Carrie Rebora Barratt: from UIC to the Met
Carrie Rebora Barratt: from UIC to the Met

By Lisa Yun Lee
Director, School of Art & Art History

As Deputy Director for Collections and Administration, Carrie Rebora Barratt (BA, History of Art and Architecture, 1981) is currently one of the highest-ranking executives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Founded in 1870, the storied Met, as it is colloquially referred to, is the largest art museum in the United States. The Met has over two million artworks in its sweeping encyclopedic collection, including sculptures and paintings, weapons and armor, musical instruments, costumes, fashion art, and more — and a staff of curators and scholars in 17 different departments.

The Met welcomed 6.7 million visitors this past year, and has an endowment of 2.5 billion dollars — larger than that of most colleges and universities.

I first encountered Carrie at an alumni event for UIC’s College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts hosted by Dean Steve Everett and Chancellor Michael Amiridis. She had a commanding presence, a mischievous smile, and a fierce intensity to her gaze — like she was really trying to truly see and understand each student, faculty, and alumni with whom she chatted. She also seemed utterly non-plussed by the fact that she was the only one dressed in a stunning evening gown. Carrie had endured the rush-hour trek downtown to come to the UIC event, but just an hour later, was scheduled to preside at a black tie gala for the Museum. This wide-ranging candid interview about career, art history, gender politics, and the future of museums in society, was conducted via email at an interesting moment while the art news rumor mill is abuzz about the possibility that a woman might become the next Director of the Met — and Carrie’s name is right at the top.

Lisa Yun Lee: You are a head honcho at the Met now, but what was your first job after college?

Carrie Rebora Barratt: I worked at the School of Art and Architecture during my junior and senior years at UIC, and kept that job during the summer until my departure for sunny Los Angeles, where I continued my art history studies at UCLA. UIC set me up perfectly for the rigorous master’s degree curriculum and also for three years in the sun, so sorely needed after growing up in Chicago.

LYL: I remember the moment I read the Bhagavad Gita in college. It totally blew my mind. Do you remember a particular text that you read at UIC, or a work of art that you encountered as a student that has stayed relevant to your life and work and why?

CRB: Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, given to me by the architecture student (Michael Barratt) whom I would marry several years later, so a book that formed my thinking about practice and theory in the arts overall and also a token of love. Leda and the Swan by Leonardo da Vinci, my first serious art history paper on the mythology, the woman, the bird, and the artist. After that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.

LYL: Our brutalist campus sometimes gets a bad rap. Do you have a specific memory of a moment from your life as a student at UIC?

CRB: Quotidian, but sliding across the upper walkways, covered with ice, to get from one class to another. It made studies challenging in a life-affirming way. I took my life into my hands to get to “Pre- Columbia Architecture” class.

LYL: If you could go back to school now and take any class that you think would help make you a better museum professional what would it be?

CRB: I would take a course in accounting. Sounds silly, but every college student should know how to read accounts, manage budgets, and have a basic understanding of finance. For museum work, for life.

LYL: Hmmm . . . what about any class that you think would help make you a better person?

CRB: Every class should make one a better person, if the learning is true, applied judiciously, and extrapolated into other areas.

LYL: Why do you think institutions like the Met are relevant to society today?

CRB: Great art museums, like the Met, are conveners of people with shared interests in life, history, and human creation. The works of art we show evoke personal stories, even as each work of art tells its own story.

LYL: How would you respond to critics that would argue that encyclopedic museums, particularly in the Western world, such as the Met, are really vestiges of imperialism, with a vast number of artifacts in their collections acquired due to oppressive and unjust systems of power?

CRB: Hmmm. The Met will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020, founded in 1870 by a group of New York art collectors and artists who wished to bring the art of the world to the city of New York. The Met had a building before it had a collection (not so different than the Art Institute of Chicago or the entire Smithsonian, both of which were founded on a passion for culture and art and the great effect art would have on visitors). Today, we can tell a meaningful story of how each and every work in the collection was acquired and how each teaches and inspires.

LYL: The Guerrilla Girls’ most recent Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? campaign showed that the representation of women artists in the Modern Art Department has actually gotten worse in the last decade, not better! ARGH! Why is it so hard to diversify collections in museums? Are there ways you are trying to address this issue?

CRB: Diversity and inclusion are top considerations in Met governance, visitorship, and in our collection. We consider this in every acquisition we make, from the ancient world to the modern, from Asia to America, in contemporary paintings and musical instruments. We have also had a fine record over the past years of special exhibitions devoted to female artists.

LYL: Just as many of us would’ve loved to see a woman president, I think we would also love to see a woman director at the Met! Only one of the country’s 13 largest museums is run by a woman (Brooklyn Museum).

CRB: It’s time, and also worth saying that a woman director at the Met would be joining a senior team on which the CFO, General Counsel, Head of Strategy, Head of Exhibitions, and VP for Human Resources are all women, not to mention the extraordinary balance of men to women across the staff of the museum.

LYL: I know you are so busy, and so please know that UIC and I really appreciate this interview.

CRB: Did I make the deadline? Phew!

Note: This interview has been gently edited.

Image: Lisa Yun Lee, left, and Carrie Rebora Barratt (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)