Ashley Dunn, 34, is an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, responsible for nineteenth-century French works on paper. She graduated from Bermuda High School for Girls in 1998, and St Paul’s School in New Hampshire in 2002. She has a degree in French from Emory University, a master’s in art history from Oxford, and is currently finishing her doctorate in art history at Northwestern University. And for the sake of transparency, she’s also my cousin.
Ashley will be speaking on May 16th at the Bermuda National Gallery about her journey and experiences as a Bermudian and art history student to assistant curator at the Met! She also just received her PhD.
When did you know art history was the field you wanted to be in?
I discovered my interest in art history when I was studying abroad in Paris. That was really the moment I was introduced to the curatorial field, through an internship, and I realised that was what I really wanted to pursue. So I switched gears—as much as I could—in my last year at Emory by writing a thesis that was about nineteenth-century art criticism.
I was keen to get into a museum, to start working, but was soon frustrated by visa issues and realised that I was going to need a graduate degree if I was going to be a curator of nineteenth-century French material.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to a doctorate; I knew it was seven years at least if you do it fast. So I went to Oxford and did a one-year master’s course to kind of get my feet wet and make sure that I actually liked graduate work.
Before you discovered your love for art history, was art in general a part of your life?
I guess I just had a casual interest in it prior to that, based on my mom being an artist. Umma (my grandmother) encouraged an interest in art certainly. But I just hadn’t had the opportunity to see a lot. I guess going through Boston I made a few visits to the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts), but it really wasn’t until I got to Paris that my eyes were open to it all.
What was it that captivated you?
The opportunity to go to all of the museums, and taking art history courses in which part of the course took place in the galleries, in the Louvre and the d’Orsay. Then there was an internship I did at the Musee d’Art Americain in Giverny, and that was really what sealed the deal. It was the first inkling I had of a career that I thought could be really satisfying. I was an intern in the curatorial department there, so I was exposed to a lot of different aspects of the job. And I realised it suited my interest in terms of being something very research based but also having a creative aspect—the making of exhibitions.
Did you have a favourite piece of art in Paris?
I don’t think I could pinpoint a single work, no. But the nineteenth-century galleries in the d’Orsay…I just went back over and over again. Any time anyone visited I went with them, but… yeah it’s really hard to choose one work.
Curating at the Met, it’s safe to say you have the dream job of any art history student. How did that happen?
In 2014, when it came time to embark on dissertation research, [my husband] Will and I moved to London. I spent that year doing research for my dissertation in Paris and London, starting the writing process. During the second year I started to keep an eye out for jobs—I was in my sixth year of my PhD by then and thought I should see what was out there.
That’s when I saw the posting for this position. I thought, “Well that would be ideal.” To be honest I didn’t think there was a chance in hell but I figured I could at least practise writing an application for the kind of job that I would want. So that’s what I did. I threw my hat in the ring and I wasn’t expecting to hear anything more about it. Three months later, in October, I got an e-mail from the head of the department here asking if I was still interested, and that’s when the interview process started.
Did you find out why you were chosen over the others?
No, I don’t know why. But I do know that there were not very many applicants. So I got lucky in a sense that there aren’t a lot of people specialising in this area. So I got this chance which, based on my experience alone, they definitely took a chance on hiring someone so early in their career.
What was it like in those first days, working for the Met? Exciting?
Well it’s still very exciting to walk into this building every day. Certainly the first few days, the first month even, felt very surreal. I just couldn’t believe that this was my job. I started in the summer which tends to be a quieter time, and I got to spend the first couple months really looking through the collection. I spent a lot of time going through boxes, particularly looking through our drawings holdings, so I could get a sense of what we had and where the strengths lie, where there are places for improvement. That was a great way to get acclimated.
Pretty soon after I was launched into a collaborative exhibition project, working on a show of our holdings by the sculptor Rodin. That was an exhibition that opened last fall, and it was a quick, year-long preparation process. I was working with colleagues in the European sculpture and decorative arts department and European paintings as well, so it was a great opportunity to learn from other more established curators. I curated one gallery of the overall exhibition that was devoted to his works on paper—drawings, prints, and actually some photographs as well.
Is it daunting working for such a big museum?
It can feel overwhelming because our collection is so vast. For the prints side of things in particular, we only have a sliver of them that are in our online database, which is an ongoing project to get our records on the web. But really the primary place we still consult daily for what we have, by a certain artist, is a card catalogue. So to give you a sense of scale, we think we have upwards of two million prints, and only 175,000 of those are online. There’s a lifetime of work to do. There’s just so much here. There’s so many possibilities in terms of directions to go with research, so it can be overwhelming in that sense.
Can you give us a rundown of what a day in the life of a Met curator looks like?
It varies day-to-day, which is part of what I like. But like most people the first thing I do is check my e-mail and see if there’s anything urgent that I have to respond to. Yesterday I spent most of the day writing an acquisitions report that was for a print we had acquired from the Print Fair in October. Part of the job is to build the collection, and this was a print that I thought would be great to add, so I was writing a report justifying why we should. I have to do that any time we receive a gift, which is fairly often. Each acquisition is its own mini research project. That also means I have to keep up with any auctions that are coming up, keep an eye on the market by looking at auction catalogues online, visiting auction houses and galleries, visiting collectors can be a part of it as well—What else? Oh, approving loan requests. We get a lot of requests from other institutions to borrow works of art, so part of my job is to approve or decline any of those that are works in my area of the collection.
What is a reason for declining a loan request?
We would decline if…so for works on paper they have pretty strict conservation guidelines for how long things can be on view, because works on paper are very sensitive to light. So we only show a work for three months every three years. So I would decline something if it had been out on view recently, or I would decline if the work they were requesting didn’t seem necessarily important to that exhibition. Maybe it’s just superfluous. So it’s just evaluating whether this exhibition is going to be a contribution to the field, can we learn something from its inclusion? I’d say the majority of proposals we receive are worthwhile, so then it’s more of a conservation reason that would prevent us from lending.
Tell me about the Delacroix exhibit. How long was that in the making?
That was also a fairly quick project in the scheme of exhibition preparation. Generally exhibitions are planned three years out. It’s about planning out the calendar, budgeting, researching, holding fundraisers…it takes time, particularly if it’s a scholarly project that is presenting new research; you have to build in the time to do that. Or if it’s an exhibition that’s full of loans, there’s just a ton of bureaucracy involved. But for this show, it was motivated by this promised gift from a donor to our department—Karen B. Cohen. She had been supporting the department for a long time, sort of gradually giving drawings of Delacroix. She’d already given 50-plus. She was one of the first donors I met after arriving here. I visited her that fall and during that visit she made clear she wanted to give us the rest of her Delacroix holdings, promise them to the museum. So we thought it would be wonderful to celebrate that gift, and we realised there was an opening in our schedule for about a year and a half out. It was fortuitous because it overlapped with this retrospective that had been in the works for a long time, jointly organised with the Louvre. The retrospective includes mainly paintings but also some prints and drawings as well. So this was an occasion we could have a full retrospective, giving the complete context of the artist’s career, and also a very in-depth look at Delacroix’s drawings at the same time. So the works all arrived at the museum in the spring of 2017 and I had to turn in my manuscript for the catalogue a matter of months later. So I submitted that in August for a year-long editing process.
Did you have to pinch yourself at any point?
Yes! I don’t want to say “terrifying”…but I had a lot to prove. Because I’m just starting out. Because I’m new to the museum. And I’m by no means a Delacroix expert but I had to at least try to make a contribution to the field through the exhibition. So it was a very intense preparatory and research process. But when I was able to step back and see it all on the walls, it was very gratifying. And it was great to get people’s reactions—to read the reviews but also just anecdotally in the gallery, to hear from visitors, just to see people taking in all the work that I’d put on those walls.
What about the interview with Fox?
Yeah it was the local Fox 5 in New York. That was my less than 30 seconds of fame. They just wanted one line. But there is a press preview for every exhibition, the press gets a tour, and I answer a few questions in the galleries, but otherwise my most extensive interview was with the Royal Gazette!
What are you focusing on next?
Well, I’m starting to think about my next exhibition project, which still has to go through all the approval processes here, but I’m interested in doing an exhibition about fans in the nineteenth century.
Yeah, as in the hand-held objects. It’s a project that I’m starting in collaboration with a colleague in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It was a coincidence that both of us were interested in this topic at the same time. I’ve actually been interested in it since Oxford. I wrote a paper on Pissarro’s fans. They’re really fascinating in the nineteenth century. There’s this moment in 1879 specifically…the Impressionists are preparing their fourth exhibition. Degas had this idea that there should be a whole gallery of fans of their design. So that’s the starting point, but the question of the exhibition is “Why would the most ambitious artists, the most avant-garde artists of their day, decide to take up the fan as a format, when it had associations with the decorative and the feminine and the commercial? And so to attempt to answer that question, the exhibition will examine the fan as an object of visual culture. And there are a lot of really interesting cultural threads that sort of weave through it. In the 1860s there’s a strong interest in Spain, and then of course Japan, then there’s the fashion side of things as well. . The Costume Institute at the Met has some great holdings of fashionable fans, and there’s also a large collection in the decorative arts department here, and the Asian collection, so I think it would be an exciting way to draw upon the museum’s resources. And we actually have three of the fans that were included in that 1879 Impressionist exhibition, two by Degas and one by Pissarro, so those are the centrepieces.
What advice do you have for young Bermudian women?
I would encourage young women to seek mentors, to find people to talk to about what they’re interested in. For instance navigating a path to a curatorial career is not obvious, there’s no clear pathway. It doesn’t happen the same way for everyone. But just getting advice from people along the way has been so crucial, and now that I’m in this role, it gives me great joy to be contacted by students or graduate students and people who are entering the field. Just being able to talk about different options and different paths I think is really valuable.
Do you have a favourite local artist here in Bermuda?
I have to say one of my favourite works of art is Graham Foster’s Hall of History at the National Museum in the Commissioner’s House. I think it’s spectacular. Definitely the best work of contemporary art in Bermuda, in my opinion.
I ask everyone the same last question: what are you reading right now?
Well, I’m really trying to finish my dissertation by the summer.
Oh wow, you’re that close now?
Yeah! I have a deadline from Northwestern now, so all of my reading now is very esoteric, dissertation-related things. But I can’t wait to finish and be able to turn to more pleasurable reading.