IFA ’16 | PhD in History of Art
A Curator and Innovator
By Kirsten Frances O’Regan (GSAS ’14)
Portrait by Flo Ngala
When she discovered art history, Kim Conaty was a premed student just knocking out a liberal arts requirement. “I was frankly kind of blown away by this field,” she says. “I found that I was learning about history, literature, materials and techniques, revolution . . . it was so much!”
The discovery inspired Conaty to study at the Institute of Fine Arts. She felt all her interests coalesce during an internship at the storied institution where she is now curator of drawings and prints, the Whitney Museum of American Art.
There, she oversees a collection with works by celebrated artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Willem de Kooning, Keith Haring, Edward Hopper, Lee Krasner, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol.
After studying in Germany on a Fulbright and other positions including a seven-year stint at the Museum of Modern Art, Conaty assumed her pivotal role at the Whitney, where her practice is “thinking about audiences and connection, and how we forge that connection,” she says. The questions that engage her while traveling—why a collection looks a certain way in a certain place, what decisions have been made about acquisitions and presentation—inform her work in her home city.
For the recent exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York, Conaty sought connection through the experience of Manhattan—“a sort of wonder that I have always felt in the city and continue to feel and that I think [Hopper] felt throughout his life,” she says. Conaty wanted to create a show that was exploratory in nature, “just as we choose which street to turn down as we’re going into work in the morning,” she says. By inviting viewers to freely explore the intimate terrain of Hopper’s life and work, the show humanized the artist, prompting audiences to look anew at his iconic works. The show was named a Critic’s Pick by the New York Times and called “unmistakably intense and emotional” by the New Yorker. Air Mail said of the catalog that Conaty had “brilliantly traced the line between Hopper the artist and Hopper the New Yorker.” Her skills will next be on display this fall, when the museum presents the drawings of Ruth Asawa. Says Conaty: “Getting in the head of a totally different artist is just really, really exciting.”