Sarah Schroth, the Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, will retire in May after 25 years at Duke. Schroth joined the Duke University Museum of Art – as it was then known – in 1995. She was named the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator in 2004, a year before the Nasher Museum opened, organizing exhibitions and helping to shape the new museum as a cornerstone of the arts at Duke. She curated the 2008 exhibition, El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III, named by Time magazine as one of the Top 10 exhibitions that year. She has been the museum’s director since June 2013, after serving more than one year as interim director. Schroth earned a Ph.D. from The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she specialized in Spanish art of the 17th century. Before coming to Duke, she held curatorial positions at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She lives in Chapel Hill.
You have been the Nasher Museum director for the past seven years. Which of your many initiatives makes you most proud?
I am proud of starting the Reflections program for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, and the Nasher Teens. Thanks to the generosity of our wonderful supporters, we have consistently met our Annual Fund goal, and increased our overall endowment. I loved leading the charge to reconfigure Wilson Pavilion and I am proud of the curators’ inventive use of the permanent collection to create large-scale exhibitions such as Disorderly Conduct: American Painting and Sculpture, 1960 – 1990 and Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations. It has been so rewarding to see the Concentration in Museum Theory & Practice connect the Nasher to Duke’s undergraduate curriculum.
What is the most pressing issue facing art museums today?
Costs and audience. Exhibition fees have gone through the roof, as have shipping and crating prices. The thriving art market has created a situation that makes acquisitions of art really hard for museums with limited funds. The audiences for museums have changed drastically. Museums must attract communities they may never have addressed before. For example, millennials do not view museums the way past generations have—as places for quiet contemplation, to return to time and again, looking long and hard at a work of art. Instead, young people live in a fast-paced world, looking to museums as a site for social interaction.
What is your favorite exhibition that you’ve seen in the past year, in all of your travels?
The solo show of the Indian sculptor at the Met Brauer last summer was a real eye-opener, Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee. But there have been dozens I could list!
What parting advice do you have for Nasher Museum staff, members and visitors?
Stay the course! The Nasher team has created a dynamic, unique and innovative space, which members appreciate. Keep joining, keep visiting!
What is the first thing you want to do in your retirement?
Find someone to teach me direct carving! I also want to travel to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Seattle for an extended period of time and old friends in Tangier and Rome.