Q&A with Laura Corey ‘08, Project Manager for CCS Initiatives & Senior Researcher, Director’s Office, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In this interview with Form Magazine, Laura Corey ‘08 discusses her work on a Metropolitan Museum of Art project called “Making The Met, 1870–2020,” an exhibition that marked the museum’s 150th anniversary. She also offers advice for students and alumni on navigating a museum career.
Laura Corey graduated from Duke in 2008 with a double major in Art History and French. She later received her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU before starting her professional career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Over a decade later, Corey now works in the Director’s Office at the Met. Her most recent project involved organizing Making The Met, 1870–2020, an exhibition that marked the Museum’s 150th anniversary. FORM sat down with Corey to discuss her work on the major exhibition. Along the way we learned about her journey into curatorial work, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on museums, and some tips and tricks in navigating a museum career.
As an introductory question, we would love to hear about how you started and got interested in working in a museum and what drew you to the Met in particular?
I went to Duke thinking that I would major in art history. It was a discipline that brought together so many of my interests and the way my brain works. At first I followed what seems like the standard path. After my sophomore year at Duke, I wanted to do an internship, and it made sense to be at home for that summer, so I applied to an internship at the High Museum. I got this really exciting overview of what museum work and particularly curatorial work could be. I was hooked. I thought, again, this really brings together so many things that I’m interested in: the close connections with the objects, but also connecting the art to the public and putting together exhibitions.
I was working on the first Louvre Atlanta exhibition in 2006, the programming side, and I ended up doing research for lectures by the then-Director and Chief Curator. From there, I wanted to do one of the big internships, so I applied to the Met and MoMA internships for the summer after junior year. I got the opportunity to work at MoMA on a Seurat drawings show, which was fantastic. That was my first real curatorial experience that confirmed what I thought I knew: that was what I wanted to do. I applied to Ph.D. programs, because I knew that would be the next necessary step to have a curatorial career. I actually got a call from the people at the High Museum asking if I would be interested in working there and defer grad school for a year to work on some special projects with the museum.
[Earning a] Ph.D. is a long road, so it’s good to know why you’re really doing it. I did that for a year, then I moved to New York to start at the Institute of Fine Arts. My master’s advisor was Philippe de Montebello, who had been the director here [at the Met] for 30 years. He actually started at the IFA at the same time I did, I was his first student. I had always really thought I was really more of a Met person. I loved my experience at MoMA, but the encyclopedic museum was of interest to me and I had fallen in love with the Met when I first came to New York.
I applied for an internship that summer and I got an internship working on a show called “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.” I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That was pretty much my dream. In the 10 years since then I’ve worked on four or five other exhibitions. Most recently, I’ve been what I consider to be the luckiest person in the building to be able to work on our 150th anniversary exhibition, “Making The Met” with Deputy Director Andrea Bayer. It has brought so many of these different threads of my career and scholarship together because I studied 19th-century French art and the history of collecting. They were my primary areas. So it was a long road, but a very fulfilling one.
How did you get involved in the anniversary exhibition and what went into the planning process?
Definitely hard work, but also luck and timing. They were looking for an intern for “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” and that was my expertise at the time. Likewise, when the anniversary exhibition came up, I had already worked on three major shows that included many different curatorial departments. Also, my scholarship was about the history of collecting, the history of museums, and my dissertation was about Mary Cassatt’s role as an advisor to American collectors, which ended up intersecting with one of the storylines in the show. It was through both my practical experience, as well as my scholarship background, that it ended up being a fit.
You’ve worked at the Met on-and-off for 10 years, with some study breaks in between. How has your experience working at the Met influenced the way you looked at the exhibition and what you wanted to highlight? Did any of your own experiences factor into the way you curated it?
Absolutely. I think that it certainly helps to have a good deal of Met experience. On the advisory committee, I was the youngest person by a good deal. Many people will spend 40 years or so, their whole careers, at the Met. I think it was helpful to have some scholarly background on the history, but also to be a more recent voice in the project. Particularly, in fact, when we were dealing with the section that focuses on the period from the ‘90s to the present, called Broadening Perspectives, I found that it was difficult, understandably, for many of the people on the committee to reflect on that time period because that was the time period of their own careers. It’s hard to be able to think thematically in terms of things that have happened, but also to reflect on something that’s so close to home. In that way, it helps to have a little bit of an outside perspective, to not be as much of a part of that as many of the other people were.
You mentioned on the website that there’s a video of the architecture portion of the exhibition. Did the pandemic change the exhibition or the way you adapted it to go online?
Yes, it did. We were right in the middle of installing the exhibition; we were 10 days out from our opening. It was like pulling the rug out from under us when we had to close for the pandemic. It was a very strange moment, because we were on the brink of opening on our 150th anniversary. It was pretty emotional, shutting it down and not knowing what would happen. I think the first phase during the pandemic was really rapidly transforming as much of the content as possible into digital form. We always had intended to have these enhanced digital features, but we wanted to get that content out to the public while people were looking for sources of education and inspiration and art and content.
We have an audio guide that features the voices of people who have been visionary figures: directors, curators, donors, even some press throughout the years of the Met history. Every piece of media for the exhibition — our videos, our audio guide, our labels—is available online.
The second stage of the pandemic was in the wake of the death of George Floyd and discussions about social justice and racial equity. We did a very thorough review of our label content. It was too late to change the objects in the show, but we wanted to be very thoughtful about how we discussed the stories, particularly those that related to these topics that had come to the fore in the discussions over the summer. Not only our curatorial and editorial team, but people around the museum reviewed the labels, and we ended up updating about 50 out of 300 texts in the exhibition. Not all of them specifically related to race or social justice, but we updated our terminology. We really looked carefully at the labels that discuss the collections of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, which had previously been called the Museum of Primitive Art. For these kinds of stories we added text where we could and were more explicit in discussing these complex moments in our history.
We were really acutely aware, even as we were shutting down, that we were living in the 11th transformative moment in the history of the museum. I wrote a foreword text about that moment for the wall outside the exhibition, at first thinking about the way the museum responded to the virus and the enhanced focus on digital media. I rewrote it several more times, because the world kept changing, and the world continues to change.
Those sound really exciting. Do you have any specific advice or suggestions for people looking into a career in the arts?
I think that if you’re interested in a museum career, internships are key. As I mentioned from the beginning, I am still in close contact with the people that I’ve worked for. Take the time to get to know people, follow up with the people you have gotten to know, send updates and whatnot.
I think the human network that you build is much of how people get hired. I think that’s something that also needs to change in some ways in this field. In order to have a more inclusive, representative, and diverse workforce, the hiring process needs to be more open than it has been. But still, it’s always to your benefit to get to know people through their work, through your work, asking questions, and taking opportunities where you can to contribute to projects and learn. It’s not a way to get rich quick, but for me I’ve found it to be an incredibly rewarding career path. I get to do something I love every day. I get to be around incredible art. I have brilliant, creative, top-of-their-field colleagues.
The pandemic closure has made this all the more poignant, having that very visible expression of getting to see the public in an exhibition that I helped to create is incredibly rewarding. You feel like you get to really see the reception of your work. And then you get to do all kinds of cool things you might never imagine, but it’s a really interesting world. It’s been a heck of a ride.