Art news  •  Featured  •  Women in Art

Meet Catherine Morris: Curator at the Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum

For International Women’s Day, SINGULART is highlighting the stories of women in the art world, from artists to art historians and curators such as Catherine Morris.

Working as an independent curator before becoming the curator in chief at the Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Catherine Morris researches how feminism shaped art and our perceptions. In this exclusive interview, Catherine shares with us the evolution of her career, her thoughts on feminism and what it means to be a woman in the art world while providing tips for younger generations. Discover her world here.

What was your first experience with art?  Why did you choose a career as an independent curator?

I have two answers to that question, one silly and one meaningful. The silly one is that when I was 10 or 11 years old, there was a  game called Masterpiece, a board game where players bought and sold art. I remember playing the game with friends and really really wanting to own the Jackson Pollock and I had no idea why, I was just very drawn to it. 

The important answer to that question is that I grew up in Washington D.C and I started going to the National Gallery with my parents as a very young child. The National Gallery really informed my ability to envision what it meant to work in the art world, which was not really part of my childhood or upbringing. I fell in love with the place and in retrospect, one of the most important aspects to me was that it was free. It was a place I could walk in and out of with complete freedom — to see one work of art, to spend hours, or simply to cool off on a hot afternoon.  When I was in high school I discovered art history and that was when I really began to spend significant time at the museum.The National Gallery had an enormous impact on my life.

I still talk about the fact that the National Gallery does not have anybody’s name on it, it says on the door it is for the people and it was free, I had access. It was profoundly important to me.

What led you to study art?

As I mentioned, I discovered that art was a topic of study when I was in high school. My high school offered an art history class and I was hooked, and I have been ever since. Having said that, how I became a curator in museums was not so direct. But my desire to study art history took hold   when I was a teenager. 

So I studied art history as an undergrad, but I knew I didn’t want to do a PhD, which required a lot of time and money, and I didn’t come from wealth or means. I didn’t know what the options were, but I was lucky to start with an (unpaid) internship. I worked for a non-profit organization called the Washington project for the Arts where I learned about contemporary practices and that was pivotal for me. Then I went to graduate school in New York where I got a master’s degree.

So I don’t have a PhD, I don’t have the typical credentials that most curators have in large museums. I worked for a long time as an independent curator and in the commercial art world for galleries and as an art advisor. I was always involved in the art world but I did not see myself as a curator until I started doing independent work. And out of a decade of independent work, came the opportunity to join the Brooklyn Museum. It was an amazing opportunity for me because I had never worked in a museum before. What I remember most from my first days on the job is an intense case of  imposter complex.

So you joined the Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009, can you tell us a bit more about the Center itself?

The Sackler Center was officially opened in 2007, it is a part of the Brooklyn Museum. It was the brainchild of the philanthropist and activist Elizabeth A. Sackler and Arnold Lehman, the former director of the Museum. The initial impetus for Elizabeth Sackler was to find a home for The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, the iconic masterwork of feminist art of the 1970s. Elizabeth suggested to Arnold that she would give it to the Brooklyn Museum if it could be presented within the context of a Center for Feminist Art —  , not just a gallery. The goal was to have a center that incorporates and aligns education, political and feminist activism, and important works of contemporary art and historical research as suggested by The Dinner Party.

Between the Door and the Street, installation by American artist Suzanne Lacy in front of the Brooklyn Museum, October 2013. Credits: Wikipédia

How do you define feminist art today?

On the one hand, the art movement that emerges in conjunction with second wave white feminism in the 1960s-1970s is generally known as the feminist art movement and The Dinner Party is the masterpiece of that art historical genre. In addition to supporting scholarship around that foundational movement, I thought it was also necessary to think more broadly, not just about art that can be described as part of a feminist movement, or as an art historical period but also to think about the broader cultural and political impacts. I often say that if you are alive in 2021 and you are looking at art and visual culture, you have been impacted by feminism. It has affected the way that you look at and understand objects. My interest as a curator is exploring what this means and how it manifests in our responses to both contemporary and historical art. 

With that opening, we can look at everything through this lens of feminism and that curatorial point of view is reflected in the exhibitions we produce at the Center. A topic may not seem particularly feminist at first, but how is inflected in a given subject is a nuanced and rewarding approach to cultural examination. 

What was one of your last exhibitions that illustrates the center at its best ?

2017, a few years ago now, was the ten-year anniversary of the center and we did a large project called The Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum. One of the many exhibitions in the project was curated by Edward Blieberg, now Curator Emerita of our Egyptian collection. Called A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt, the show presented recent feminist scholarship in Egyptology, that reframed the understanding of inscriptions on Egyptian burial sites. Scholars had long noted shifts in pronouns in funerary settings, but had never considered the reasons for the change.

Emerging scholarship pointed to an intriguing possible explanation: Ancient Egyptians believed that men give birth to life, but women carry life: so in order for women to make it in the after-life, she had to temporarily become male in order to give birth to herself and enter the afterlife. I think this is a particularly rich example of how feminism can change the way we interpret history, even history that long predates feminism.

You use feminism as your frame of research, how do you define it today?

I think that feminism, at its barest minimum, is a human rights issue of addressing social, cultural, and political inequities based on gender and that gender-based oppression exist in almost all cultures. I also acknowledge that the word feminism can be problematic, even within communities of people fighting for gender equity. I think the most accurate way to speak about feminism today is to talk of feminisms because there are myriad ways that feminist thinking and activism manifests itself in different cultural contexts and historical moments. 

In making The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago wanted to revise history she had been taught , it is now our job to revise the important and transformative revisionist work begun in the 1970s and talk about the ways in which feminism — white feminism, in particular — did not work for a lot of women, particularly women of color. I think this is the most important work of mainstream feminism today.

Installation view of A Woman’s Afterlife

For you, what is the biggest misconception about feminism today?

That it is only important to women. Feminism pertains to everybody. One of the common questions we get at the Center is, do you show art by men? And the answer is yes, of course. We show men who have identified themselves as feminist, and those who don’t, just as we show work by artists who non-gender conforming, seeing themselves as neither male or female.

Is this why people are afraid to call themselves feminists today?

I feel like my opinion on that question changes a lot. It seems like in the course of a week, feminism is a useful term and then, just as quickly it is a ridiculed term. Right now my feeling about it is : is it truly a scary term ? It is not. Is it an imperfect term ? Sure, I will grant that. But is it really scary to want to acknowledge that serious and harmful inequities based on gender identification exist? That even in a notably mainstream example: in the US  women still don’t have the same legal rights as men in 2021 ?

As a curator, I don’t feel like it is my job to convince people to be feminists – it is my job to show people the ways that they have been impacted by feminism whether they know it or not. My goal is to make clear to our visitors how one of the most important political movements to emerge in the  20st century has had an impact on how they view the world. What does that mean today?

Who are you the most inspired by today?

It is so interesting for me to see the younger generations of people — like you! — accept feminism as valid and important and yet still strive to critique and adapt the work of the last seventy years to address pressing issues and difficult conversations emerging today. That’s what generations do, they digest the stress, anxiety, and confusion of a previous generation and they examine the flaws and move on with clarity to adapt the old tools to fit today’s priorities. That is happening so much in our world right now and it is very inspiring.

Catherine Morris installing Lorraine O’Grady

What is your creative process?

Falling in love with stories, ideas, objects is absolutely my primary motivation. The energy that drives good projects however has to grow from some sort of relevancy to the current moment.t. In my experience, the exhibitions that really touch people and leave a mark on them often involve serendipity — the world aligning to see something through a fresh set of eyes. It typically takes years to make an exhibition. If you are lucky, the subject only becomes more relevant over that time, but you can’t control that.

What is it like to be a woman in the art industry today?

Over the course of my career, women have always been the drivers of the art world. I think it is true that men do have the top positions and women have done a lot of unrecognized and misattributed work. This has changed over the years: there are more and more women working as museum directors, senior curators and all of that. I think that the generation I came up with in the 90s and today, we were all feminists, at least all the people I hung out with were. We all supported each other.

Sexism is absolutely part of my life experience: expectations, or a lack thereof and sexual, harassment was always present, but I feel like it has changed. Over the course of my career, there was a general perception that men were often promoted based on potential while women were promoted based solely on experience, and the way you navigated the world as a woman was very different, and men got ahead a lot quicker. And women often have to prove themselves over and over again. I do believe that is changing.

You have hope for the future though?

I do, I have seen a positive evolution over the course of my career. Certainly over the last year with the Black Lives Matter movement for instance. There is progress and I think that what we are seeing right now will be truly game-changing in the art world and it will be interesting to see how the changes we are witnessing continue to impact the field over the coming years. 

There have also been so many more monographic exhibitions dedicated to women artists in the last few years — both historical and contemporary. It is absolutely part of the fabric of the field to make these exhibitions today and that was not the case 10-20 years ago. It is a wonderful thing to be part of.

Out of Place: A Feminist Look at the collection

As a woman and a curator, do you feel supported by the art community?

It is a hard question to answer because it is quite personal. How I made my way through the art world is a personal experience. I am really an introvert, and the amount of socializing the art world demands can be daunting. I have been lucky to have found mentors at key moments in my career. One of them was Jon Hendricks, an amazing Fluxus scholar, curator and social activist. Another was Holly Block who I met when I was her intern at the Washington Project for the Arts and later became the director of the Bronx Museum.

Any woman that inspires you particularly today?

We are about to install the first monographic exhibition of Lorraine O’Grady next week. Lorraine is absolutely an inspiration, she is 86 years old and this project, called Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is her first monographic museum exhibition. Lorraine became an artist at age 45, after being a rock critic for the Rolling Stones, a translator, and an intelligence analyst for the US Government. She had this extraordinary life and an amazing body of work that people need to know better. She inspires me.

Do you have any tips for the younger generation?

Life and careers are not things that unfold in a straight line, at least they haven’t for me. One constant I can point to is the group of people I connected with early on in my career. My advice is to find folks who share your passion — look at art with them, debate criticism with them, move through your career with them because those are the people who will know you best and know you longest. They are the people whose careers will move alongside your own and can offer important support. Hold on to that group —  you will be together the longest.

Cover picture: Photo credit Grace Roselli