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Kathryn Potts
Chair, Education, Whitney Museum


Kathryn Potts

Career Path: 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.

I have a B.A. and an M.A. in art history. Before I came to the Whitney I was a college intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  - the museum that I had sort of grown up in as a kid and after graduate school, I embarked on a career as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at the Jewish Museum in New York. During the time I worked as curator, I came to realize that everything that I really loved about working in a museum 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 kid, that art, is something that I should not keep to myself.  I decide 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.

Challenges: One of the greatest challenges of working at a museum like the Whitney, is that the art we show is often unfamiliar to our visitors.  If you’re looking at work that you have no context for (or no framework for), museum visitors often have a couple of different responses: some people might find the work exciting and eye-opening, but others who don’t have a way of connecting, more often leave feeling frustrated even angry. They can even feel like they’re being hoodwinked, or that the artist (or the museum) 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 challenging. It should be that the museum supports people, that we welcome people, that we create beautiful and aspirational 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. That’s why our education programs play such an important role—we create a space for learning where visitors can think critically about what they see, ask questions and ultimately find their own meaning in the works on view.

Accomplishments: Last spring the Whitney Museum opened in our new downtown location in New York City’s Meatpacking District. The new building is the culmination of years of planning and, for me, working on the new building was the professional opportunity of a lifetime. We designed a brand new museum for the 21st century and what we created is a very different kind of museum. The architecture of the building (particularly its transparency and outdoor space, free gallery in the lobby and welcoming public spaces) makes the Whitney feel accessible and part of the fabric of our new neighborhood. I am especially proud, that for the first time in its history, the Whitney has a dedicated space for education. The Laurie M. Tisch Education Center has brought visibility to the Whitney’s educational mission and provides opportunities for museum educators to work in new ways, offering spaces for an array of drop-in activities, hands on learning experiences and in-depth and interdisciplinary programming.

Mentors: I have had the good fortune to have had mentors—both men and women—at every step of the way in my career. From a college professor who took me under his wing and set me off in the right direction to the dynamic Director of Education who first hired me at the Whitney, I have learned so much from the great people I’ve worked for over the years. Now that I am in a senior position in the field, I take seriously the responsibility of mentoring colleagues who work for me. I also devote a portion of my time teaching classes of students and young professionals in the field.   

At the same time, at this point in my career, I’m not so interested in playing that “senior statesman” role. I can honestly say that one of the things that has kept me engaged and continuing to learn and develop as a professional is the energy I draw from working with the talented team of people we have at the Whitney. In museums, we constantly have a flow of people coming in, that is, we have museum visitors, interns, we have the students, we have teens, research fellows and we have community people who pass in and out of the institution.

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 seven years.

TURNING POINT: Seven years ago I was appointed Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education at the Whitney. Prior to that I had held a number of different positions at the Whitney so I knew the institution from the inside out, which was certainly an advantage. At the same time, I felt tremendous pressure to make a success of the opportunity I had been given. The Whitney was in the middle of a strategic planning process for our new downtown building. The stakes were high because the decisions that I and the rest of the senior staff were making would determine the future of the Whitney Museum. All of us involved in the new building project felt a great sense of responsibility to the artists whose work we supported and collected as well as to Whitney audiences now and in years to come.

GOALS: 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.

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.#



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