Rana/Martin: What is your job here at the Brooklyn Museum?
Saisha Grayson: My job is Assistant Curator for the Sackler Center for Feminist Art so to a large degree I help Catherine Morris, who is the curator of and director of the center, to bring about all the exhibitions that we have planned for this year and the coming three/four years as well, so we plan very far out and on a day to day basis. What that means is I’m helping think about first the formulation of the exhibition, artists that we might be interested in, topics that we might want to explore, and what kind of shape that would take on a object by object basis. For example, what objects would you pick to put together a show about Judy Chicago or the 1980s. It can be very open ended in terms of how we start and then as the planning of an exhibition progresses, my job will be figuring out where those works of art might be, what kind of lenders would be involved in the project, reaching out to them making sure that we can, in fact, get the works that we want to include in the show, and coordinating the gathering of materials and objects. Once we have a set checklist of how determined, what exactly will be in the show, I’m very much involved in the drafting of wall text, labels, introductory statements, and website materials: all the things that frame the show intellectually so that when you, as a viewer, come to experience it, you get the information and ideas that you need to be able to work with the materials and understand what’s going on. That life cycle of the exhibition largely guides the day to day activity of my job.
Rana/Martin: Are you the only Assistant Curator here?
Grayson: In my department, I am the only Assistant Curator, and there are a couple of other assistant curators throughout the museum but it is a role that is being expanded as the museum in itself is expanding, focusing on more academic exhibition programs. So it has been fun, I’ve been joined by three wonderful colleagues at that level as well, sort of like in a law firm, an assistant curator is like a junior lawyer, you’re an early entry into the firm but you can technically do your own cases.
Rana/Martin: What are some of the subjects that you have curated under feminism?
Grayson: So, since I’ve been here, we’ve really covered a broad terrain, and one of the things that we’re very much trying to do at this center is to think about it as a space for bringing feminism as a theoretical construct to the way we look at all art and visual materials in culture. So rather than concerning ourselves too much with whether an artist declares himself to be a feminist artist or sees that as his or her primary topic, [we] instead think about how we can look at a period of time or a body of work through a feminist lens That allows us both what we think is a more productive approach to what we do at the center and and obviously a much broader swath of culture that we can engage in.
Rana/Martin: How did you get to where you are today?
As most people will tell you, it was not a direct path. I do feel very lucky to have made my way to the Brooklyn museum and to this job because it is a competitive field. My parents went to art school and grew up in a household with art books. As I went to school, I realized I didn’t want to be an artist. But I loved writing and history and as I got older in critical analysis. I found that in art history I could look at beautiful things, but also read into the less beautiful things and find a productive way to engage with that culture through writing. Then I studied art history and film in undergrad at Sarah Lawrence and when I graduated, I did a couple different small steps, I worked in the development department fundraising for a not art related organization and then moved to a dance company, Trisha Brown Dance Company, where I was development assistant. Through that I met people more involved in the visual art world, I helped curate a fundraising exhibition for that show and that really reminded me that I did want to work in the visual arts more than performing arts in that way. Then I went to a company that did communications strategy for art museums and institutions and that was a really interesting job, its actually one of those things where if you don’t find your way there then you don’t really know it exists. It was a lot of writing and strategic thing about what a museum brings to a community. I really enjoyed that and also thought that these projects were so interesting and I would like to make my own projects rather than just writing about them. At that point I went back to graduate school and I got my masters in curatorial and critical studies from Columbia University. The program did not continue to the PhD and I realized I would probably need a PhD to be a curator and so seven years later here I am.
Rana/Martin: What advice would you give to those who are sure about being a curator and those who aren’t too sure about how to engage in the field of art?
There are a lot of ways to engage with the art world and I can say that in retrospect I can say that through the working process, through trying things out, interning, you can find the spaces that are a good fit for you. I do think that while graduate school is important for some aspects of the field, I think it is very helpful to work a little bit in the “real world” and get a sense of what your preferred working methods and energy levels are. Do you like working events? Do you like working quietly at the back of an office? What are the modes of engagement that are going to be interesting for you? You might surprise yourself. Figuring out who you are and what you want to do in the field will be really helpful before you go all the way and possibly change your mind.
Rana/Martin: What museums do you visit often?
I go to the MoMA a lot. I go to the New Museum probably every season; they have some great shows. And PS1 which is in Queens which has younger contemporary artists. That’s the most regular and based on what’s up in other places I definitely journey further uptown to the Jewish Museum and the Guggenheim.
Rana/Martin: What is your favorite piece of art?
Okay so I am going to give you two because they are very different. One of them is the work that I would most want in my home somehow and the other is one of those that has most inspired me about what art can do. If I could have any work in my home it would be Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms which are these entirely capsulated reflective surfaces and they have colored lights that dangle down and the whole space becomes this incredible mediative transcended space that makes you feel like you are in an entirely different world. It would be a wonderful space to be able to enter and reflect upon regularly. The other work that came to mind is a work by Emily Jacir who used her status as an artist as well as American Palestinian to be able to cross a border that other Palestinians couldn’t cross. So she would go back and forth between the territories and do tasks for them like lying flowers on graves or playing soccer with other people’s cousins. The art world allows a special register in which people can do politics. She would document this would photographs and then notes and that would be at the museum; so when you see it, it doesn’t blow your mind. But when you read these and see what’s happening, it makes you cry years later.
Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From