How Nancy Spector, Chief Curator of the Brooklyn Museum, Gets It All Done

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Photo: Rebecca Clarke

Nancy Spector is the new chief curator of the Brooklyn Museum. She previously spent 30 years at the Guggenheim before being hired earlier this year. She has two teenage daughters, a husband who is an architect, and a new puppy. She often finds she writes best at 3 a.m. She takes one day a week to go see art and believes both men and women should care about parental leave. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On a typical day:
Being a chief curator, it’s a combination of a lot of administrative and strategic work as well as creative work. So I try to find a balance, which is the ever-elusive goal. So I try to stack all of my meetings up in these marathon days, hopefully three times a week, though sometimes it ends up being four times a week. Particularly being new at the Brooklyn Museum, there are a lot of meetings because I’m getting to know everybody — departmental meetings, one-on-one meetings, exhibition-related meetings, development meetings. And they go straight through the day. And then I try to preserve one day for looking at art, reading, thinking, and not even writing — the writing I tend to do in the middle of the night.

I started this practice when my children were really young. I was getting up as early as possible before them. And then it just really became a habit. A little bit of a painful habit, because as I get older it’s harder, but I really find that the 3 or 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. window is the best quiet time for me to do any creative thinking and writing. But that’s when I’m on deadline. It isn’t on a regular basis. If I have a book due or an article due, that’s kind of the only way I’ve been able to find that mental space.

Today I’m trying to work on the calendar, programming exhibitions, working on exhibitions that I’ve inherited, and trying to help shape and troubleshoot.

On what it’s like to go from one major art institution to another:
There’s trying to understand the history of the museum itself, which is well over 100 years old, founded in the 1800s. It’s an encyclopedic museum, unlike the Guggenheim, which is 20th-century modern art. There are decorative art and period rooms and ethnographic material, and antiquity, so trying to understand really not all the individual objects — because I would never be able to — but the broad strokes that brought the collection together and what does that mean. I’ve been working with all the curators through self-reflexive exercises about how the collections were put together, what were the value systems in place at the time, what does it tell us about our country, what does it tell us about Brooklyn, how does that connect to today, how do we look at the radical past, and to inform the radical future, and how do we take that forward? And how is it that the Brooklyn Museum is unique, in terms of being an encyclopedic museum that is also very contemporary? I’m a contemporary curator, so my knowledge base is really 20th century and 21st century, but more specifically, 1970 to the present. So I’m having to do a lot of learning and listening.

On the one day a week that she sets aside to go see art:
I usually spend that day seeing exhibitions at other museums that have been on my calendar that I have to see. Gallery exhibitions that I know about, artists I’m interested in, artists who I’ve worked with, galleries that I know have a strong program, I’ll go see whatever they show. So it’s not so scientific, but I’ll map it out in my mind, or know a priority list. And that day, it takes a lot to keep it sacred. My assistant works really hard about not putting anything on the calendar, and often we’ll kind of give in and there will be morning meetings, so I’ll then need to try and get out in the afternoon.

It’s very organic. Sometimes if I’m at an art fair I’ll have a notebook and jot down names of artists or artists whose work I didn’t know that I want to know more about. It’s a combination of looking and talking, because if I’m going into a gallery, I end up speaking with the person who runs the gallery who will then take you to look at other things in the back room. So it becomes kind of protracted. It’s very hard to dash in and out of a gallery. And then exhibitions and museums tend to take longer because there’s didactics. I try to read all of the wall texts and labels, because I’m learning not just about the theme of the exhibition itself but how the other museums are presenting their shows. I have a very strong visual memory. But now we have iPhones. I tend to take a lot of photographs as reminders.

On accepting the stresses of the nonprofit world, and why she’s always working:
There’s all the essential work that we do to create our central product, and there’s all of the scholarship and thinking and educational components that are really critical to what we do, and then there’s the fact that you have to raise money for everything — absolutely everything. So that is just a parallel track that’s always there.

At this point I’m so used to it that every time there’s an exhibition, we have to think, how do we fund it? Every time there’s an acquisition that we want to make, how do we pay for it? So that just gets factored into the mix. I don’t know how I would function in a for-profit situation.

I start working from the minute that I’m awake, thinking about ideas and keeping lists in my notebook. I remember when my kids went to bed at 7 or 8 then there was 4 to 5 hours of email and correspondence, but now they’re teenagers. Much of what I get to do is really creative, so it’s not like I’m just thinking about the agenda for a meeting. It’s the artwork that I’m going to be writing about, or the work that I’m going to be installing, or the artist that I’m going be in discussion with and the ideas that we’re going to be pursuing.

On the feminist statement of bringing her children to work:
It’s the balance — I don’t know how we use that word these days — between raising a family and working, and there always feels like there are sacrifices. And there are great rewards too, but it’s that never-ending am I doing enough on both sides?

I was really lucky. I had my children late, so I was in a secure enough position at the Guggenheim that I could weave my children in pretty effortlessly. Or, not effortlessly, very deliberately, I mean. I was really fortunate in that my bosses at the time also had families and were supportive of the fact that I was a working parent. It became a real feminist statement for me to have my children; I nursed my kids at board meetings, and they came on some trips with me. I was conscious, too, of not overdoing it, because of course not everybody is comfortable in those situations, but I was really lucky in that people were really receptive and supportive and then I’ve subsequently tried to do that for anyone on my staff who is juggling work and parenthood. Until we have proper parental leave legislated, I think we all have to invent as we go. I’ve had the same nanny since my oldest daughter, who is 16, was 1 month old, and she’s still with our family. That’s been hugely helpful. I’ve put her into dedications in books, and she’s a real part of our lives. I feel very fortunate that I can afford her, but at the same time I try to be very, very present with my kids.

On eating together as a family whenever possible:
There were the toddler years of just carting kids around, which felt like exercise, or I tried to tell myself that. I’ve always been an avid exerciser, but that’s definitely something that has gone by the wayside a little bit more than I would be happy with. I would try to get long walks in if possible, in between appointments and that type of thing. And in terms of eating, I try to eat really well and sustain my energy. That’s something that we in the house really try. Whenever possible, which is most nights, we have dinner together and it’s homemade, so one of us cooks. I think it’s really, you know, everybody kind of decompresses and talks about their day. It’s a little Leave It to Beaver–sounding, but we really do that. I tend to probably do a little bit more, but then my husband will clean up. And we use all the delivery services, all of that, thank God. And certainly there are takeout nights.

On the LISTSERV that inspires her feminism, and why parental leave is an issue that both men and women should care about:
It’s called the List. I think it started maybe with women in tech, but now it’s a broad range of women in law and entertainment and the arts and it’s a constant ongoing conversation by professional women about everything that they’re dealing with: work-related, family-related, health-related. It’s incredibly supportive. And that’s one reason that I mentioned I have different email, like that goes to one email address. During the day I kind of glance over and there’s these incredible conversations going on around any topic, and that community is also in real time. People get together and they help one another, and that’s something that has been a new development. I’ve always been involved with feminist causes and circles and feminist art history, and the Brooklyn Museum has a feminist center which is one reason I wanted to work here.

It’s the tenth anniversary of the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, so we are doing a year in feminist programming to celebrate. We’re starting these dinner parties with women from different fields coming in and talk to us about issues facing women. And we’re thinking about feminism in an expanded mode, so it’s not just women’s issues so much as issues relating to all senses of equity and social justice. So we’re trying to move the needle on the word feminism. That has been where I’m spending a lot of my energy and time since I got here, trying to get that program off the ground, getting that press release out, working with everybody here to further articulate it.

I’m a product of the ‘70s. I remember my mother was reading Gloria Steinem and I think that in the last … I don’t know, five years, six years, seven years, there’s been a real turnaround. That Obama would write an article on being a feminist for Glamour. My teenage daughter runs a blog called teenfeminist.com that she started when she was 13. I think we’re gonna start seeing real change on the legislative level, finally. You know, my first introduction to feminism was through feminist theory and film theory. I think all of this is larger than that. You can be a working parent, and you can work in an environment that supports that. And for men too, I think that’s really where the shift has to happen. It’s an exciting time.