For Rising-Star Met Contemporary Art Curator Brinda Kumar, a Day in the Life Now Brings Heartbreak, Virtual Hubbub, and the ‘Huge Privilege’ of Alone Time With Art
We spent a day (remotely) with the Met curator to get a sense of her life under lockdown.
Like most New Yorkers, Brinda Kumar, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been stuck at home since lockdown was implemented in the city in mid-March.
These days, instead of taking the crosstown bus through Central Park to the museum every morning, her commute generally entails the much duller “walk from one part of the apartment to another,” she says.
Kumar acknowledges that she is in a fortunate position to be able to work from home during the pandemic, and can have necessities delivered to her apartment. But she can’t help but miss being in close proximity with art.
But the monotony of the days are broken up every couple weeks, and we caught up with Kumar on a Thursday at the end of April, when she got to pay a visit to the museum’s Breuer location as part of the Met’s collections-monitoring program, for which she does condition checks on artworks and monitors for environmental concerns.
The curator is particularly lucky to have the extra time with the museum’s Gerhard Richter show, given that the Met has just announced that it will not be reopening it (or the Breuer) after lockdown. (The Frick Collection will take over the space in the fall.)
We remotely tagged along with Kumar to get a sense of her day.
A Different Kind of Commute
Kumar wakes up at around 7 a.m. and prepares for the day while catching up on the news through Morning Edition on WNYC radio. Breakfast is a double-shot latte and overnight oats with fresh berries. By 8:15 a.m., armed with face mask and sanitizer, she is ready to head out to the museum.
The Met Breuer is technically walking distance from Kumar’s apartment, although not everyone would volunteer, as Kumar has, to undertake the 45-minute trek on foot. But Kumar was keen to participate in the collections-monitoring gig, especially because she worked on the Gerhard Richter exhibition, as well as another show, “Home Is a Foreign Place: Recent Acquisitions in Context.”
The long pilgrimage takes her through Central Park and past the Met’s main building, where she always pauses to say hello to the Wangechi Mutu guardian figures that are currently installed in the façade niches.
Kumar has a special relationship with the Met Breuer, having worked on some of the inaugural exhibitions at the space, including “Nasreen Mohamedi” and “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” which opened in 2016.
“Although the monitoring rounds are very focused, it is still a huge privilege to have the the galleries almost to oneself, and to connect with art,” Kumar says.
Part of her ritual is now taking a “socially-distanced picture” with head Breuer security guard Bill Necker in front of Richter’s glass piece 11 Panes (2004) as a way to document and celebrate her biweekly visits.
“While it was so gratifying that the exhibition was so warmly received by the press and audiences alike, it is frankly heartbreaking that it now remains unseen by the audiences we hoped would get a chance to view it,” Kumar says.
Although the Met has yet to reveal whether the exhibition will be restaged in another form, Kumar says she thinks the installation is ideally suited to the architectural spaces of the Breuer building.
“A particular highlight is the dialogue between Richter’s House of Cards (5 Panes) (2020) and the largest of the building’s iconic trapezoidal windows,” she says.
After a few hours of inspecting artworks across the four floors of the museum, Kumar heads home at around noon.
Back at home, Kumar prepares her go-to lunch: avocado toast, a habit she picked up from her husband Ben, who grew up in Australia.
After lunch, it’s time to get to work. “Once it became clear that this period of lockdown was going to be a protracted one, I identified an unused nook and then found the narrowest desk I could find online to precisely fit in it, and carved out a space in our apartment to work from,” Kumar says. Above the desk is a pen-and-ink drawing from one of the first exhibitions she curated at a gallery in India in 2007.
Her laptop desktop features a picture of Gerhard Richter’s painting The Reader. “Ever since I first encountered it as an undergraduate art student in New Delhi, I’ve made it my desktop image on all computers and laptops,” she says. “Little did I know that one day, I’d work on an exhibition devoted to his work!”
Carefully hung beneath the desk is her yoga mat, for what has become her “necessary practice.”
Given the sudden closure of the much-anticipated Richter show, the bulk of her time has been spent figuring out how to share the experience of the exhibition online.
“While this cannot in any way replace the experience of an encounter with the work in person—something I am reminded of every two weeks—we felt it was nevertheless extremely important to make the exhibition as accessible as possible in this moment,” Kumar says. This entailed creating a virtual exhibition tour and an exhibition guide with her colleagues in the Met’s digital department.
She has also been working with the museum’s education department on new online programs, including conversations with artists conducted by Sheena Wagstaff, the head of the modern and contemporary art department, and with the documentary filmmaker Corinna Belz, whose film, Gerhard Richter Painting, is now streaming for free on the Met’s website.
The day is punctuated with a flurry of meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which is the Met’s preferred internal platform.
“Whenever I’m in a meeting I close the door with an ‘On Air’ sign to indicate to my husband that all loud noises are to be kept to a minimum if possible,” Kumar says.
She has been working with the Met Breuer’s exhibitions manager, Katy Uravitch, on plans to deinstall the exhibitions, and has also been busy giving virtual tours of the shows to the museum’s supporters, patrons, and volunteers. On top of all that, she has been working the Met’s social media channels, answering questions from the public about the exhibitions.
Kumar also has to stay engaged with her prolonged research projects. She is currently revisiting a work by Nasreen Mohamedi that was gifted to the Met by the artist Zarina, a friend of Mohamedi’s. (Both artists’ works are currently on view in “Home Is a Foreign Place,” the title of which comes from a Zarina work.)
Because the resources of the Met’s central research facility, Watson Library, are off-limits for now, Kumar turns to the volumes in her personal library.
“Reading these books is a welcome break from what otherwise seems at times like constant screen-time these days,” she says.
A Zoom of One’s Own
As evening rolls around, Kumar switches gears to conduct a virtual exhibition tour for the Met’s Apollo Circle, a group of young museum patrons.
And while the curator has done plenty of exhibition tours in person, the pandemic has introduced her to a whole new world of online tours.
“I’m definitely learning some new skills along the way,” she says, “like using a stack of books to make sure that your laptop’s camera is at the right height.”
After speaking to the group for about an hour, Kumar is able to close her laptop just in time for New York’s daily 7 p.m. appreciation clap and clangor.
Afterwards, she and her husband prepare dinner. They both enjoy cooking, and take turns spearheading the menu. They are currently making their way through recipes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Instantly Indian Cookbook. A recent favorite they’ve whipped up comes from a recipe for salmon in a green Parsi sauce (Parsi Macchi).
More and more these days, the pair have been venturing outdoors to eat and get some fresh air and Vitamin D in nearby Riverside Park. Although they are still wearing masks and committed to socially distancing from others, the break from their screens—which have dominated even non-work-related activities, such as online events and zoom cocktails—is a relief.
“The 7 o’clock appreciation clangor is a regular reminder that this is still not a normal era. But an evening picnic to cap out these long summer days has become an unexpected simple pleasure of this time,” Kumar says.
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