CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Nadine Orenstein Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (August, 2023)

To celebrate CODART’s 25th anniversary, this year the Curator in the Spotlight section will feature members that have been involved with CODART since the very beginning.

Nadine Orenstein

A friend from high school remembers me saying at the time that I wanted to be a curator at the Met. I attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, where the students worked on art or music for at least two hours every day. We spent a good deal of time in museums in Europe when I was young thanks to my French father and my mother who wrote about surrealism. So, that did not come out of the blue. After finishing with an art history degree from Barnard College, I went on to the Institute of Fine Arts for my Ph.D. It was my great fortune to study Dutch art with Egbert Haverkamp-Begeman. Egbert was one of the few professors who took his students to study art in person not only in museums but with dealers and at auctions. He was also one of the few who taught about prints and drawings. And he created an extended family among the generations of “Begettes.” My first class with him was co-taught with print dealer David Tunick and we catalogued a collection of prints by Goltzius and his School. That class led me to my dissertation topic on the print publisher Hendrick Hondius because I kept asking what the term “excudit” meant and no one could provide me with a satisfying answer. At the Institute I also followed the Curatorial Studies program which helped me get my foot in the door in the Met’s Department of Prints and Photographs, as it was called at the time. A nine-month internship in the department led to a newly created position of study room curator. I then went off to Amsterdam to begin my Ph.D. research. It was unusual for someone at the time to be studying prints and I was warmly welcomed by Dutch print scholars Jan Piet Filedt Kok, Ger Luijten, Jacqueline Burgers, Christiaan Schuckman, Manfred Sellink, and Huigen Leeflang. I made a special effort to speak with everyone in Dutch – which must have been painful for my listeners at the beginning – but I know that it made a difference in how I was received. Jan Piet gave me the opportunity to write an article about a Hondius view of Rome for the Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum. My friend Alan Chong, one of the tight-knit group of American graduate students in Amsterdam at the time, encouraged me to submit my first article to Print Quarterly on the printed sleeping caps created by Magdalena van de Passe that I had found mentioned in archival records. Ger helped me publish my dissertation as a book and the catalogue as a volume of The New Hollstein series. I have since also compiled and edited several additional Hollstein volumes.

I lived in The Netherlands for three years, thanks to various fellowships and then moved to Washington DC for a final year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts where I finished my dissertation. With no great job prospects before me, I went back to the Met and Colta Ives, head of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, as it was called at that point, offered me a one-year position as Study Room supervisor, the job that I had left four years earlier. At that point, I talked with Egbert about options for the future and he gave me the best advice that I share with students to this day: “Make yourself indispensable.” Colta allowed me to curate a rotation of highlights from our collection and that small rotation of prints directly led to my being offered a position as an assistant curator in the department. Another bit of advice that I often share: sometimes you need to find the opportunity to show people who you are and what you are capable of. I have been in the Department of Drawings and Prints, as it is now called, ever since.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569), The Dirty Bride or The Wedding of Mopsus and Nisa, ca. 1566
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Credit Line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932

I am fortunate to work at The Met, a large museum that allows me to acquire artwork and organize large exhibitions of great masters alongside exhibitions of lesser known artists. I have been able to collaborate on exhibitions with Dutch colleagues whom I met long ago. Another piece of advice: keep in touch with friends and be nice to everyone, you never know whom you will be able to work with down the road. In 2001, Manfred Sellink and I organized Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints which opened first in the Boijmans Museum and then at The Met two weeks after 9/11. As the exhibition was approaching, we were not certain whether any of the works requested from Europe would actually arrive because at that point people were concerned about flying. Amazingly, our generous colleagues allowed their precious Bruegel drawings to travel and, as a result, this marvelous exhibition provided solace and a bit of humor to a stunned and saddened New York. Soon after I worked on Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), Drawings, Prints and Paintings (2003) with Jan Piet Filedt Kok, Ger Luijten, Huigen Leeflang, and Larry Nichols that traveled to Amsterdam, New York, and Toledo. That exhibition led to a collaboration with the Rijksmuseum on the marvelous Hercules Segers in 2016-17 with Huigen Leeflang and Pieter Roelofs at the helm, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I worked on Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance (2010-11) with Met colleagues Maryan Ainsworth and Stijn Alsteens and Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry (2014-14) with Elizabeth Cleland, Maryan Ainsworth, and Stijn Alsteens. The Renaissance of Etching (2019-20) was organized with former Met colleagues Catherine Jenkins and Freyda Spira along with Christoph Metzger and Julia Zanbauer from the Albertina. I love working on exhibitions because each one allows you to dive into an artist’s career and life closely, and look at their work from a novel angle.

Hercules Segers (ca. 1590–ca. 1638), Mountain Valley with a Plateau, ca. 1625–30
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1923

In 2015, I had the honor of being appointed Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, succeeding well-known drawings specialist George Goldner. The position has allowed me to  shape the department and work on a wide range of material in the field of drawings and prints and also work on projects throughout the museum. I am currently involved in planning The Met’s new Oscar L. and H.M. Agnes Tsu-Tang Wing for Modern and Contemporary Art.

I love working in my department. The collection of about 1.2 million works is full of surprises. While we have great masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, and others, there has also been a tradition of collecting all aspects of the history of printmaking from masterworks to baseball cards. Among my favorite quirky pieces in the collection are the early twentieth-century American valentines, an album of printed orange wrappers, an album of visiting cards of famous artists, and a delicate early American lithograph by William Clay advertising a display in New York of  “The Majestic and Graceful Giraffes, or Cameleopards, with some Rare Animals of the Gazelle Species”.  Among my favorite Dutch and Flemish works are Pieter Bruegel’s drawn design for a woodcut still preserved on the surface of a woodblock, Hercules Segers’ sensitively painted and cut impression of Mountain Valley with a Plateau, and Rembrandt’s richly printed first state of The Three Crosses on vellum. But there is so much more.

The museum world has changed over time in good ways and bad. I remember spending hours putting together the slide presentations for lectures. Now, so many collections have been digitized that I am surprised when I cannot find an image of a work. But the immediate accessibility of images leads some to think that we no longer need to travel, an easy way to cut budgets. This, of course, ignores a fact that we curators know well: looking at something in person is a necessary experience. It is the way to train your eye and you need to continually do so throughout your career. And you need to know your colleagues and that is something we do when we travel on courier trips or to CODART meetings. Digital courier trips are not the same thing. Another concern for me is the proliferation of two and three-year curatorial fellowships. On the one hand, they are wonderful opportunities for hopeful curators to train by doing curatorial work in a museum. Yet, all too often, these repeating fellowships take the place of actual assistant curator positions and the young curators they are training have fewer positions open to them. One final thought, our profession has suffered of late from a backlash against the voice of curatorial authority. There is a feeling that we must simplify what we show in order to not intimidate the public. And that anyone can curate because it is merely putting together things that are alike. But, in my experience, people like to learn about new things if you explain them clearly. How many of us have been familiar with six-year olds who can tell you every bit of information known about dinosaurs! People like to learn and can understand unfamiliar words if they are explained. We should not give in to the idea that sharing knowledge will intimidate or our audience will lose interest in the end. Research and scholarship are core to our profession and we should not let go of that.

Nadine Orenstein is Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.