Poised and articulate, Elizabeth Keto makes an impression. And she’s been doing that for two years in her role as a student guide at the Harvard Art Museums.
Her self-designed gallery tour—featuring such seemingly disparate objects as an Assyrian wall relief, a British “abolitionist” milk jug, and photographs by contemporary American artist LaToya Ruby Frazier—is intended to prompt deep reflection and even difficult conversations.
“My tour asks how art has been used to support or reinforce power, what kinds of politics can have a form in art, and the efficacy of art in producing change,” said Keto, who graduates this week with a concentration in the history of art and architecture. “It’s a tour that resonates with me, and I hope it opens up others’ experiences in the museums.”
If Keto follows her vision, this won’t be the only time she puts her interests in art and inclusivity to good use. Recipient of a 2018 Marshall Scholarship, Keto will pursue master’s degrees in art history and curatorial studies from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Eventually, she wants to become a curator focused on making museums more representative of diverse artists and more welcoming to visitors of all backgrounds.
“Our country is in the middle of this crucial moment around issues of inclusion and diversity,” said Keto, sitting in the museums’ courtyard on a bustling Monday morning. “I want to help museums reinforce those values, so that any visitor can see some aspect of her life represented.”
As an ambassador for the Harvard Art Museums, Keto said she’s noticed that many people aren’t fully at ease in front of art—even when they’re taking a tour with an undergraduate guide.
“People can be intimidated by the museum space, and it can be tough sometimes to get them talking,” Keto said. “But everyone has something interesting or insightful to say; people just need the confidence to speak up.”
Passion for Art
Keto found her confidence as a result of childhood museum visits and forays into drawing and painting. Growing up in Washington, D.C., she visited cultural institutions frequently.
After her first year of high school, she participated in a National Gallery of Art program designed to introduce students to careers in art and museums. “We talked to everyone from curators to the conservators who make frames,” Keto said. “At the end of it, I realized you can do this as a career.”
Some of Keto’s passion may even run in the family. Her paternal grandmother—her namesake, who died just a few months before she was born—shared a love for art; she painted, trained as an art historian, and after retirement, even delivered tours at the National Gallery. “I grew up with the sense that [art] had mattered deeply to someone in my family, and it was always something my parents were open to,” Keto said. “It’s almost like I’ve found out more about [my grandmother] through studying art history. I’ll tell my dad about something I’m studying and he’ll say, ‘I remember my mom talking about that.’”
Moments of Inspiration
Keto and her fellow seniors are the first class to have experienced the transformed Harvard Art Museums for all four years of their time on campus. (The museums reopened in November 2014 following a major renovation and expansion.) Access to art has been critical to Keto’s undergraduate experience, she said, noting that she’s been in the museums at least once a week since she stepped on campus.
"I’m one of the fortunate undergraduates who were freshmen when the Harvard Art Museums reopened after their renovation."
The people Keto meets on her tours serve as inspiration and sources of knowledge. For instance, on one early tour she spoke to groups about American artist Robert Smullyan Sloan’s painting Negro Soldier (1945). A visitor identified himself as a veteran, and then explained the symbolism of the soldier’s ribbons in the painting. “You never know what people are bringing with them,” Keto said. “I always end each tour excited to be able to tell even more to the next group.”
That’s no surprise to David Odo, the museums’ director of student programs. “Elizabeth has from the beginning of her involvement with the museums been one of the most intellectually engaged, creative, reliable, and hard-working students I have ever known,” he said.
Other experiences have helped Keto hone her focus on sharing art in an inclusive way. She has served as director of the Harvard Student Art Show and as a tutor for young children through the Mission Hill Afterschool Program and the Phillips Brooks House Association. Her involvement with these groups, she says, is a way to remind herself of “how important it is to engage people of all backgrounds, and with any level of experience.”
While she hasn’t completely settled on a focus for her postgraduate studies, Keto gravitates toward contemporary art. She likes the idea of “writing the first draft” of art history, ensuring that new scholarship reflects the diversity of today’s world.
She’s been inspired in this effort by Sarah Lewis, assistant professor in the Departments of History of Art and Architecture (HAA) and African and African American Studies. “Professor Lewis has led me to think about how works of art can help expand the boundaries of citizenship,” said Keto, who recently took Lewis’s Picturing America seminar.
Lewis, a former Marshall Scholar herself, said she is thrilled to see Keto embark on such a journey. “Elizabeth is attuned to the power of curatorial practice for the creation of public narratives—statements that we make through exhibitions about who counts and who belongs; and not only in the discourse in the field of art history, but in civil society,” Lewis said.
Keto’s senior thesis focused on the work of Hanne Darboven (1941–2009), an understudied German artist who lived in New York and was friends with Sol LeWitt and other well-known conceptualists. Keto worked to place Darboven in the context of conceptual art, and analyzed how Darboven’s art also challenges the usual understanding of the genre. Her research involved a visit to Darboven’s home in Hamburg, Germany, funded by an Abramson Traveling Fellowship from HAA.
Her final thesis is “one of the most comprehensive theoretical approaches to Darboven I have ever read,” said Benjamin Buchloh, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art and Keto’s thesis advisor. “I hope she publishes it soon because the literature on Darboven is very scarce. It would be a major contribution.”
During a brief break from academia over the summer, Keto will work as an intern in the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then it’s off to the Courtauld—a destination that’s “been a dream for a long time,” she said.
Even the Marshall Scholarship itself seems fitting to Keto’s aspirations. “The Marshall is about cooperation, diplomacy, building trust across borders,” she said, “and that’s something I think museums can also be a part of, promoting cultural diplomacy and building understanding.”
A modified version of this article was published by the Harvard Gazette on April 18, 2018.