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“Keeping Things Relevant”: A Conversation with The Met Store’s Lauren Gallagher

Our book buyer shares her thoughts on the value of museums, today’s art scene, photographing a Van Gogh, and more

Lauren Gallagher, The Met Store’s new book buyer, recently chatted with Sudha d’Unienville, vice president of ACC Art Books. We are pleased to republish Sudha’s lively interview with Lauren here on The Met Store Magazine.

Lauren

Lauren Gallagher, Book Buyer, The Met Store / photo by Alan Leggitt

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the most famous museums in this universe. How does it feel to be a part of an institution of such stature?

It feels good, really good. Not everyone is lucky enough to work for something they really believe in. I firmly believe in museums as educational institutions that better society. Museums increase awareness, provide context, encourage discovery, and contribute to an international intellectual dialogue on art, culture, civilization, and history. Here the focus is not on a bottom line but on continually raising the bar as a service to a global community, which includes everyone from tourists to the world’s top curators. The mission is different than what most jobs could ever offer, and I welcome that.

I’ve always felt more comfortable in bookstores, libraries, and museums than at a beach or in the mountains. On my way to get my morning coffee from the staff cafeteria, there is a holy hush that resonates across the building. While there are the usual maintenance matters happening—cranes beeping, florists changing flowers, statues being dusted, exhibitions changing over—it brings great contentedness to really see a work of art on its own, in all its nakedness, before the Museum opens for the day.

French ribbon

“This gorgeous book features facsimile images of ribbon-sample swatch books from a now-closed French factory. France is renowned for its ribbon and lacemaking, and this book honors that tradition.”

Who is your favorite artist and why?

For me this is constantly in flux. My favorite artists are ones who do not remain static, whose work you can return to again and again and see, think, or feel something different each time. My first artist obsessions growing up revolved around Impressionism. Monet was the favorite for quite a while, then I really started to look at Cezanne, to really contemplate him. I remain in awe of Cezanne, and every time I go to London I make a pilgrimage to the Courtauld and visit a gallery of his work and I sit there for a long, long time. I hope at some point to travel to his studio in Aix. His dogged determination to pursue and constantly question his own vision shows an integrity of craft that I admire, respect, and from which as a viewer I reap many benefits.

For intellectual and beatific pleasure, and continued arousal of visual curiosity, it’s hard for me to top Rembrandt and Velazquez. They were both so ahead of their time, and their technique kills me. I love how even when my eyeglasses are off, I can tell if a Rembrandt is in the room just from the glow.

As far as living artists, I am a sucker for work that plays with scale, mass, and volume, and through those things make us question typical human traits of narcissism, invincibility and—through size and scale—point out our fragility. Petah Coyne, Ann Hamilton, Cornelia Parker, and Orly Genger are all favorites of mine.

Token Elegance

“While a vehement nonsmoker, I love this book for its appreciation of a forgotten decorative art. Cigarette holders represent that extra touch that people used to add in the name of style.”

Digital platform versus visual experience: has this affected the numbers visiting museums these days?

I think most people still prefer to walk into a museum and see the art/latest hyped exhibit for themselves, rather than check something out online. I think right now, we’re in a phase of seeing the two entities, “in real life” versus a “virtual” world, work together where arts organizations/spaces are concerned. An exhibition with a hashtag that takes off could not only increase attendance numbers, it can also increase the diversity. A strong digital and social media presence can also improve an “ivory tower” stigma attached to many arts. It’s not just happening at museums; ballet—known as an elitist art form—is seeing a resurgence in attendance and interest from a younger audience because of the success of dancers giving fans behind-the-scenes looks via Instagram and Twitter. Visitors’ sense of inclusiveness and participation can increase.

The downside is that constant use of a device makes people less present. Photographing a Van Gogh doesn’t mean one is really looking at it, really seeing it. There’s a difference. Participation goes into the device and out into the net, and can dilute the in-the-moment personal experience and rapport a visitor could have with a particular piece of art, without the distraction of a digital intermediary. It depends on the person; some people are more discerning about the use of their devices, while others attempt to document everything—it is the latter action that to me takes away from the overall visitor experience for everyone.

There’s also the fact that in an increasingly digital world, where we work and socialize online, that any in-person experience is more special. There used to be fewer sources of entertainment a hundred years ago, now there are countless options, most of which are available on your smartphone. But visiting a museum, seeing 2,000-year-old works of art—that’s special, and you can’t do it through a phone.

The Met must be the envy of many as it is in a unique position of representing artists from the dawn of civilization to the present day. Do you think modern artists are less valued or revered than classic painters?

I don’t think so. I know plenty of artists and people who prefer contemporary art to the Old Masters or classical antiquity. The Met has always been dedicated to a catholic (as in universal) approach to its collection and scope, including modern and contemporary art. I think there is always an audience for both.

Horology

“I hate time, but I love timepieces. This book puts the earliest timepieces in context with man’s eternal fascination with all things celestial.”

What would you like to see change or improve in the visual world of art?

What I would like to see someday across all American institutions is greater support for lesser-known living artists, and especially for museums to take on the responsibility of exhibiting art that is “difficult.” Commercial galleries might exhibit installation art, but sales are low or nonexistent unless a large venue picks it up, and then museums often only want established artists, so that much 3D art is left without a home unless a venue commissions something. It is difficult in the United States though, we have less government funding for the arts than other first-world countries, and it’s incredibly risky to launch exhibitions on “new” artists when you’re unsure who will turn up. Members of the canon are often much safer.

I like that the Met regularly launches exhibitions on things that many people are unfamiliar with. Whether it’s a time period or a previously overlooked artist that a curator believes should be reinstated into the canon, the Met makes people sit up and take notice. The exhibitions are staged to both honor the subject matter and in some cases provide a certain intoxicating glamour.

Disco

“It’s extremely difficult to get good club photos, but Bernstein was a master. This book captures the joie de vivre of late ’70s and early ’80s club life: the raunchiness, gaudiness, fashion, excess, and exuberance.”

You have incredible bookshop experience and extensive knowledge, and the Met bookstore has had many favorable reviews. How would you bring a special touch to take it to the next level?

Well, hopefully through subtle inflections in the book selection, considering display, and the customers. Keeping things relevant to our collection but contemporary in terms of publishing and academia. Being comprehensive and cultured. To develop a selection of books that feels complete but not overwhelming. One wants to simultaneously meet and subvert a customer’s expectations. Every bookseller’s goal, no matter where they work, is to succeed in having a customer walk out with a book they might not have otherwise picked up, and for the customer to leave with the satisfaction of discovery. Here I hope we meet a customer’s expectations for finding relevant, authoritative, contemporary, and canonical texts on art but to also maintain an element of surprise. That is the ultimate goal.

Finally, which book would you consider sneaking in to browse if called into a long meeting?

Anything by John Berger. His sentences are like gifts from the heavens.

Editor’s note: Lauren’s book picks (featured above) are available at The Met Store in New York. Additional titles can be found online here

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