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How to get things done

Dayna Evans, How Nancy Spector, Chief Curator of the Brooklyn Museum, Gets It All Done, The Cut, 29 August 2016

Nancy Spector. Photo: Elena Olivia. Source: Brooklyn Eagle
Nancy Spector. Photo: Elena Olivia. Source: Brooklyn Eagle

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.

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