Dr. Rosamund Garett Chief Curator of the Brooks Museum of Art
Photographed by Lucy Garett
Chief Curator Dr. Rosamund Garrett shares with us how her love for art and its history led her across the Atlantic Ocean to Memphis, where she is an integral part of spearheading the Brooks Museum of Art into a new era of excellence.
I'm from the southeast of England, a tiny little rural area that no one's ever heard of called Sandwich.
Rural parts of England are different from the rural parts of America. For one we have a lot less space. There's always going to be a church or pub that you can walk to. Everything is a lot smaller. We're all on top of each other. But it's still very beautiful countryside.
Aside from the odd artists making things and hanging them at the pub, there wasn’t a lot of art. On the other hand, because Britain is so ancient, there was art everywhere in a way.
I never heard of curating when I was growing up, I didn't know what it was. My parents never took me to cultural institutions or anything like that. And because my school was rural, we didn't get to visit the bigger cities very much. So I think I first went to a museum when I was maybe 17. And we went to the British Museum, and to Tate Modern in London, which, incidentally, was designed by the firm that are working on the new museum here in Memphis, which was a very strange and surreal moment when I got to sit and have dinner with the architect who worked on the museum that would inspire my career.
But in my adolescence I hadn’t had much exposure to art institutions.
But, when I was in secondary school, which is what you may call high school, there was a teacher there named Francesca, who was doing her teacher training at my school. She was an art historian. I'd never met an art historian before.
But I just found her fascinating. We got to talking in classes and eventually she started to spend her time after school with me doing one on one lessons, just for the love of it, which is amazing.
And so I remember we made this whole timeline of art history from the first works that humans had made to the work we are creating today. We had this huge table laid out with that timeline. And it made me realize that history is a conversation that we've been having since the dawn of time.
And it's really lovely to be a part of that conversation. I suppose I met her, and I thought that sounded wonderful. I was intimidated at the time by going just to art school, because I didn't know what kind of careers would come out of that.
My dad is a trucker and my mother is a cook — very practical people. And the idea of going to art college was not their immediate favorite thing. But when I met Francesca, I thought perhaps art history might give me a little bit more options, even though I didn’t exactly know what those options might be.
It sounded like something that maybe only the rich kids did. And so I decided to look for a course that would pair studio art with art history, and there's only a couple of them in the UK. And that's how I ended up in Edinburgh for five years at the College of Art and Edinburgh University because the two institutions were doing a joint program. So I suppose I was hedging my bets.
While I was there I specialized in printmaking, and did five years of studio art. After I graduated I was part of an exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy. I was a working artist, and had art in the Edinburgh art festival. So my art career was really taking off, but I had gotten rather stuck on something very niche, even within the art history world.
The main city outside of where I grew up is called Canterbury, which you may have heard of because of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The city’s cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous in all of England.
The Canterbury Cathedral is a piece of artwork in itself. It was built by many artists over many hundreds of years. The fabric of the cathedral is the fabric of the people who live there. The city is built around it and all of the tiny roads lead to it.
That building has been the backdrop of most of my life. Though we didn’t live in the city itself, it’s where my mother’s restaurant was and where I took my driving test, so I visited quite often.
The Canterbury Cathedral is a piece of artwork in itself. It was built by many artists over many hundreds of years. The fabric of the cathedral is the fabric of the people who live there. The city is built around it and all of the tiny roads lead to it. For a while it was the tallest building in the world, so when you’re driving from a distance you see it. And if you’re from that part of the country, you know you’re coming home. There's something special about it.
If you were to explode the cathedral, please don't, but if you did, under each stone is the stonemason’s mark. Their marks are like little diagrams — you can tell who trained that stonemason, because their mark is a variation of the mark of the person who trained them, and their mark is a variation of the person who trained them, and so on. So, in all of the cathedrals across Europe, we find these stonemasons’ marks. And you can see that these people have come from France, from Portugal, from Germany, and that they're all moving from place to place.
When I say that the cathedral is a work of art in itself it truly is. You have the stained glass, you have the metalwork, you have the people who made the choir stools, you have the people who make the gargoyles, every part of the cathedral was made by a master of their craft. The entire thing is a piece of art in itself.
I found out that there was this object, which was a big tapestry – three yards high, and maybe 80 yards long, or something like – that is in the cathedral.
The tapestry isn’t something that typically exists in English cathedrals, but is very common in French ones. Anyway, this thing had been stolen three times, once during the English Civil War, once during the French Revolution, and once again in the ‘70s.
I just became very fascinated with this object that kept getting stolen, kept being cut up, put back together, cut up, put back together, but surviving over centuries. But, no one knew anything about it. And so I wanted to write about it.
My fascination with that tapestry led me to a professor named Professor Susie Nash at the Courtauld Institute in London. And I immediately knew that I wanted to work with her because she's a brilliant mind and an extraordinary human.
I don't know if you've ever seen it, but the Courtauld Institute looks like a palace. It's an exquisite building.
It's, I would say, a fairly difficult institution to get into. I walked up in the nicest thing that I could afford at the time, which I think was a £10 black dress from H&M. And I tried to sort of wriggle my way in there, I suppose. I guess it worked, because Susie made an additional place for me that year, and I completed my Master's there. I loved working with Susie so much that I stayed and I completed my PhD there. And I liked it so much that I ended up working there, first in the prints and drawings room, and then the photo gallery for two years, which was funded by the artist Bridget Riley — a famous English artist, though I don’t think she's quite as well known here as she is in the UK. But she's a really lovely person who sponsors a lot of art organisations.
I always wanted to live in another country, because I think if you live somewhere else, it opens your eyes to different ways of living. No one nation has all the answers. And it always helps to see things from others’ perspectives.
I think, as a curator, essentially, what you're doing is you're taking care of people's stories, because each object might have many stories associated with it. And we just look up to those and help people to access them. So the more you expand your horizons, the better a curator you'll become. So, I wanted to live somewhere else. Of course, since writing is a major part of this job, it’s better to be fluent in the language of the country the museum is in. My French is fine, but not good enough in my opinion.
So, I wanted to come to the States. The US has a different funding model entirely for museums. And at the moment in the UK, museums are very much struggling for funding because museums are used to being government funded, which, essentially, they’re not anymore. Or if they are, the funding has been cut and cut and cut and cut. But, they haven't really learned how to fill in the gaps through fundraising as well.
So I figured if I came to the States to learn some different funding models, eventually when I go back home, I’ll be able to give something back to communities, and say ‘This is what I learned, America's got some really great lessons for us, and we should apply those.’ So there was that idea. But, also there’s the fact that when you’re first starting out as a curator, you will typically have many fellowship jobs.
So you've finished your PhD and immediately jump into very low paying fellowship jobs. That's temporary, and people move from city to city. And each time it's more and more and more expensive, as you move to bigger and bigger cities. And that wasn't sustainable for me, and it wasn’t an option either. So I had one fellowship job when I first finished my PhD, which was at the gallery funded by Bridget. But then I was looking for something that was permanent, which meant I had to look internationally as well.
But, then I started to realize that Memphis had already had a big impact on my life, despite the fact that I grew up in the sticks in rural England.
I was applying and looking at so many jobs, at so many different places. I suppose at first, Memphis and the Brooks wasn’t one I was particularly thinking about. But they reached out to me and asked, ‘Can you come?’ I told them, ‘Sorry, I hadn't really thought about it properly. I’m not sure if Memphis is the right fit for me.’ But, then I started to realize that Memphis had already had a big impact on my life, despite the fact that I grew up in the sticks in rural England.
My mum used to play me Johnny Cash for my lullabies, which, I mean, he’s not really the lullaby guy. But that's what I listened to when I would go to sleep as a kid. Also, Dusty Springfield, who is a British artist, recorded an album called ‘Dusty in Memphis.’ They used to play it all the time when I was growing up. And when we’d talk about barbecue back home, we were talking about Memphis barbecue. We don't know that it exists from anywhere else. And weirdly, now, there's three restaurants in Sandwich that are doing Memphis barbecue. And I think that might be because they know I'm here. Sadly, they're not doing it very well. So we'll have to correct that.
But yeah, when I came here for an interview, I was trying to figure out one if it would be safe to bring my wife here, because I didn't know what it would be like to be gay in the South. My fears were quickly put to rest once I visited, so that was fine.
And then they told me they were building a new museum. And I thought that was very exciting. But I didn't know who the architects were. And even when I arrived here, I didn't know who the architects were. It wasn’t until a few months later that I figured out that it was the architect who had built the museum which inspired me to pursue this work in the first place.
So, before I officially accepted the job I came to visit for the first time. It was in the early summer of 2018 and I had three days to see if I wanted to move halfway around the world to a city I’d never been to.
It was a whirlwind, and I was very confused the whole time.
I had been to America before, because when you work for museums, it's very regular that you get sent to other institutions. Because when there's traveling exhibitions, the artwork doesn't travel alone. But I had mostly only been to the big cities in the country, and few other locations here and there.
But, I'd never been to the South, and I'd definitely never been to Memphis. So, I had three days to work it out. Not only was I figuring out if I could move out here myself, but if my wife, who hadn’t been able to come, would want to move out here too. It was a bit of pressure, I think, and I was jet lagged and trying to do interviews with donors and stakeholders at the same time.
I got driven around to loads of places, that still today I'm not even sure now I know where they were. One of the days, they took me out for lunch. And I didn't know what to order because I didn't know what half the things on the menu were. But, there was this lovely man called Bob Craddock, who was the husband of the former chair of the board.
He seemed to know what he was doing, because he was very local. So I just said, I'll have what he's having. But, he ordered an entire catfish with all the trimmings. And it was a business lunch, so I was trying to answer questions and eat politely. But in the UK, if you don't finish everything on the plate, that's considered very rude.
So I was looking at this whole catfish thinking, ‘I've got to eat the whole thing, and it's really big.’ I didn't know that most people kind of split plates. That's just not our culture. So I was like, ‘Right, I'm going to eat this whole catfish.’ Having never had one before and not really knowing what it was. But, I somehow managed to eat the whole thing. Everyone was looking at me slightly horrified, I think because it was such a vast quantity of food. And then it ended up in my offer letter for this job that they're glad that I enjoyed the catfish.
And I accepted.
We moved to Memphis just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving Day in 2018.
My wife was very keen to have Thanksgiving lunch, because we don't do that in the UK. It’s not a national holiday for us in any way. And we didn't really know what it was. But it sounded like it was fun. The former chief curator, Marina Cassini, very kindly invited us to her Thanksgiving celebration and it was absolutely lovely.
There are huge positives about living in America and things I miss from home. I miss home more when I'm in New York, than I miss it here. Because here my life is so different. I'm just enjoying my life here. And I'm present in the moment. But when I'm in New York, there are things that remind me of London, and it makes me miss it quite a bit.
And even though the language is the same, there are a lot of things that are vastly different.
But Memphis is special. And I'm so glad that we moved here, because it was one of the best things that we've ever done. And although I might not exactly sound like a Memphian, I feel like one. And I feel that if you embrace this city, it embraces you back. I'm so grateful for everything that the city has done for my wife and I.
Every day when I'm working, because this is a civically minded institution, and it is Memphis’ collection — it’s your collection — I try to remind myself and my coworkers that we work for you.
The root of the word ‘curator’ means to care for. And so you're, in a sense, caring for objects. So our primary aim as curators is to make sure that we keep the objects safe for subsequent generations. So that's always number one. Number two is making those things accessible to the public, so that they can enjoy them. And number three is we help the public understand these pieces and artifacts, and their importance.
At the Brooks we have art from many different time periods and many different cultures. Art can help people better understand the world and its history. Which is wonderful. It can help people to understand each other better, to become more empathetic, to think about communities.
Art history is one of those subjects that encompasses everything. It's philosophy, economics, religion and anthropology. It’s from cultures that were often not thinking about nations, because nation's borders have changed so much in history... we're thinking about places as more of a 'sense' of place. I think that's what I love about it. The history of art is a subject that touches all subjects. You can look at it from a scientific lens — through the lens of physics or chemistry. Or through a spiritual lens. It has a little bit of something for everyone.
Art history is one of those subjects that encompasses everything. It's philosophy, economics, religion and anthropology. It’s from cultures that were often not thinking about nations, because nation's borders have changed so much in history.
So we're thinking about places as more of a 'sense' of place. I think that's what I love about it. The history of art is a subject that touches all subjects. You can look at it from a scientific lens — through the lens of physics or chemistry. Or through a spiritual lens. It has a little bit of something for everyone.
There is no standard day for a curator, and that's another thing I love about it. Every day is different. This morning, I've been writing text to accompany a new exhibition, because that written text has to come from somewhere and it comes from my department. So I've been doing that. We're doing collection assessments at the moment. So that means that we're taking large chunks of the collection, and making sure that we have the right dates, we've got it photographed and cataloged with the right attribution.
We have to make sure that everything is museum quality, especially since we’re moving in the next few years.
Curating can look like choosing colors on a very basic level, it can look like correcting the lighting to highlight the piece. It can look like negotiating prices on art objects. It can be looking at the market to see what that's doing.
One minute you can be in a suit, meeting funders and fundraising, and the next minute you can be on your knees in a storage container, completely covered in dust.
Our job is to create an experience for the visitor. But ultimately, my feeling about exhibition design is that if a visitor notices the design when they come in, you've probably done it wrong.
And it sometimes can be done right. And sometimes the absolute opposite of that.
The curator is choosing the walls for the art, where those walls go, where the art goes, what height it's hung, how it's lit, and so on. Our job is to create an experience for the visitor. But ultimately, my feeling about exhibition design is that if a visitor notices the design when they come in, you've probably done it wrong. Because the exhibition design should really fade into the background. It should just be beautiful. And it should highlight the artwork itself and the stories that we're trying to tell. From my experience, the more you overdesign it, usually the worse it gets.
Lighting, for instance, can change the way you feel. So if you floodlight something, you have a lot of light everywhere and it makes people stand with their chest out and their shoulders back and you feel this very spacious feeling. If you make everything dark colors and you only spotlight the artwork, you have a much more intimate feeling, and people naturally come much closer to the artwork.
So when we’re thinking about good exhibition design, we're thinking about how many times you look at a painting compared to how many times you look at the label, how you're walking in a space, which way you circulate, so on. There's a lot that goes into it that people won't notice, and that’s good. Because we’re trying to subliminally impact how you feel in a space, and hopefully in a positive way.
With the new museum on the riverfront we will be able to build it from the ground up, and create something truly special.
When you invest in the arts, it is investing in the community at large. The building's going to be beautiful, it's going to be much more accessible. It's going to have so many people looking at every tiny little detail. Every door knob, every set of stairs, and every elevator opening is being thoughtfully designed to enhance the experience. I hope Memphis will be proud of it. And in turn we will be able to bring much better art experiences and shows to Memphis.
I'm really excited about the future of this museum. The staff here is great, and I'm so pleased to work with them all. The quality of the people who work here is just astounding. Everyone here deeply cares about the work we do, and about Memphis. The quality of the collection is much better than most people realize. There's artwork here that is truly extraordinary. That's not only of national quality, but international quality.
And we're about to have an absolutely stellar building. And we just hired a new director, Dr. Zoe Kahr, who's been appointed. So really, there are all the ingredients to be truly extraordinary, and we have the people who care enough about it to make it happen, and I know it will.