Getting the top job at a top museum can involve working in various curatorial and managerial roles for several years, putting together lauded exhibitions, and leading trailblazing initiatives. Sometimes it’s being the first to recognize the merits of an emerging art scene that might otherwise be overlooked. But for many of today’s museum directors, the path starts with completing a post-graduate degree, either a master’s or a doctorate, and in a few notable cases—such as that of MoMA’s Glenn Lowry, who started as a scholar of Islamic art—that thesis or dissertation may have nothing to do with the focus of the museum they end up leading.
We spoke to five museum directors in various parts of the United States and asked them to share the stories of their academic research and what they learned along the way. Many of the directors spoke of the ways in which doing their research, and learning about the specific historical contexts in which art is produced, informs their thinking today. As Rebecca Rabinow, director of the Menil Collection in Houston, put it, “knowing about what was happening at the time the art was made, generally—and, specifically, [what it meant] to the person who was making it—can add levels of richness to the understanding of the work.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Thesis topic: Contemporary art during the market boom of the 1980s
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the United States and its directorship is perhaps the most coveted art job in the country. Best-known for its encyclopedic collection that spans more than 5,000 years of art making, its director’s expertise in a particular field is perhaps incidental—chances are, the Met has related work in its holdings. (A previous director, Tom Campbell, who’d been a curator at the museum, was known for his focus on medieval tapestries.)
When Max Hollein was announced as the new director of the Met in 2018, he brought with him an expertise in contemporary art, the art market, and business management. In Vienna, he completed two master’s theses: one on business administration that looked at the “distribution channels in the contemporary art market” and the second focused specifically on contemporary art during the boom of the 1980s art market that saw the rise of such art stars as Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Other people he interviewed for his thesis were dealers Leo Castelli, Larry Gagosian, and Jeffrey Deitch, artists Haim Steinbach, Peter Halley, Claes Oldenburg, and art historian Kirk Varnedoe. Hollein spent two months in New York doing research for his papers, and along the way he was helped by the late media mogul S. I. Newhouse, who ranked among the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors each year from 1991 until 2017.
Hollein said that his thesis, which was later published as a book, “deals with the question of how the market influences the reception of art and artists, and if some artists need a booming market to create outstanding work.”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Dissertation topic: Chinese contemporary art, focusing on artists in diaspora
The original idea to create a museum dedicated to contemporary art in the nation’s capital started in the late 1930s, but because of the Great Depression it never took off. It wasn’t until the 1960s that this idea was revived, when Joseph H. Hirshhorn agreed to donate his collection of modern art to the country, under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, to what became the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1974. Among the artworks donated were pieces by Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Giacometti, Pollock, and de Kooning. More recently, under the stewardship of its current director, Melissa Chiu, who arrived in 2014, the Hirshhorn has presented daring installations by Mark Bradford, Tino Sehgal, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and acquired 50 works by Marcel Duchamp from Barbara and Aaron Levine.
Chiu, who grew up in Australia, first started going to China in 1992, shortly after the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that catalyzed a new art scene in the country. “When I said to my supervisor that I wanted to focus on this field,” Chiu remembered, “she asked me, ‘How many books were produced on the topic,’ and I said, ‘two,’ and she said to me that that was not a field of inquiry. But I persisted.” Despite her initial concerns, Chiu’s advisor supported the aspiring curator in her research, which was among the first anywhere in the world to focus on emerging art in China.
“It was for me a formative moment in which I observed an art scene in formation,” Chiu said. Among the artists she focused on are ones that have now become international superstars, acclaimed for their trailblazing work, among them Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, and Huang Yong Ping. Many of them had left China in the 1980s for Paris, New York, and Sydney. (In the years after 2000, several of them returned to China and set up studios, living between China and the cities in which they had been in exile.)
After she was awarded her Ph.D., Chiu published her dissertation and, soon after, founded Gallery 4A in Sydney, a nonprofit space that focused on Asian art. In 2001, Chiu left that post for one at the Asia Society in New York, serving as the institution’s curator of Asian contemporary art, the first such position anywhere in the United States.
“Seeing an entire art scene emerge and being a witness to that does provide me with insights into managing a modern and contemporary art museum,” Chiu said. “Part of our work is not just recognizing the historical elements of 20th-century art but also being able to try to be very attuned to how artists are thinking, to see how things are coalescing at this great pluralistic moment.”
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Thesis topic: 19th-century American landscape painting, focusing on Fitz Hugh Lane
Originally founded as a non-collecting institution in 1967, the MCA Chicago started acquiring work for its permanent collection in 1974 and now has more than 2,500 objects, dating from the 1920s to the present. Important works in the collection include those by Kerry James Marshall, Howardena Pindell, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Gertrude Abercrombie, and Marisol.
When Grynsztejn began her Ph.D. program in art history at Columbia University, she wanted to become an expert in Manet, and began studying with the day’s leading scholar, Theodore Reff. Her focus was on connoisseurship, and to this day, she can still tell a real Manet drawing from a fake. But ultimately she settled on studying 19th-century American landscape painting under Barbara Novak, the great American art history specialist, who also taught at Columbia. “I found myself very surprisingly on this track,” Grynsztejn said, “and the reason I say surprising is that at that time I had very little to do with the United States. I was a recent immigrant. I was a green-card holder. I had grown up in Peru, Venezuela, and England, and so landing on an M.A. on something that was so American, if you will, surprised even me.”
For her master’s thesis, Grynsztejn focused on the little-known American painter Fitz Hugh Lane, tracking his movements around the country in parallel with Emerson’s lecture circuit, which she argued, greatly influenced Lane’s output. “What made me fall in love with that trajectory was that it was fundamentally contextual in its approach in that you didn’t only look at the beauty in the work of art, but you understood it within the larger societal, political, and economic forces that were brought to bear on that particular moment and on that particular artist. It’s how I chose to understand the world,” she said.
Grynsztejn never completed her dissertation—much to Novak’s “chagrin,” as Grynsztejn put it. Relying mostly on secondary sources, she felt she wasn’t able to arrive at something new to say. So she left Columbia and did the Whitney Independent Study Program. “I was looking for a place where I could make an art history my own. And that’s what eventually led me to contemporary art,” Grynsztejn said.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California
Dissertation topic: Art commissioned by the Ottonians around the year 1000 in Europe
The art collection of the Huntington is perhaps best known for its focus on European art, broadly ranging from the 15th century to the early 20th, with a particular focus on British art from the late 18th century. The two most famous works in its holdings are Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait The Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence’s 1794 portrait of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, commonly called Pinkie. Recently, the museum has also started working with contemporary artists, acquiring a video work by Carolina Caycedo produced during a yearlong residency there, and partnering with the Hammer Museum to co-present the upcoming Made in L.A. biennial.
So it might be a surprise that the museum’s director, Christina Nielsen, is actually a medievalist by training. Her dissertation focused on art made in Europe around the year 1000. At the time, the Ottonian Dynasty, which ruled much of modern-day Germany and northern Italy, was trying to solidify its power across Europe. One means to do this was to commission new art objects that reused materials from previous eras, including architectural fragments from Roman buildings and carved ivory panels from about 200 to 300 years earlier made for the Carolingians.
“I find it most exciting to think about when those different cultures butt up against each other and the tensions that produces and the complete paradigm shifts that those things produce and new thoughts and ideas that come out of the meeting across time and place,” Nielsen said.
Since arriving at the Huntington in 2018, Nielsen has focused on how the museum can look at its collection transnationally and across media, and how it can partner with other institutions. “When I talk about transhistorical and transnational exchange or juxtaposition, that’s what I was doing 20 years ago in my Ph.D. research, but I didn’t understand that it was going to set me on this trajectory where I would always seek out exchange between cultural practices,” she said.
The Menil Collection, Houston
Dissertation topic: Artists’ books published by Tériade during World War II
The Menil Collection started out as just that—a private collection amassed between the 1940s and 1990s by Houston-based oil tycoons Dominique and John de Menil. Their holdings covered quite a range, from Byzantine and medieval works to Surrealism to objects from indigenous cultures of the ancient Americas, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Northwest as well as contemporary artworks that they commissioned by the day’s leading artists, including Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Dan Flavin, and Barnett Newman.
Rabinow, who became director of the Menil in 2016, first learned about Tériade through the most famous of the artist books he published, Henri Matisse’s Jazz, while she was an undergrad at Smith College doing a study abroad program in France. At the Musée Matisse in Nice, she was stopped in her tracks by the room holding the artist’s illustrated works. “I just had never seen anything like that,” Rabinow said. “I didn’t know these kinds of things existed, that Matisse had done them. I refused to go on the rest of the tour.”
When she started work on her Ph.D., Rabinow thought she would study Soviet art, but returned to her earlier love of Matisse, which eventually led to her meeting Tériade’s widow, who had shoeboxes filled with his correspondence with the artists he contracted to work on the books. Tériade was an art critic who had first moved to France to study law in Marseille, but quickly left that career path and moved to Paris, where he befriended some of the leading artists of the time, among them Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, Alberto Giacometti, and Georges Rouault.
Beginning in 1943 Tériade contacted several of his artist friends about working on a project that would provide people with a distraction from the ongoing war. “There were different points where Tériade was getting depressed,” Rabinow said. “He was isolated from Paris, he was isolated from his community. He felt very alone and was asking himself why he was he doing this. But among the letters I found, somebody wrote, ‘The public is eager for artistic food and escape from current events.’”
Among the other artists’ books Tériade published were Bonnard’s Correspondence, a fictionalized account of a summer early in the artist’s life that many scholars once took as fact, and Rouault’s Divertissement, or “Amusements,” created to entertain two grandsons for whom Rouault was caring in his third-floor apartment on the French Riviera at a time when food was short and movie theaters had closed.
“It was rather extraordinary to read some of this again,” Rabinow said, “because the parallels between then and now—take the war out of it—but there are a lot of things that have a resonance that I hadn’t recognized back in the ’90s when I wrote this.”