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An Interview with Margot Norton

When I found out I would be in New York for the summer, one of the first things on my to-do list was visiting the New Museum. Before I settled on journalism as my career path, I thought I wanted to be a curator, and I always held the New Museum in high regard. I viewed it as the antidote to outdated, cliquish museums that would eventually drive me away from museum studies.

I was not disappointed with my visit. The New Museum certainly lives up to its name. I admire its inclusivity and willingness to take risks (which, for whatever reason, is becoming increasingly rare), so it was very important to me to talk to someone on staff who is helping to uphold these values.

Luckily, I was able to connect with Margot Norton, Curator at the New Museum. She was very gracious in meeting with me despite her fast-paced schedule. She also got me a free ticket and let me skip the line to see the Marta Minujín exhibit (an experience that, 4 months later, I still have not completely recovered from) which made me feel like such a VIP, but that's beside the point. Margot was enthusiastic and passionate and open and encouraging-- the complete opposite of the pedants I feared I might encounter if I pursued a career in curation. She was modest about her achievements (even though, between the Venice Biannale and the upcoming New Museum Triennial, they definitely warrant at least a little bit of bragging) and offered candid, sincere advice that's useful no matter what field you're in. But most importantly, she really seemed to embody the core principles of the New Museum: curiosity, engagement, and wholehearted acceptance of different viewpoints.

What's your educational background?

I grew up in New York and I did my undergrad at the University of Vermont and I decided there to major in Art History. I went to grad school at Columbia University, and came back to New York. I did a Master's program in curatorial studies.

Did you always know you wanted to go into curation?

No, but I always loved museums. I really always did love going to museums and shows for as long as I can remember. I did a lot of that with my family. I did an internship in high school at the Metropolitan Museum, the summer between high school and college. Even then I didn't know I wanted to go into museum work necessarily, but then when I was in college, I remember I was in an art history class as a requirement and I read the textbook in a very short amount of time. I was so into it. I thought maybe I should major in it.

I didn't know what I was going to do with the degree though. I didn't know museum work was my career path. I worked at an auction house. I worked at a for profit gallery and a nonprofit gallery and I even did graphic design work. I did many different things before I actually did an internship at a nonprofit gallery space called Exit Art, and that was really the experience that made me think that I might like getting into the field of curation. That was the deciding factor in applying to graduate programs. While I was in grad school, I also worked at a for profit gallery part time. I remember going to a particular show at The Guggenheim and feeling like I really wanted to work at a museum. There's something really important about going to see a museum exhibition and all the context and history that's behind it, and having the overall experience of seeing the works in this context. That was very powerful for me, beyond anything a gallery could do, beyond anything even I could do with writing. I just felt that was where I wanted to head.

But then it was a long time before I actually started working at a museum. I applied for many different positions. I ended up working at the Whitney Museum. I started working there in 2008. I was a curatorial assistant, working in the prints department and for the Whitney biennial, and then in the drawings department. I started here after that in 2011. I've been here for almost eight years.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

It's funny I just gave someone this advice the other day, somebody who I remember was in an internship program at a museum who I met the other day when I was giving a tour here. They were trying to decide which city to move to and I just said to them, "Go with the good energy." Like, go with the thing that you admire the most. Your career is gonna have lots of ups and downs and go all sorts of curvy ways. It's not the straight trajectory that a lot of us are led to believe, like we study at this institution, then we get a job at this institution. I feel like it's important to keep things open and to go with the thing that you feel most passionate about, as opposed to what's the next step, and the next step, because these things can actually be really zig-zaggy in terms of where it all ends up. I remember when I was in undergrad I met with the curator of a museum here in New York, thinking that would be the path that I wanted to take, but not knowing yet, and they told me, "There are two programs. you can go to this program, or this one." They detailed a very strict path. And I thought, that's not what I want to do. Thinking that there's only one way to get somewhere is not true. Honestly, that's probably detrimental to your career, because all of these experiences, whether they're good or bad, all shape where you end up going and what you're drawn to.

What work are you most proud of?

That's a hard question. It's funny because I feel like I would always say the last thing I did, because it's what's on my mind or it's what I put all my energy into most recently. But I guess there were certain times in my career that were very transformative, in terms of how they pushed me in a different direction. Like even the show I did for my grad thesis at Columbia, was very ambitious because it wasn't a requirement to create a show but myself and a few peers decided to do it with 27 artists, and we raised all this money for the university and had to write all the text and produce a catalog. Doing all that, at the time, seemed like such a big task. We didn't know exactly what we were doing but I remember feeling really proud after we put that together. But then, other little shows that I've done have been really good experiences. Even like, I remember I created a small presentation here in the lobby gallery with an artist Laure Prouvost who is now representing France at the Venice Biennale. It was a tiny little show, but there was a lot packed in. She provided so many ideas in terms of how the space could be utilized that I might not have otherwise thought of. She expanded my idea of what could be possible even given a certain limitation in a space or a very unique space. That was also an important project. I also recently curated, with Massimiliano Gioni, a large scale show with Sarah Lucas. And that was incredible because she was one of my idols, so to have the chance to work with her was amazing. It's now at the Hammer Museum in LA. There's a lot of things coming up too.

Who are your biggest inspirations?

The first name that comes to mind is the founder of The New Museum, Marcia Tucker. She was an inspiration to me way before I started working here. She's really amazing. But I don't necessarily only find inspiration from curators. It often comes from artists, or even music or literature, poetry, or my daughter. There's a lot of sources of inspiration. But certainly, there's a lot of really amazing curators who pushed the discourse of everything from what a museum could be to showing emerging artists and work that was thought provoking and challenging, and having trust in that kind of work.

Who are your favorite artists?

That's also a tough one. Diedrick Brackens, Mika Rottenberg, Sarah Lucas... I could keep going on and on. There's so many amazing artists. It's funny because the ones that are my favorites are because of what they did to me at a certain time. I wrote my undergrad thesis on Alice Neel and that was very important for me but it's hard to pinpoint in the whole field who my favorites are, but there's so many who have had an impact on my life. I remember when I first came to the Whitney I worked on a Jenny Holzer show, and that was also just an incredible experience, meeting her. Or like Chris Ofili or Sarah Lucas or others that I've had the chance to work with. And then there's so many who I haven't had the chance to work with. And historic artists, there's a whole bunch. It would take a long time.

What's your favorite era for art?

I'm interested in things that haven't been made yet. It's funny, even when I was very young I was always drawn to whatever was moving. I was studying ancient art at the same time I was studying contemporary art and finding so much in between studying both of those, because there were so many discoveries being made at the same time, in both directions. For me, that's the most exciting thing, looking to see what the next generation is doing. I'm curating the next triennial at the New Museum with Jamillah James, who's a great curator, she's based at the ICA in LA. Our task is to put together a show of international artists, so that's something I've been thinking a lot about, what the future holds and how artists are pushing the dialogue forward in terms of what is possible in different media and in different institutions. They're always thinking forward, and thinking about the limitations in different structures and how those can be called attention to, and how these models we're so ascribed to are actually more permeable than we imagine.

What do you love most about your job?

Well, two things. Writing, because I really love writing and putting together exhibition catalogs and developing contexts for work and thinking about how to write about various artists. But also, working with artists on exhibitions from start to finish. It really does depend on the show. Some of those experiences have been really incredibly and have continued in vast ways since working on the exhibition in terms of working with people and taking the dialogues we started with when working on the show forward.

What's the most challenging part?

Finding time to do other things. It's really all-encompassing, a career like this. It takes up so much of what you do on a daily basis and it's not only the hours you spend working in a museum, but also seeing exhibitions on the weekends and travelling and seeing lots of other shows. It takes a lot. There's no rest. I have dreams about it. But I do what I love, so it's this catch-22.

What do you do to relax?

Honestly, I really crave being outdoors, like outside of a building in nature. Or various forms of exercise, running and yoga. Anything that's very meditative and keeps my mind off everything else that's going on. I enjoy a good spa day.

What do you think is the most important skill for someone interested in curatorial studies to develop?

I would say to think critically. There's so many parts to curation. One of the funnier things that came to mind was to develop your psychologist brain because working with artists can be a bit like being a psychologist or psychotherapist. But it's also about finding your eye, or vision, or passion and where it exists in the world. I think that's hones through going and seeing as much as you possibly can and thinking or writing or talking with your friends about it. Sometimes I think, especially in academia, you're in certain courses, you're told to look at this and that, but actually developing what it is that you want to look at, what you feel is the most important to look at now, why it's relevant to now, why would you want to work with this artist at this moment. These are things that are really developed through seeing and looking and conversation apart from anything you're going to learn at any university. Unless there's like an amazing course taught by a wonderful professor that's exploring all of these ideas. Which there probably is.

If you could change one thing about the museum world, what would you change?

This is so timely right now, with all of what's happening with museums, but honestly, if museums were better supported by our government, a lot of things would be a lot easier and more positive in terms of how museums are supported. In Europe and Scandinavia, there's a lot of governmental support for museums and culture in general is much more embraced on a larger scale. I think that's incredibly important. The arts are so important and the fact that it's not been common in the US government to support cultural institutions is probably something that a lot of tension right now is stemming from.

What's the biggest issue facing the museum world right now?

There's a lot at stake right now I think, regarding museums, in terms of looking at where funds are coming from and how it's arranged. Everything's coming out of the woodwork at this moment, not just in museums, but in so many other areas. I think there's a growing public for museums which is a great thing and something that should be reflected. These institutions are unfortunately underfunded, which needs to change. There's a lot of other things probably to, but that's one that's on my mind at the moment.

What's the most unexpected part of your job?

My favorite times of being a curator are these unexpected moments, of working with an artists who's doing an ant farm, and then you have to research building a thriving ant farm. Or like something totally random like that. There's so many times I've had to do research that takes me outside of my job, and I think that those instances are so inspiring, the way these artists are pushing what's possible and working in ways you don't expect. I love researching. When I just wrote an essay about Mika's work, I was doing all this research on blockchain technology which was really something I had no idea about how it worked. I love those moments that push your brain in different directions.


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