Training at the Harvard Art Museums: Suzanne Karr Schmidt

August 1, 2013
Suzanne Karr Schmidt. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Harvard Art Museums have trained scores of museum leaders who have gone on to make remarkable contributions to the curatorial, conservation, and education fields. We offer a number of opportunities for emerging graduate and postgraduate scholars interested in the production and presentation of original scholarship within the museum context. In this regular series of interviews, we catch up with these museum professionals to see where they are now.

Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Lynn and Philip A. Straus Curatorial Intern at the Harvard Art Museums, 2006–7


Q What is your current position? 

A I’m the Assistant Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings, at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). There I curate exhibitions of works on paper (prints, drawings, and books) for spaces of various sizes throughout the museum. I also research and catalogue acquisitions and permanent collections material, mainly German works on paper from the 15th to the 19th century, books, and ephemera of all eras. I work with donors; mentor interns and oversee individual study room appointments; travel with art on courier trips; organize conference sessions and lecture to local, national, and international audiences on the AIC collection and on my own research; regularly contribute posts to the museum blog about the Prints and Drawings collection; and further develop the collection of digital books (Turning the Pages) for online and in-exhibition viewing.


What have you gone on to do following the completion of your internship at the Harvard Art Museums?

A Directly after working at Harvard, I was lucky to be able to continue my research for the Harvard Art Museums exhibition Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (curated by Susan Dackerman, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints), in Germany and Austria as a Baird Fellow. Serving as a Baird Fellow is a fantastic opportunity open only to Harvard Art Museums interns and Fellows. The funding covered a significant amount of European travel to see original objects (many of which would later become part of the show), and it allowed me to come back to Harvard to give a lecture on my in-progress research. It made my final essay and catalogue entries significantly stronger as well.

My initial role at the Art Institute of Chicago was as a postdoctoral Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, which involved curating an exhibition and writing the catalogue Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life. This permanent collection show in the main Prints and Drawings galleries, which included prints, books, and other objects related to prints, ended up opening before Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge. As an extended discussion of the functions of early prints, the two shows covered some common ground, much of which also pervaded my doctoral research at Yale.

I kept working on Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge while at Chicago. I also participated in related opening events and symposia at Harvard and gave tours at the second venue in the nearby Block Museum at Northwestern University. I was particularly thrilled to be awarded an honorable mention in 2012 for the Altered and Adorned catalogue by the International Fine Print Dealer’s Association at the same time that Susan Dackerman won the main award for her book Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, further validating this type of prints research! 


How did your training at the Harvard Art Museums help you to prepare for the work that you are doing now? 

A I worked on exhibition projects of various sizes, from rotations of a few prints in the permanent collection galleries to a small exhibition (DISSENT!), to the first stages of Susan Dackerman’s Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge. There is a similar range of exhibition opportunities at the Art Institute, so being able to conceptualize interesting art installations on any scale was an important talent to learn. I also did a fair amount of research and cataloguing of potential gifts [at the Harvard Art Museums], and I saw a wide range of print media in the process. Working with other interns and Fellows on a collection-wide handbook was very work-intensive, but an equally good experience in identifying the collections’ highlights and writing very short and accessible descriptions about them. With the increasing importance of enhanced digital content, terse, but appropriate, art historical texts are in constant demand at museums everywhere.


Was there a specific experience in your training at the Harvard Art Museums that you found particularly powerful?

A I was very impressed by the enthusiasm for prints Susan Dackerman was able to instill in her committee members, as well as in a group of young donors she escorted to a New York City dealer’s apartment. Making printed material of any era accessible to a variety of audiences is vital at a university museum; every potential acquisition we discussed or exhibited always became fascinating and deeply relevant. Helping organize the Harvard Art Museums’ Print Rental program was another amazing experience, which allowed undergraduates (and faculty) to borrow real art prints for the year for a nominal sum. Some of the prints bought for that program in the 1970s became part of the permanent collection while I was at the museums, suggesting that it was also a good investment for the museums to buy young artists’ work before they become better known.