Every other year since 1935, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has presented an exhibition of its employees’ art. It has always been a relatively private affair, with the works on view for staff members’ eyes only — until now. This year, the museum’s beloved employee art show is back, and for the first time ever, it’s open to the public.
Of the Met’s staff of 1,700, over 450 employees contributed works to the show, which opens today, June 6 and will run through June 19. Titled Art Work: Artists Working at The Met, the presentation is held in an exhibition space next to the museum’s Ancient Greek sculpture hall and includes pieces by workers across departments, from security guards and technicians to librarians, registrars, and volunteers.
Daniel Kershaw, an exhibition design manager at the museum, has directed the show’s curatorial process for more than 20 years. Every piece of art submitted is traditionally included in the show, and staff members like Kershaw work after hours to install the exhibition in time.
As the works come in, Kershaw looks for common threads to tie the diverse and eclectic pieces together, grouping them into categories like “landscapes,” “flowers,” and “portraits.”
“It’s terrifying, and then as it goes along, it starts to make some sense — maybe only to me,” Kershaw told Hyperallergic. “I’m sure that a lot of the artists are thinking, ‘Are you kidding, you put my masterpiece next to that awful thing?’ But that’s okay, everybody seems to behave relatively well together.”
Curating the exhibition thematically allows Kershaw to perceive how artists’ areas of interest change from year to year.
“I think you see a pulse of what artists are going for right at the moment in a way that I don’t usually see in anything else,” Kershaw said. Compared to previous years, for instance, he observed less nudity in this year’s artworks. “What happened? There’s almost no nudity, sex is way down this year,” Kershaw said. “Maybe Covid took a toll.”
Kershaw explained that some of the artists in the exhibition are professionals who work at the Met to pay their bills. Others are hobbyists creating art in their spare time.
For Rachel High, a manager of editorial marketing and rights who has been at the Met for eight years, it’s her second time participating in the employee art show. This year, High contributed two small sculptural vessels to the exhibition. She covered a tin can and glass jar in clay and painted them to look like monsters, brushing resin onto the eyes to create depth. Both of the pieces are functional, and in addition to giving her artwork to friends as gifts, she uses the objects she creates in her daily life.
High said that seeing the museum’s displays of decorative arts helped changed the way she thinks about her own work. “Even though I think of it as craft, it’s still technically art,” she told Hyperallergic.
Jeary Payne, who works in the education department, contributed a photograph titled “Juke Joint,” which he shot this year on the patio of one of his favorite neighborhood bars. The picture is from his series Finding Here, which Payne started in 2016 after moving to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.
“It’s about being able to capture actual moments of actual Black people in rest, in living their lives,” Payne told Hyperallergic. “Especially living in Brooklyn but not being from Brooklyn, a lot of my questions behind my work — which is primarily about Black collective memory — have been about asking, ‘What’s my responsibility? How do I lend myself to the space, how do I record those moments?’”
Rebecca Schear, who submitted an image she captured during a trip to Cuba, has been taking photographs for about 15 years. She also works with photography and film crews in her job as senior production manager at the museum.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Schear described feeling awe-struck as she walked through the exhibition and saw her coworkers’ names on wall labels alongside stunning works of art.
“You just don’t even realize, I work with him all the time,” she said, gesturing to a photograph hanging near hers. “I didn’t even know that’s something he can do.”
Michael Gallagher, the chair of the paintings conservation department, contributed one of his own oil on canvas works to the show. He told Hyperallergic that being a painter has illuminated his work as a conservator. Thanks to his personal studio practice, he can better understand artists’ instincts, and he knows not to overcomplicate someone else’s work — the application of two-layered paint colors might have a deeper meaning, he says, or “maybe the artist just didn’t like the first shade of green.”
Being a conservator has also influenced how Gallagher behaves as a painter. He related a story of painting en plein air, as he normally does, when his canvas fell face-first into the dirt. Gallagher said he immediately picked it up and started pulling off the dirt as a conservator would.
But for years, Gallagher kept his painting practice to himself.
“The reason you keep this private is because it’s so important to you,” Gallagher said. “It’s because you feel very vulnerable, and also, when you work for one of the greatest arts institutions in the world and you deal with some of the greatest paintings, it just seems hugely presumptuous to be like, ‘Oh, I paint, too.’”
“There are some great artists walking the halls of the Met,” Gallagher added.