Interview with Erin Barnett, Curatorial Assistant, Guggenheim

Courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts

What led you to curatorial work?

I've liked museums since I was a little kid. Some of my fondest memories were taking a bus from Connecticut to come to the Met. I did some interning in museum education departments, but it wasn't a good fit. I prefer curatorial work, because it allows input into what's being shown.

Can you describe your job?

I facilitate anything and everything. I answer research inquiries from collectors, coordinate loan letters, go through the Guggenheim's holdings to find work to fill gaps in exhibitions, arrange for the evaluation of works...

Is there any relationship between the curator and the artists, when curating shows of living artists?

Definitely. I don't think it's defined--it depends on how much the artist wants to be involved. When I co-curated a show for the Whitney, we went on a lot of studio visits and took into account how people wanted their work shown. If they wanted the work raised three inches in the gallery, then we raised it three inches; if they wanted it put in a corner than it got put in a corner. We're doing an installation at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and we sent the artist the floorplans and talked to him about his ideas for the space--walls, lighting....

What factors go into a museum's decision to put on a particular exhibit?

They want a new approach to a topic, to show the audience something they haven't seen before, or to give a new interpretation of an artist or theme. I don't have to think about financial stuff--that's for the big guys--but of course they consider whether it will attract an audience.

You've worked for large museums like the Guggenheim and the Toledo Museum of Art, as well as for the much smaller Spencer Museum in Kansas. Are there noticeable differences between what these museums will show?

The Toledo museum was similar to the Guggenheim because it served a metropolitan constituency. They wanted blockbuster exhibitions like "The Age of Rubens" or "The Art of the Motorcycle" to get people in the door. Kansas is an academic community, so you could put on little shows that might not get put on at the Guggenheim. You didn't have to answer to a board of trustees. There's also a real time difference--in Kansas you would spend three months to a year on an exhibition, whereas here we're working on exhibitions that are often two to five years down the road.

Why does it take so long to organize an exhibit?

Part of it is the bureaucracy--securing loans, checking condition reports, agreeing on a checklist. Part is catalog production--getting people to agree to write essays, getting people to agree to be in group shows, dealing with artists' estates. At the Guggenheim you have big budgets and large time frames. I'm currently working on eight exhibitions.

What's the best part of your job?

Getting to know the collection. I also enjoy doing research, and it's fun to see the actual objects and then trace the history.

The worst?

Administrative paperwork.

You have a masters in art history from the University of Kansas and you studied curatorial studies as part of the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program. Would you recommend a masters to people interested in pursuing curatorial work? What about the Whitney program?

I think now you really need a masters, especially if you want to work at a large museum. It's also important to have museum work experience before deciding it's what you want to do--dealing with the day to day reality of the museum. The Whitney program was much more theory orientated than my masters, yet it was also hands on--the three curatorial studies students curated a show together for the Whitney's Connecticut branch. I also got to work closely with emerging artists and critics who were interested in similar issues but who had different backgrounds and viewpoints.

What interests you right now?

I'm thinking about self-portraiture as a political tool. I'm also just interested in collecting information. It can be really dangerous to come to art with the idea of, Ok, I'm going to do a show about French artists dealing with genocide or whatever topic, and then try to find things to show, because you end up forcing things and works into this framework. I prefer just looking at art objects and trying to figure out what interests me. The scary part of curatorial work is that sometimes people concentrate more on their fabulous idea than on the art itself. You need both, and they need to develop in tandem.

Erin Barnett is a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim Museum. A graduate of The University of Kansas, where she earned an MA in Art History, and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, where she concentrated in curatorial studies, Erin has also worked for the Spencer Museum, The Toledo Museum of Art, and the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art. Recent shows that Barnett has worked on include “On the Sublime: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell” for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; “Alexander Calder” for the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; “500 Years of Spanish Art” for the Guggenheim Museum, New York; and “America 300” for the National Museum in Shanghai, China.

The interview was conducted by Ilana Stanger of

This article was originally created for It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library.

It appears on CAR courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts,

Published by CAR_admin on Wed, 04/09/2008 - 12:15pm
Updated on Fri, 05/01/2015 - 1:00pm