Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Earlier this month, the National Gallery of Art welcomed its fifth director, Kaywin Feldman. The first woman to lead the institution, Feldman recently served as the director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In this job, she succeeds Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, who led the museum since the Bush administration—that is, the George H.W. Bush administration. If her tenure in Minneapolis is any indication, her arrival could mark a sea change for the National Gallery. Today, museums are under pressure to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant. From her East Building office with a view of the Capitol, Feldman sat down with City Paper to talk about empathy, a famous painting of pugilists, and what change looks like for the nation’s most storied art collection.

Washington City Paper: What was your first job?

Kaywin Feldman: My first pay[ing] job was when I was at the British Museum in London in the education department. I volunteered for a year, and then I was paid to do all the educational programming and lectures for a Rembrandt drawings exhibition. My first ever job was probably Woolworths [Supermarket] back in high school.

WCP: How did you come to this job?

KF: I’ve been a museum director for 25 years now. This is my fourth museum, but they’ve all been [in] geographically different places, and different sizes. As the director of the nation’s art gallery, I think it’s important that I at least have a sense of some parts of the nation’s geography, the people, the art and culture. That background has been a good stepping stone for the work here in Washington. And, I’m absolutely passionate about art. I love what I do. I love people. For me, it’s kid-in-the-candy-store to have both art and people come together in the same place.

WCP: Tell me about some of the things you were doing in Minneapolis. What were you working on before you came?

KF: A few exhibitions that were coming up that we were working on. One that I was involved in was about Buddhism, and looking at Buddhism across Asia, and also across time. Looking at the primary themes of Buddhism, like nothingness. Instead of doing a traditional Buddhism show, like the iconography of the Buddha, we were taking themes, finding a new way to offer a lens into perhaps a remote time and culture for Americans. Opening this summer—it’s actually coming to the Renwick Gallery—is an exhibition called Hearts of Our People. That’s an exhibition about Native American women’s artwork. Something I did not know before this project was that, historically, most Native American art was made by women. Native artists know it, but there’s never been an exhibition about it. It’s historic to contemporary, about some of the primary reasons why Native American women make art.

WCP: During your time at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, you launched the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts. What’s that?

KF: We got together some scholars and thinkers. They have a staff team devoted to it. They are exploring the ways to use the collection to foster greater empathy. It’s been proven by social scientists that empathy in America is declining now. We all feel it, but there are charts showing that from 1970, empathy is in decline. They’ve also proven that empathy is genetic—but it can also be taught. Right now they’re working on an instrument to test empathy. It will be on an iPad. They’ll be able to work with visitors to understand their levels of empathy before they go into an exhibition or go on a tour. They’ll do that pre and post to see if there are better ways for the museum to move the dial.

Social scientists have shown that when we have that feeling of wonder, we actually become less narcissistic. We become more connected to the rest of humanity. You stop worrying about your phone, your time, and your schedule. You feel connected to something bigger than yourself. That’s why you’re looking at the Grand Canyon, listening to a speech by Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], or at an art museum—they’re all different ways of experiencing wonder.

WCP: What you’re describing sounds like a very agile way of thinking about the museum. That is at the forefront of a lot of conversations about what a museum is. How can you bring that thinking into the National Gallery of Art?

KF: Part of it is breaking down some of the structures created by bureaucracy. There’s nothing like fresh eyes to look at an institution to say: Are there some ways where we can do things a little more easily and give people permission more quickly and empower people? I definitely will want to look at how we get things done here, and that’s part of my six-month discovery period, to understand our process and procedures and unlock a lot of the ideas of the staff.

WCP: In your opening remarks, you said you want to get to know the staff, the culture, and the collection. How do you get to know a collection?

KF: That’s the part that I have a little bit of anxiousness about. Every place I’ve worked, I’ve grown to love the collection—to know it well, and passionately, and be able to talk about it at length. In your first couple of years, there’s a moment of panic when someone says, “Don’t you have that great 1962 painting by… ” And you’re not really sure if you do! It takes a couple of years. That’s not going to happen in six mont

WCP: In your opening remarks, you said you want to get to know the staff, the culture, and the collection. How do you get to know a collection?

KF: That’s the part that I have a little bit of anxiousness about. Every place I’ve worked, I’ve grown to love the collection—to know it well, and passionately, and be able to talk about it at length. In your first couple of years, there’s a moment of panic when someone says, “Don’t you have that great 1962 painting by… ” And you’re not really sure if you do! It takes a couple of years. That’s not going to happen in six months.

WCP: What are some of the first show ideas you have, on day two?

KF: I’m thinking a lot about the balance of monographic shows and thematic shows. I like them both. I want to explore both avenues here, epitomized by our current shows: Tintoretto and [The Life of Animals in Japanese Art]. I like them both and I want to explore them further. I don’t have any specific projects yet. I talked with our team today to help me understand the history of the last 25 years, the types of shows we’ve done. To get the lay of the land and a sense of the opportunities, where the gaps are, where we might go in some new directions.

WCP: In my time here as a viewer, I’ve seen some of the first for this museum. Staging the first show by a living black artist, for example. There are still barriers in this collection to underrepresented artists. What can you do to bring down those barriers?

KF: I’m definitely looking forward to working with the curators to explore what we have and then where some of those gaps are. As you know, all American museums are looking at this right now. We know we need to address the balance and diversify our collections. It’s something happening across the country, and it will continue to happen here.

WCP: At the Baltimore Museum of Art, [director] Christopher Bedford is deaccessioning works—selling Warhol, Rauschenberg, and other big modernist pieces, to build what he calls a “war chest” for investing in underrepresented artists. Do you think that’s an appropriate way to balance a collection? [Editor’s note: The National Gallery of Art cannot sell its works.]

KF: I think it’s specific to each institution. I speak a lot within our field about the need for museums to walk the walk and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can’t just stick your toe in the water. Baltimore has shown that they’re serious about this work, and I admire them for that. But I think for other institutions—it also comes down to resources. In Minneapolis, there’s a large endowment fund for art acquisitions. We didn’t ever need, at least while I was there, to talk about selling something in the collection. Instead, [we talked about] how to use these resources going forward. I know there have been conversations here at the gallery about wanting to increase the collections of work by people of color and women artists. I applaud the work. I’m sure it will continue.

WCP: What are your staffing needs?

KF: We have a couple of curatorial vacancies. I know that we’re posting and looking for those positions. Otherwise, I actually don’t know, on day two, what vacancies we have or even what directions we might go.

WCP: Do you feel that the curatorial organization is appropriate for the mission of the museum?

KF: I don’t know the team well enough, or the collection, to comment specifically. I think there are ways to break down silos without necessarily thinking differently about areas of focus. For example, I was asking here this week about when a work that’s video or photography is proposed, is it the modern curator who proposes it or the photo curator? The answer is, the work of art is going to live wherever it needs to live for the best care and climactic conditions, but that all the curators are involved in that, and that’s as it should be, so you do break down silos and get the best experience around the work of art.

WCP: Have you led an encyclopedic museum before?

KF: Minneapolis was encyclopedic. Memphis was too, but at a smaller scale.

WCP: Are there challenges in going from that scale to this scale [at the NGA]?

KF: There are challenges in getting to know the institution. I’m obsessed with trying to learn all those names! So many names here!

WCP: What’s the staff here?

KF: Twelve-hundred? [Editor’s note: Fully staffed, it’s 1,157.] I’m a learner. I’m here to learn the institution.

WCP: One distinguishing feature of D.C.: Most museum directors here are women. Have you met your peers here?

KF: I know a lot of them through my work over the years with the American Alliance of Museums and [the Association of Art Museum Directors]. I know quite a few. There have been a few new ones added, too. I’ve heard great things about the collegiality of directors here in D.C. It’s definitely part of the attraction of coming. I feel like I already have this really warm group of supporters, colleagues, and friends.

WCP: Do you anticipate making changes to the museum’s board? Are there people you plan to bring with you?

KF: I look forward to working closely with the board. No, I don’t plan on making changes to the board. I’m sure some of the board discussions will change with a different player at the helm.

WCP: What do you like about D.C.?

KF: I like the number of museums. I’m a museum geek, so I like to spend my spare time in museums. My husband’s an architect, so we like buildings as well. We’re very much urban people. I’m excited to live in a big city again. I like it that it’s not minus 30 degrees outside. Of course, I like the global nature of it—the fact that there are so many embassies here, so many people coming and visiting, so many leaders here. I’ve only been to a couple of parties so far, but I’ve met so many interesting people doing really important work, whether it’s federal agencies or part of this international community. It’s fascinating.

WCP: Do you think of yourself as an ambassador of art to this community?

KF: Absolutely. I care passionately about art. I often tell the story of how my encounter with the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto when I was 21 changed my life. I was going to be an archaeologist. The Scrovegni Chapel had such an impact on me. I had this experience of wonder, in fact. I was elevated above and beyond my daily cares. I was so moved that a human being could create something that beautiful and exquisite, and I could be moved by it, several hundred years later. I believe in the power of art.

WCP: What do you like [in the collection] so far? Or, what do you like so far that you didn’t know so well before? There are many masterpieces in this museum, but has anything caught your eye?

KF: I keep going and looking at [paintings by George] Bellows. I know Bellows, but I haven’t had a painting in any of the collections I’ve worked in at that scale. I’m drawn to it. It’s the composition, the angles and forms, the way the viewer is drawn into the pictures, and the sense of the energy and power and force in the men. That moment of confrontation. That surprises me, because I tend to be more of a European Old Masters person.

WCP: What is the day-to-day like for the director of the National Gallery?

KF: It’s definitely going to be different for the next six months, because it’s intensive learning—meeting with staff members, stakeholders, and constituents. Three or four years from now, there will be a different pace to those kinds of meetings. Yesterday, we had a really fun all-staff meeting. Then I was supposed to be back upstairs, filling out forms, but I managed to escape and go get a tour of the Japan installation and Tintoretto and go into the design study. That’s the most fun: when I can escape my desk and go out and look at art for a while.