The Master Class: Conversation with Kathryn Potts

By Daniela Fifi Thursday, October 23rd, 2014 Categories: Features, Interview, Updates

Once every two months, the new column The Master Class will appear in ARC Magazine, featuring conversations about art education, museums, leadership and arts management for students and emerging art professionals. The following interview, the first of its kind, is a conversation with Kathryn Potts, Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and was conducted and written by Daniela Fifi.


Daniela Fifi: Can you describe your career trajectory to this point: milestones and key moments?

Kathryn Potts: As a kid I was always interested in making art. I came from a family that was very engaged with it: my grandfather was a commercial artist, my father painted. Art was just part of how I saw the world. When I got a little older, I realized that I wasn’t going to be a great artist, and I found that I got some of the same charge and passion in looking at art made by other people. That became my passion.

When I was in college, I did an internship at an auction house.  I had an idea that I might be interested in learning about art and business. I learned very quickly that it wasn’t for me. I knew that I didn’t want to work on the commercial side of the art world.

Then, after my senior year, I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – the museum that I had sort of grown up in as a kid. That experience was really inspiring and I decided to go to graduate school for a master’s degree in art history so that I could become a museum professional. At the time, my plan was to be a curator.

I graduated and then worked as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for five years. I got a very good grounding in the job of being a curator. That experience has proven to be incredibly important for me. I understand what’s important to curators, how curators think, and how a museum works.

I came to New York and worked as an assistant curator at the Jewish Museum. I was involved in a lot of the mechanics of making shows and traveling exhibitions.  Much of the work had to do with things like loan forms, insurance values, and conservation issues related to the work.  I discovered that to be a curator, the best moment for you has to be that moment where you’ve researched the show, then the object arrives in a big crate, and you open it up – that’s your ‘a-ha moment’. You’re so delighted to see it.  I had to be honest with myself, that was not my ‘a-ha moment’. My moment of greatest interest was the moment when the public came in and the show was complete. I realized that everything that I really loved had to do with the interaction of art and the public: I liked talking about the art, studying it and sharing information about the work. I always had a really strong sense, from the time I was a little girl, that this thing that I loved, art, is something that I should not keep to myself. I have always felt that the art world is somewhat elitist. I felt that part of what my work should be is to be an advocate for visitors to make sure when people come into museums that they feel welcome, informed and supported in their learning and understanding of art.

Museums over the last ten years have started to be much more visitor-centered.  I felt that by making a shift from a curatorial path to an educational one, I could be one of the leaders in making sure that museums are focused on the diverse needs of their visitors.

Kathryn Potts Associate Director, Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo Courtsey of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Kathryn Potts – Associate Director, Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo Courtsey of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

DF: Has the reality of your position as Director of Education at the Whitney changed your view of art in the field in any way?

KP: That’s a good question. One of the things that I’ve learned in the course of my time at the Whitney is that learning is about change. In order to do this work well, you have to be responsive. You have to listen. You can’t be a good educator if you’re not sensitive to your audience. Education professionals and education departments within museums are increasingly important to keep museums in touch with the people coming through the front door, and I feel that work is absolutely critical. I believe that the museum field is beginning to understand that.

I feel at this point very optimistic about the role that museums have. Museum professionals at the Whitney and elsewhere have come to understand that a great museum is much more than just a collection of great objects. Museums have social value – we really need to think about the broad range of ways that art, artists and cultural organizations can create a culture in which people can fully participate.

I truly believe that art is a right, not a privilege. Museums can make that a reality for people.

DF: What leadership skills are most critical to success in museum education?

KP: One of the things that has helped me to be a better leader is working with a team of people. In museums, we constantly have a flow of people coming in; that is, we have interns, we have the students, we have teens, research fellows and we have community people who pass in and out of the institution. I think the thing that has really helped me as a leader is to have the benefit of learning from all these different people. No one can know it all.

A good leader is one that can be attuned to and can hear about needs and about what is important, what the priorities are, from people who are not you. I think a good leader has to have a vision of where things are and where she wants things to go. On the other hand, that process of determining what’s important has to be informed by the voices of many people, both inside and outside of the institution. I think that’s the thing that I’ve really learned, particularly in the last five years.

DF: What are some of the major challenges of museum education within Contemporary Art museums today?

KP: The hardest thing for most people is that contemporary art is unfamiliar.  If you’re looking at work that you have no context (or no framework) for and you don’t have a familiar angle, people often have a couple of different responses. Some people can find it exciting, but other people can feel that they don’t have a way of connecting with the work, and they get angry. They feel like they’re being hoodwinked, or that the artist is trying to pull a fast one on them.

It is really important for contemporary art museums to create the right conditions for visitors. So, while the art can be challenging, the experience of being at the museum shouldn’t be. It should be that the museum supports people, that we welcome people, that we create spaces that people want to be in, so that they can open themselves as much as possible to new perspectives and new experiences that may be totally unfamiliar. You have to create the conditions for having an experience with art.

DF: What advice do you have for students that are thinking of moving into a career in museums?

KP: I think it’s important to find out at the beginning, rather than at the end, of your schooling whether this is work that suits you. There are all kinds of opportunities to get experience that might not even be in an art museum, for example, working as a camp counselor, as an assistant teacher, or helping an artist with a project. These are all skills that ultimately one would need in the context of a museum. It’s important to get your feet wet, so you can figure out if you really want to do this work.

The other advice that I always give is that when you’re thinking about next steps with any career or education decision, any position or step should open up new possibilities, especially when you’re at the beginning point of your career. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to overspecialize too early in your career because you don’t want to narrow the potential options and opportunities for yourself. When you’re young, there are experiences like traveling, or working in different fields that are formative experiences and can help create the person you ultimately become.

It’s easy when you’re sitting where I am to look back, and it looks like it’s a straight line from one experience or job or educational opportunity to another, but that’s not the way it works at all. Only when you’re looking backwards, does it look like a nice straight line. I would encourage young people to explore and to follow their bliss and to find out what they really want to do with their lives, because this is the time to experiment and to try on new ideas. If you decide too soon what you want to do, and you’re wrong, you could end up waking up one day when you’re 40 and asking yourself, “Where am I now?”

So, you have to listen to what you feel.

Daniela Fifi
Daniela Fifi

Daniela Fifi is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. At Columbia she has been awarded several fellowships including the Whitney Museum Research Fellowship and the Education and Public Programs Fellowship at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. She is the co-founder of Scarlett Project in Trinidad and Tobago, a non-profit art organization that works to provide educational opportunities for at-risk youth and develop theatrical productions.