Photo by Weston Wells

Sarah Brown McLeod (MA ‘12) began her career in fashion where she worked with brands including Yohji Yamamoto, Zac Posen, Jil Sander, Narciso Rodriguez, and LeSportsac both in house and at agency from 2002 until 2010 before pursuing her master’s degree at Bard Graduate Center. In 2012, McLeod joined the revered art public relations firm Polskin Arts. Next, she became the head of communications and marketing at MoMA Design Store and subsequently the director of communications at the online auction house Paddle8. She launched her own practice, Department PR, in 2017.

McLeod specializes in strategic communications, media relations for art, culture, design, luxury, and fashion brands. Current and past work for brands, institutions, galleries, and artists includes Phillips, Bonhams, SuperRare, Gagosian, Daata Editions, Designing Motherhood, Archives of Women Artists: Research and Exhibitions (AWARE), Offer Waterman Gallery, Claire Oliver Gallery, Praise Shadows Art Gallery, Wexler Gallery, LX Gallery, Chandelier Creative, the Dutch Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale, Stephanie Goto Studio, Paddle8, the Museum of Modern Art, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Mary Boone Gallery, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Clark Art Institute, Marc Quinn, Faena, Virgin Voyages, Jil Sander, Narciso Rodriguez, and Yohji Yamamoto amongst others.

She lives and works in Brooklyn with her landscape architect husband, two daughters, and rambunctious puppy.

What attracted you to BGC’s program?
I studied history and French as an undergrad and ended up doing a total “180” when I graduated. I sort of fell into a career in fashion and ended up in PR because I could write. I left my career as a fashion publicist after eight years of working with designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Zac Posen, and at PR Consulting, a top agency in the industry. I thought I wanted to study fashion history and become a costume curator, which paired my background of historic scholarship with my industry experience. I was immediately attracted to the academic rigor of BGC and liked that I would be getting much more context vis à vis broad design history than at other programs that were far more narrowly focused on fashion history, particularly because I hadn’t studied art history.

What was your focus of study here, how did you find yourself involved with it?
I found so much of my coursework at BGC to be fascinating, so I definitely had some tangential projects (including the wonderful multi-year course and catalogue work on Georges Hoentschel). I ultimately focused on fashion designer Paul Poiret’s decorative arts Atelier Martine, which was a school he founded in Paris for young orphan girls to design textiles in the 1910s and 20s. The context of the early twentieth-century focus on childhood, both from an artistic and psychological perspective, was fascinating to me. As a master of PR himself, Poiret definitely used the storytelling behind Martine: in the cultural and artistic context of the era the use of child labor signified a fashionable primitivism, which today is so problematic, but was quite stylish and arty at the time. I was able to travel to Paris twice to study original textile designs by the young students, thanks to a generous Bonnie Cashin fellowship from BGC, which was incredibly special.

Describe your position and how you came to it. What sort of projects are you working on?

While my goals in pursuing a master’s at BGC were initially to become a costume historian and curator, I found so much of the broad coursework to be fascinating and am now much more of a generalist. Ultimately, curatorial positions in NYC are a little like hoping to become a rockstar, there are very few of them and you really have to be dedicated, specific, and excellent at what you do to stand apart from the pack. I greatly admire curators and scholars, but if I’m frank, I didn’t have the patience for it, and I was unwilling to leave New York City, where I had already lived for more than a decade.

Handling communications and media relations for museums, exhibitions, and cultural or design projects is a little like stepping into the months or years of work, scholarship, and thought once it’s already fairly well-baked, but still needs to be brought out into the world. When done right, a good publicist works in very close collaboration with curators, artists, designers, and founders to help refine messaging and forefront the most compelling storytelling, while helping to achieve the goal of visibility for these projects in the wider world. The media landscape is siloed by nature: you have art media, design media, technology media, etc. It’s my job to think strategically about how we approach these various silos for any given project and how we both pace and position media outreach in order to have the most impact.

One of my favorite projects of the past year or so was Designing Motherhood, which I worked on with my former BGC classmate Amber Winick, her co-founder Michelle Millar Fisher, and curator Juliana Rowen Barton. I knew immediately that their work was important and revolutionary, examining the universal arc of human reproduction through the lens of design. It was a project I felt very deeply connected to, both as a design historian and a mother myself who had used a lot of the designs they were examining. Further, it was a project that wasn’t easy to “silo.” It touched so many different media beats: motherhood, gender, community activism, design, museums, and contemporary art. It was so gratifying to connect the dots and see the media really pick this story up.

How has your experience at BGC helped your career?
I could never have transitioned from doing fashion PR to the kind of work I do now without the foundation I received at BGC. While writing pitches and press releases is a different beast than scholarly essays, they aren’t wholly unrelated. The thought training that a rigorous academic program like BGC provides is so helpful in approaching projects and helping to craft compelling narratives. The pedagogical concept that underpins the BGC ethos of reading into a design or work of art and extracting history, meaning, and a much larger social and cultural context is something I use daily. This thought process applies far beyond design history into very contemporary projects of mine including digital art and NFTs, whose visual culture is so often derided as frivolous and “low brow,” but I think is a fascinating reflection of contemporary internet culture and memetics. More specifically, so much of the BGC coursework I took comes in handy, too. For example, Phillips auction house was a client of mine, and I recall developing press releases on sales ranging from design to art nouveau ceramics with great pleasure and familiarity thanks to Pat Kirkham’s midcentury design and Amy Ogata’s art nouveau seminars.