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Department: Art and Archaeology

Meister Art and Archaeology

Sarah Hermanson Meister ’94

Associate Curator, Department of Photography,
Museum of Modern ArtA love of photography

I loved photography long before I arrived at Princeton, but before I arrived at Princeton I didn’t have an imagination for a career in the field. That’s because, like many teenagers, I loved photography on a very personal level—photographs of friends and family lined the four walls and some of the ceiling of my bedroom, and I spent a few too many hours in the school darkroom. But I didn’t think of photography as an academic or art historical discipline. And further, I didn’t think of art history as a professional track.

So while I had always been interested in art, and I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to study what I loved without reference to its practical application, I still did not conceive of my concentration in art history as a career choice. I took ART 101 my freshman year, and in that survey course I recognized a particularly appealing attribute of the Department of Art and Archaeology: our papers were often based on actual objects in the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection, and the library was an inviting place to try to put what we were studying into context. Within weeks I began to recognize the faces of the professors, graduate students, undergraduate majors, and librarians.

The summer after my freshman year I managed to secure an internship at the Whitney Museum in New York, and on the advice of a Princeton senior I worked with there, I took a course in modern American art and architecture with John Wilmerding in the fall of my sophomore year. Professor Wilmerding’s integrated approach to American painting and architecture—encompassing history, literature, and popular culture—easily convinced me to major in art history, because within this very intimate academic setting our course work reached out across a broad spectrum of disciplines. It wasn’t until the following fall that I took Peter Bunnell’s course on the history of photography, and my love for the medium was transformed into an appreciation of it as an art. Before the semester was over I knew I wanted to write my senior thesis on some aspect of American photographic history.

A senior thesis opens doors

I graduated with a vague desire to become an elementary school teacher, but also a sense that if I was ever going to try for a career in the arts I should focus on that goal first. I met Peter Galassi (chief curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) while I was working on my undergraduate thesis, and he encouraged me to call him when my thesis was complete if I was interested in pursuing an internship at MoMA. I called him. And I called again. And I called again a couple more times—he is still my boss so I’ll just say this was an early introduction to the importance of persistence, which is not necessarily taught in any major but required in every professional field. I have worked in the Department of Photography ever since. I once asked Peter why he offered me a position when I had so little relevant work experience, and he indicated that it was a combination of my sincere passion for photography and the way I spoke about writing my thesis on a living photographer. (Although he didn’t mention it, it must not have hurt that Professor Bunnell had been a curator at MoMA before coming to Princeton.) I credit my professors at Princeton for channeling my love of the visual arts into a rigorous art historical framework, and the experience of researching and writing a thesis has undoubtedly helped my subsequent professional work.

During my first year at the museum I applied to a few art history graduate programs, but I decided to stay at MoMA both because I enjoyed working, and I realized the main reason I was interested in graduate school was to get the job I already had, thanks in no small part to my Princeton education. I’m now an associate curator in the Department of Photography at MoMA (working part time since the birth of my second child), and profoundly enjoying the fact that my job is to critically evaluate, selectively acquire, and publicly display photographic works of art.

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