Left to Right, William DeGregorio (MA ’12, PhD ’21), Adrienne Spinozzi (MA ’06), and Jorge Rivas Pérez (MPhil 2012, PhD ’18).

Last month, MA student Mackensie Griffin moderated a conversation with associate professor Deborah Krohn and three Bard Graduate Center alumni who hold curatorial positions in major museums to discuss their career paths, challenges they face, and what inspires them.

Mackensie Griffin: Hi everyone, and thank you for being here. Could you please introduce yourselves, your current positions, and any projects you’re working on?

Deborah L. Krohn: I’ve been at BGC for twenty-two years, and I am the chair of academic programs as well as the acting director of Focus Exhibitions. In that capacity, I’m working on two upcoming exhibitions that will open in February 2025.

Billy De Gregorio: I’m currently the associate curator in charge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century material at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and before that I was a conservation technician in the costume department at the Museum of the City of New York. In terms of current projects, I’ve recently been doing some writing for the catalogue of the Costume Institute’s spring fashion exhibition: Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion. There’s a very quick turnaround for these exhibitions and catalogues, because they do a show a year, so I’m trying to get used to that.

Griffin: Adrienne, I know you also work at the Met.

Adrienne Spinozzi: Yes, I’m in the American wing, and I’ve been at the Met for about fifteen years. I graduated from BGC in 2003, and I started working at the Met in 2007, so I’ve kind of grown up there. I feel very fortunate. I work specifically with American ceramics, and Hear Me Now, an exhibition that I co-organized with curators from other institutions, is now traveling to its fourth venue—the High Museum in Atlanta, where it will open in February. It’s an exhibition on work made by enslaved potters in South Carolina. Even though the show is no longer at the Met, I’m still pretty involved in the project.

Krohn: Is the show changing a lot at the new venues or is it staying pretty much the same?

Spinozzi: What’s been so rewarding and challenging about the project is that we’re learning so much as it continues at each venue. We’re hearing from new people, learning about new objects, and making contact with descendants of the potters. That’s all because the project has really been elevated to a different level of consciousness. People who hadn’t even heard of Edgefield are now saying, “Oh, yeah. My family’s from there.” So, it’s been really exciting, but we’re also learning more now that the show is up and the catalogue is done. And it’s just continuing to develop and evolve in new ways.

Jorge Rivas: Hello. I’m the Frederick and Jan Meyer Curator and department head of Latin American art at the Denver Art Museum, and I’ve been here eight years. Before Denver I was at LACMA, before that I was at Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and I did some independent projects in New York on design, so I have kind of a long road behind me. My current project is something that I’m really excited about. It is an exhibition called Have a Seat, and it’s about how contemporary Mexican chair designers look to the past to create their products. There will be seventeen designs by twenty-two designers. And what is unusual about this exhibition is that the public will be able to use, sit in, touch, and move around all the pieces in the exhibition except for three historical works. We will have three types of chairs: stools (the oldest type of chair), hybrid chairs called butaques (a kind of chair that evolved during the Colonial Period from a mixture of the pre-Hispanic tradition and European influence), and then the classic Spanish chair with a seat woven from straw. We’ve never done an immersive show like this, but museum goers are moving in different directions and leaving the museum, so I wanted to try to figure out how to engage the public in a different way. I thought, instead of going to see a bunch of chairs on platforms, let them use the chairs. There have been a lot of logistics involved in this because we need to consider accessibility and a new way of seeing design in a gallery. How can we educate visitors using those chairs and connect them with history? How do we make the public understand that this is only happening in this gallery, and not in the rest of the museum? It opens on February 15th, and it will be up for almost a year.

Krohn: Well, that sounds great!

Griffin: It does. I love the interactive aspect of it. Deborah, I know that before you arrived at Bard Graduate Center, you worked at the Met, and during your time at BGC, you’ve created various exhibitions, so I just wondered if you could speak a little bit about those experiences and how you’ve incorporated them into your classes?

Krohn: Sure. I finished my PhD, and I never thought of working in a museum. I had been a fellow at the Met when I was doing my PhD and somebody suggested that I apply for a job in the Education Department. I ended up staying there for six or seven years, and spending time in education completely changed my approach to what I work on and to how I teach. I was able to see all areas of the museum, and I was involved in planning all kinds of programs related to exhibitions and do a lot of lecturing and teacher training. It was very public-facing. I had been in graduate school for ten years, in my own little world, but working at the Met gave me an opportunity to think about how to talk to the public about what I was interested in, and it had a profound influence on me. I’ve integrated thinking about museums and making exhibitions into teaching in a way that I wouldn’t have done had I not worked at the Met. Students ask me, “Well, if I want to do X, how do I get there?” And I’d say that it’s not a linear path; you don’t know when you start where you’re going to end up. I think it’s important that our students understand that there are many ways to go out into the world and work with objects. And curators are also educators because you think about the public in a different way. You’re not just thinking about a group of students in a class; you’re thinking about communicating and exploring your ideas in a way that can be legible to people who are not necessarily as knowledgeable as you are.

Griffin: At BGC you teach a museum history course and a class on curatorial thinking and exhibition-making.

Yes. The curatorial thinking class is something we cooked up when we started doing more digital work. It was a way to think about training students through a 3D-modeling software called SketchUp. In an ideal world, our students would be able to execute actual exhibitions, but it’s very difficult to make that happen in practice. Doing an exhibition on SketchUp means that you can go through the whole thought process and address some of the challenges of making an exhibition without the practical roadblocks.

Griffin: Jorge, Billy, and Adrienne: When you began your studies at BGC, were you interested in curatorial work, or is that something that developed later?

Rivas: I never intended to be a curator. Before BGC, I trained as an architect at the Universidad Central in Venezuela, and then I did industrial design for three years at the University of Florence, and I worked both in construction and in a design studio in Italy. I ended up working for the Cisneros Collection in Venezuela, and after trying to organize some exhibitions there, I realized that I needed to go back to school. I attended an open house at BGC and that was the beginning of everything for me. After you do a lot of work as a curator, you realize that it comes with an administrative component. I devote a lot of time to that portion of the profession, and I think it’s important that students know that it’s not just curating exhibitions and working with objects or writing catalogues essays for publications. You also work on educational programming, organizing symposiums, the management of collection acquisitions, and provenance research on the collection and new acquisitions.

De Gregorio: I always wanted to be a curator. I didn’t want to be a professor or stay in academia. I always wanted to be in museums. It’s taken me awhile to get there, but I went from my master’s directly into the PhD program knowing that in historical fashion studies, it would be increasingly necessary to have a PhD in order to go into the museum world. And in the end, I think it was very helpful.

I was a studio and art history major in college studying ceramics. After college, I knew I wanted to work with objects, but wasn’t sure exactly how. Somebody suggested that I look at BGC. I had no idea that there was a material culture studies field and that you could really learn about objects instead of just working with them. I did an internship at Byrdcliffe in Woodstock cataloging a ceramic collection. Having the opportunity to get my hands on objects that I was cataloging, documenting, and photographing was really the turning point that made me consider curatorial work. After graduating, I worked at Doyle, the auction house, for a few years, and then an opportunity at the Met came up. I was very fortunate to land there in a very part-time, limited position, and then the opportunities grew from there.

Krohn: And you’re a great example of someone who didn’t go back and get a PhD, and it doesn’t seem like that’s been any kind of a hindrance to your development as a curator.

Spinozzi: I think now it’s harder— positions always list “PhD preferred.” But I happen to be in the American Wing developing my skills and knowledge alongside very senior curators, none of whom have their PhDs, at least in the Decorative Arts department. I think it’s different now because there are more programs and more people getting their PhDs.

Rivas: I think we’re in a moment of change. We have many very good candidates with PhDs trying to get a job in a very difficult market. But I can say, because I regularly review applications, that having a PhD doesn’t necessarily open doors for you. It is very hard to find candidates entering the field with original ideas and ways of seeing things and interesting proposals on how to work with historical collections or work across departments to bring together things that might not obviously belong together. In this period of change in the museum world, we don’t know what will happen because the numbers are not very encouraging. We want creative people to be part of the team because in this time of digital innovation and change, the public is not necessarily attracted to historical collections. We are currently trying to figure out how to engage our audience and create new audiences, and that’s quite challenging. So, what we want now is to have creative people, regardless of if they have their PhD or not. But this is quite difficult for a person that is entering the field to express in a single interview.

Krohn: Right. Do you know approximately how many people go to the Denver Art Museum per year, Jorge?

Rivas: At our peak, it was near 900,000, but we have been down by about 20–23%. We’re really having a bit of trouble getting the audiences and memberships back. The recovery after COVID has been tough for us.

Krohn: I think New York is only now back to normal and museums are crowded, so maybe Denver will follow that trend eventually.

Rivas: We hope so. The Denver Art Museum is an enormous museum in three big buildings. We have the only Gio Ponti building in North America, and we are the largest museum between Chicago and LA. Imagine two city blocks connected by a bridge with seven floors of galleries, and each floor is 22,000 square feet. It requires a lot of energy and resources to keep it going.

Spinozzi: Jorge, I think your show sounds amazing, and that it will be super popular. I think anything interactive is an important direction to go toward.

Rivas: I’m happy with it. It was difficult to convince Program Committee, and we got strong opposition from the conservation department because they were anxious that it would encourage visitors to interact with furniture elsewhere in the museum, but I think it will be very interesting. Most of the designers are young with only one that is a more senior designer. All the chairs are fun and feature different materials and approaches to design. The exhibition ends with an interactive area by Daniel Valero, a very interesting young designer who did the Dia de Los Muertos installation at Rockefeller Center a few months ago.

Krohn: Will it have a Mexican venue in the future?

Rivas: We want to see how the first two months go and see how the public interacts with the pieces, and how well the chairs survive before proposing it to other institutions.

Krohn: I guess it depends on how many people are coming. The more people come, the more damaged the chairs will get.

Rivas: We do have replacement parts. My past as an architect helped a lot with figuring out the logistics.

Spinozzi: You can also get built-in feedback for the designers on how durable their designs are, and how people use them. I think it’s fascinating. Many museums are looking for less passive ways of inviting people in, and this is in line with that. I taught a class in the spring for graduate students—a curatorial practice course on the Hear Me Now project—and we gave the students the opportunity to touch some objects. We also had a lender who gave us objects that we could use for educational opportunities. And every single student wrote an exhibition proposal that encouraged some kind of interaction with objects or with smell and with touch. This is something that the Met does not do, and there’s a lot of resistance to this idea, but I feel like more nimble and creative museums are starting to do this.

Rivas: Yeah, we have a very strong education department, and creating experiences that will create a strong bond between visitors and the museum is central to our practice.

Krohn: Adrienne, I think we had one or two of our students in your class on Hear Me Now, right?

Spinozzi: Yes, and it was great to have BGC students because they’re really looking at objects and material culture.

Griffin: Are there recent exhibitions that you all have seen at other institutions that you found inspiring?

Rivas: I loved an exhibition on the Argentine artist Edgardo Giménez that I saw at MALBA in Buenos Aires. It was a big show and it covered sixty years of his work, which falls between pop art and design. The title was Edgardo Giménez: No habrá ninguno igual or “one of a kind.” There were large installations, objects, books, and art spread over a big portion of the museum.

Spinozzi: I saw an exhibition that just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s called The Shape of Time: Korean Art After 1989, and it was so ambitious and varied and just so unlike the projects that I put together, which focus on one material or aspect of something. I loved how the curator, who didn’t really know much about Korea or Korean art, spent a lot of time going there over the past five years, looking at craftsmanship, different expressions, and different media. I was in there for almost three hours and didn’t realize.

De Gregorio: I saw an ambitious exhibition on hair at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. I was especially interested in the sections dealing with the early twentieth century through the 1970s. They had a whole room of wax store mannequins from the 1920s, showcasing women’s hairstyles that were all from a private collection, and they were amazing to see in-person. There was also a smaller show at the Palais Galliera in Paris on a group of autochrome photographs from the 1920s that were taken for a trade exhibition. They had dresses on display, alongside autochromes that showed how they were styled in the trade show and in different publications, which is material that’s usually in an object file and only seen by curators. So that was great to see as somebody who loves that kind of research.

Krohn: So, in closing, do you think that BGC was a useful stepping stone for your careers and where you are now?

Spinozzi: Of course! I’ve kept in touch with many professors, and I took a number of classes that were in connection with the Met, so that gave me access to museums. I’m so happy to hear that there’s a study collection now. I think the biggest hurdle for me post-school is that when I got to the museum, or even the auction house, I had no object experience other than being a potter so that was really my training ground for looking at all kinds of objects and learning connoisseurship. So I think the fact that you’re building a study collection is great.

Rivas: I think BGC is a unique educational institution in that you have the option of taking classes with faculty from very different backgrounds and with different approaches to studying material culture. You can go from fashion to the ancient world to high end contemporary design, and you can focus on theory, or you can be more hands on.

De Gregorio: BGC taught me everything I know, especially in terms of connoisseurship. I feel like my cohort had a lot of opportunities to work on Focus Exhibitions. We got to really understand what it was to look at an object from various perspectives, and we went to auctions all the time. It made me unafraid to go to auction houses and touch things, to crawl around on carpets to look at things with a flashlight, and to get under them, and to pull out drawers. This is so important if you want to go into museums and you really want to know how things are made, and I feel like taking every opportunity to handle objects was especially important to me and the other people in my class. And the expansion of the Study Collection will help students have even more of those opportunities.

Griffin: As a current student who will potentially be pursuing curatorial work after graduation, it was great to hear from you all about your perspectives, experiences, and diverse career paths and how BGC fits in. Thank you!