the course, I saw leadership as a set of qualities you either had or didn’t, qualities that could be nurtured, but not learned. When someone was put into a leadership role, myself included, I figured it was because he/she demonstrated a few more of those qualities, and perhaps was a higher performer than the others in a given set of individuals. In that view, Leaders embody a character-type and are Leaders because they can deliver results. I didn’t necessarily see leadership as a set of skills that could be taught or mastered.
So far, this course has taught me otherwise.
Over the years, I had created awards for leadership and been the recipient of awards for leadership. And yet, acknowledging my many shortcomings, I know I have a lot to learn. Starting with finding answers to a set of simple questions: What reallyis Leadership? And what is GOOD leadership?
The course started with an inward look. What made me get up in the morning? What was my mission in life? My vision? Was I living my mission and my vision — in my personal life, in my professional life? I was bombarded with questions about who I was, where I had been, where was I going. As a goal oriented person who was good at staying the course, I’m not sure I wholly appreciated this line of introspection and contemplation. I was kinda living my dream. What gives!?! What did this have to do with being a Chief Curator or an Executive Director? Why are you trying to shake my foundation.
Sometimes you need a little shaking to test the strength of your foundation.
But the fog began to lift. To lead well, you need to BE your goal. To BE your goal, you need to know what it is and why you’ve set it. People won’t sign-up to follow you if you’re not genuinely invested in where you’re going.
I learned that Leadership is fundamentally grounded in relationships — with individuals as well as with groups/teams. We all need some help in learning how to manage relationships. Managing relationships is definitely a skill, a steamer-trunk-sized set of skills.
The course, which still has 2 sessions to go, proved revealing on many levels. It forced me to turn an eye to the relationships in my life. I came to value particular friendships even more, and reassign different position to others. I considered how to better negotiate certain workplace partnerships… and continue to consider how to make these more productive, more balanced, more collaborative.
It’s all a work in progress. Leadership is a process — a journey. Thankfully, there are many turns to explore in the road still ahead.
It was a desperate moment and I’m not proud of how I handled myself. But sometimes circumstance forces you to behave out of character. You’ve been there too. Emerging into the world, hair tussled, knees of my jeans riddled with carpet fibers, and cheeks awash with a blush, I found myself caught with no explanation other than the truth:
Yes. I was hiding under my desk. Yes, Coworker. From you.
Hiding under my desk. It’s something I frequently wanted to do, but never really considered as a viable option.
I work in a space in my office called “The Nook” — a shared cubicle-like area outside our CEO’s corner office. Behind me, sits her assistant who I adore. We are the Nook Crooks, a duo with a mutual appreciation for dark chocolate and need for invisibility cloaks. The Nook is at the front of the office, about 20 feet from the main entrance and 10 feet from the receptionist. A low wall sheilds us from being directly visible to visitors, but once you know where we live, you know how to find us. And people who frequent the arts council, aren’t afraid to walk by our receptionist to say “hello.”
If only they were sneaking into the nook to say hello!
Since I’ve been working at this station, my fellow Nook Crook and I have been plotting ways to install some kind of alarm/security system. But we acknowledged even bells and sirens doesn’t solve our plight — we’re in a corner. If there’s someone coming we want to avoid, our only exit strategy is jumping out the window.
I heard Cudjoe’s voice before he even stepped off the elevator. Cudjoe has a small gallery specializing in African art in my building. He’s a friend and we’ve successfully worked together on more than a few projects. But since the summer, I’ve been avoiding him. He wants to rent my gallery for his daughter’s wedding reception — an event I usually veto. I considered making an exception for him, but I had completely forgotten to take to our building people. His voice got closer. He was here to see our auction coordinator and drop off his donation for our annual gala. I knew if I stood up and headed for the bathroom, he’d see me. I looked around, searching for an escape route. And then it hit me — I could hide under my desk.
I took my phone and made a dive, nose first. I pulled my desk chair in close enough to obscure my wine-coloured pants. Then I began to rummage items together — if the off-chance someone saw me, I could at least pretend I was fixing or looking for something.
Then I heard Ed’s voice. Ed is my organization’s counterpart in performance. He’d been trying to track me down for weeks to settle on a schedule for concerts that would happen in the gallery at the same time as the most important exhibition of my career, to date. I didn’t want to tell him how I felt about that without some back-up. So I decided I’d hang out under my desk a little longer.
So that’s where all my umbrella’s went! Oh, and here’s that photo an artist gifted me…
I amassed a neat pile of objects I could pull out to cover my tracks.
About 5 minutes passed and finally, all was quiet. I made my move.
“Trying to keep a low profile?” Ed’s question made me jump. He had seen me and decided to wait for me to emerge.
Caught, and with no where left to hide, I made an appointment to meet him later.
I confessed my desperate act to one of my superiors. She laughed and pulled up a recent This American Life segment called “The Leap,” which recounted the story of her uncle Bill — an NYC school bus driver who one day skipped his route and drove his school bus to Florida. He became something of a hero. She was trying to tell me she sympathized.
“When Ed came up to meet you he made sure to pull out your chair and look under your desk,” Anna, my boss’s assistant told me.
My friend Jimmy and I have a bit of a New Year’s tradition: on the first weekend of the new calendar, we go to a museum.
Technically, it’s something we’ve only done twice, but I’m pretty sure twice is two times enough to qualify as a steadfast tradition. We take it pretty seriously. Jimmy expects me to spew brilliant insights about whatever artwork we see. I expect we’ll end up somewhere we can order wine. We both expect to finish the day a little more cultured, to catch up on what’s happened since our last outing, and to share insights on what we hope for in the year ahead.
For 2014, our destination was the Frick Collection — a mutual favorite on Museum Mile — and the “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals” exhibition. Vermeer’s famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Hals “Goldfinch” had been drawing record crowds for the otherwise dozy (but outstanding) house museum, and so we bundled up and prepared to wait outside on the sidewalk… for an hour… on the coldest day in a decade.
Inside the museum’s galleries, standing inches from one of the most famous paintings in the world, I was at a loss for words…
No. Really. Like, here I was — the art historian/curator/gallery director — and all I could say was: gosh, gee, I expected the canvas to be shiner.
I had a painful realization: I used to be smarter.
Once upon a time, I could look at a painting from almost any time period and read it, or recall some interesting fact about its maker or its style or its period or… or whatever and spew out a short story. Like a fortuneteller and her tea leaves, I’d tell you about the things on the canvas you couldn’t see.
“There’s a smile on your face,” Jimmy noted as I stood staring up at a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. “Why?”
“I like large pretty portraits of not unattractive women. They say a lot.”
“Like, ummmm, you can never have too many feathers…”
This was true, but the Gainsborough said a lot more than that, and I knew it, I just couldn’t explain it. Now, I see a painting and my brain starts recalling other images — artworks line up before my eyes, a dictionary worth of visual vocabulary with definitions. That is, I see the files with all the information back there in the recesses of my brain, but when I go to call them up to sort them together, it’s: Access Denied.
While I deal with artwork every day, I realize I spend very little time looking and talking about it any more. I’m focused on how to display it, or how to get people in to see it, or how to write a press pitch about it. My approach to a painting has changed. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just different. I was smart. Now I’m savvy. It would be nice to be both.
“I stand behind my vision. It represents me as an artist.”
I looked at the aluminium foil-clad box she just “installed” opposite the isolated robbed-from-the-web, float-framed photograph then back at her and then back at the “installation.” I’m all for minimalism, but if this represented her vision as an artist, her pending MFA was going to have a short life span on the art market.
Frankly, her fate as an artist didn’t concern me. The feedback from me and our curator that this (shoddily-thrown-together-sorry-excuse-for-a-commissioned) artwork was entirely different from her accepted proposal, and therefore, entirely unprofessional fell on deaf ears.
I wanted to shake her — don’t you get it? We’re trying to help your career!
That’s what I hoped my eyes said to her when she added:
“I don’t think this is at all different from my proposal.”
Feeling a bit like Michael Kors on Project Runway, facing a designer blind to her own inexperience, I simultaneously admired her self-confidence and abhorred her arrogance. I vowed this was the last time I’d work with an MFA student. Emerging artist? No, thanks. Give me an established artist, I said to myself.
Ironic, considering that not so long ago, I was a soon-to-be recent grad school graduate waiting for my first break into the real world…
Maybe, I’m being harsh. But my experience with the Bravo-Reality-show-educated artist hasn’t been an anomaly when dealing with recent (as in, since 2011) graduates…
Enter the Bravo Generation, where an individual’s vision reigns supreme and constructive criticism from seasoned vets is really not constructive, it’s a complete lack of understanding.
I wasn’t entirely sure that recent things I read, including an A.O. Scott film review, were being entirely fair when they call the early to mid 20-somethings complacent, or stunned in their growth to adulthood. What I’ve noticed is an attitude — a kind of supped-up sense of entitlement (I have a right to be who I want to be and wait, as long as it takes, for the exact job that will put me on the path to be who I want to be) — and the false senses that an internship = experience and that starting a website and calling yourself a “founder” legitimizes you.
Sure, it’s the age of Entrepreneurship, but “coming soon” can only go on for so long.
So graduates, here are 3 things to keep in mind as you head out into the real world:
1. Know what you don’t know: Internships are only introductions — they don’t make you experts. Learn to acknowledge the difference between exposure and experience — Earning a 2-year MA in museum studies is not the same thing as working in a museum for 2 years. Courses for a grade are not the same things as projects for your boss.
2. Be prepared to earn your stripes. No one owes you anything and you’re not proven until you’ve been tested.
3. There’s always someone better than you out there. Let that keep you motivated, but also keep you humble.
Today, I woke up a year younger. Somewhere between 27 and 27.5, I decided I was 28. I don’t know how it happened, or why it happened, but for the last few months I’ve been referring to myself as “almost 30,” with a slight lean towards 28 when asked to be more specific. I was filling out a form for work when I suddenly remembered, I’ve got a few months to go.
Where this age-identity crisis stems from is hard to pinpoint exactly. It might be because I have some friends in their late 30s who have embraced the identity of “almost 40” and it skewed my own sense of age.
Or maybe it’s because I thought 28 made me sound more legit as a professional. I’m working with a curator, who despite being brilliant, lovely, and one of the most receptive and collaboration-minded people I’ve ever worked with, has a penchant for condescension when it comes to me and my age. I can’t say I’ve ever been as aware of being in my 20s as I am when I’m on a studio visit with her — her intention is not to be demeaning every time she references my relative youth in front of the artists, but all of a sudden I feel a need to assert that I’m not fresh out of college.
I’ve even gone so far as to let my gray hair show. Hey, I learned to type on a typewriter, for Chrisssake.
Then again, I’ve always been suffering from an age identity crisis.
“You should be dating someone who is at least 21.”
So declared my South African god father at my 17th birthday dinner.
The entire table, including my parents, nodded adamantly in agreement. It’s true what they say: You don’t argue with the God Father.
I had just graduated from high school and had barely had a chance to get my head around the fact that, in a few months, I’d be living in New York City and fully immersed in that phase of life called College. I was a kid, and I knew it. But the general consensus at the time, and one that perpetuates among my friends and family to this very day, is that I’m older than my age.
I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that it took a long time for me to be able to relate to people “my own age” — I always preferred the company of people with a decade or 3 on me. Their stories are always better.
I’ve been characterized many a time as an “old-soul” — a characterization that is frequently undermined by the fact that I still, on most occasions, look like a 16 year old… despite my gray hair.
“Where are you going to college next year?” asked a teenage girl in the locker room at fencing practice.
“I’m done with college. And grad school…”
“Oh! How old are you?”
“Oh Shit! You’re old!”
“Yes, and that’s why my body is held together with kt tape. But at least when I go home tonight I can have a cocktail. You have to stick to soda pop.”
And so, it seems, there is no end to this age identity crisis.