Randy Griffey (PhD '99)
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dr. Randall R. Griffey returned to campus in November 2018 as the Franklin Murphy Distinguished Alumni lecturer. A Kansas native, Griffey earned his B.A. in painting from Bethany College (’90) and his M.A. (’95) and Ph.D. with Honors (’99) in art history from KU. Directed by Charles Eldredge, Griffey’s dissertation, “Marsden Hartley’s Late Paintings: American Masculinity and National Identity in the 1930s and ‘40s,” was supported by a Sara Roby Fellowship in Twentieth-Century American Realism at the National Museum of American Art (now Smithsonian American Art Museum) and won KU’s Dorothy Haglund Prize for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation. Prior to joining the curatorial staff of The Met in 2013, Griffey served as Assistant Curator (1999-2003) and Associate Curator (2004-08) of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Curator of American Art at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College (2008-12).
Griffey has been responsible for 20 exhibitions and installation projects, including, at The Met, Reimagining Modernism: 1900-1950 – an ambitious thematic reinstallation of The Met’s permanent collection; Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered (co-curated with Elizabeth M. Kornhauser and Stephanie Herdrich); Marsden Hartley’s Maine (co-curated with Donna M. Cassidy and Elizabeth Finch); History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift (co-curated with Amelia Peck); and Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera. In addition to contributing essays to several exhibition and museum collection catalogues, Griffey has published numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, and reviews, and has delivered over 20 public lectures and conference papers. His article, “Marsden Hartley’s Aryanism: Eugenics in a Finnish-Yankee Sauna” (American Art 22:2, summer 2008) was recognized by the Association of Art Museum Curators as the Outstanding Article of 2008. The same association named Griffey’s essay, “Reconsidering the ‘Soil’: The Stieglitz Circle, Regionalism, and Cultural Eugenics in the Twenties” (in Teresa Carbone, ed., Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, Brooklyn Museum, 2011) the Outstanding Catalogue Essay of 2011. Griffey also received Bethany College’s Distinguished Graduate Award in 2015.
Randy kindly responded to a few questions from David Cateforis via email.
Briefly describe your career path from graduate school to your current position – and your motivation to follow that path.
As I was finishing a B.A. in Fine Arts at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, I applied to KU’s art history program, initially planning to pursue a Master’s degree. I suppose the shift from fine art to art history shows some of my pragmatism and self-criticality, as I recognized that I didn’t have the talent (or, frankly, the drive) to excel as a professional artist. I was deficient in art history, so I began the program as a “probationary” student, a fact that makes me smile in retrospect. I began making up necessary hours in the summer right after my graduation from Bethany. At the time, I was most interested in 19th-century European art, the styles and artists I admired as an art student. Subsequent coursework with Charlie Eldredge changed all of that. By the time I finished the M.A., I knew I wanted to stay on for the Ph.D. and to focus on American modernism. I worked as a GTA for a couple of years, but a subsequent internship at the Spencer (working with Susan Earle) shifted my attention decidedly toward museum work. After a yearlong fellowship at the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), I was fortunate to start in 1999 as Assistant (later Associate) Curator at the Nelson-Atkins, where I worked for over eight years while also teaching at UMKC. The Nelson-Atkins was a great place to “learn the ropes” and it was an exciting time for the institution during the Bloch Building expansion. In 2008, I became Curator of American Art at the Mead Art Museum, where I had more responsibility, which I had begun to crave. During my time at the Mead, which is small and a bit out of the way, I made a point to remain active and visible in the field by publishing and presenting at conferences, which turned out to be critical. Had I stuck only to my day-to-day responsibilities at the Mead, I doubt I would have had a great shot at the job at The Met.
Once I committed to art history, I was motivated by a drive to find my strongest and clearest “voice,” to discover what I had to say and how best to say it. I gravitated to Marsden Hartley in part because I thought I could find my own space or identity in the “room” of scholarship on the artist, which wasn’t overcrowded with different voices arguing with one another. With Hartley, I detected opportunities for new means and contexts for interpreting his work, especially his late career.
What was the most important thing you learned as a graduate student that helped prepare you for your career?
That’s tough to narrow down. I do remember one time fretting terribly about writing my dissertation, which endured a number of false starts, and Linda Stone-Ferrier told me, “It’s not your magnum opus. It’s just a means to an end,” and that really helped take the weight off my shoulders and reduce writer’s block. I’ve used that phrase several times since. Mired in a difficult critical theory seminar one term, I was struggling to identity myself methodologically— was I (should I be) Foucauldian? Something else? Charlie Eldredge, who freely admits to his impatience with “academic cant” told me not to worry about aligning myself with a specific theorist, to write what I wanted to write, and to use just what is useful in my own work. His recommendation was super liberating, and it underpins my own intellectual openness in research and interpretation, I think. Lastly, I’ve always appreciated the fact that KU’s art history department is embedded in the Spencer Museum, which predisposed me to disregard the perceived divide between art history and museum work. Working with Charlie also bridged the gap that some think exists between the two.
What do you wish you had learned as a graduate student that would have helped to prepare you better for your career?
I wish I would have studied more foreign language, Spanish in particular.
What advice do you have for today's undergraduate and graduate students regardless of their career aspirations?
While I’m usually loath to offer advice, I will say I’ve benefited by maximizing opportunities I’ve been given. You can be opportunistic without being pushy and off-putting. Art history is a wonderfully malleable discipline, so keep your options open and keep an open mind as your professional trajectory takes shape. Had I been dead set on teaching, perhaps I wouldn’t have pursued the internship at the Spencer. Obviously, I’m happy in retrospect that I was open to that possibility. Also, resist the human temptation to envy someone else’s success, which does not come at the expense of your own. Success isn’t a zero-sum game. I’ve never felt really academically or intellectually competitive with my peers. Rather, I feel I’ve competed more directly with myself in quite clear ways—challenged myself to use a new word, to write a better sentence, to take on new and different subjects.
How has your field changed since you started working in it?
It has continued to expand beyond the traditional Eurocentric, phallocentric canon, with still-much-needed focus on women artists and artists of color and new emphasis on patterns and networks of circulation of ideas rather than presumed centers and margins of influence. I like the fact that art history isn’t perceived as much these days as a race that some artists win by getting somewhere first and other artists lose by showing up at the same or a similar place a bit later.
What do you consider to be your one or two greatest professional accomplishments, and why?
I have to break this one down by categories. My reinstallations of The Met’s modern galleries in two projects: the first, called Reimagining Modernism: 1900 – 1950, and the second, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, probably have the most impact, given the number of visitors who come through The Met. Having a hand in The Met’s acquisition of Aaron Douglas’s Let My People Go was super gratifying, given the fact Douglas was a fellow Kansan and that the Museum’s collection was in great need of a major work from the Harlem Renaissance. Academically, I suppose my writing on eugenics is a reason other art historians and curators might know my name.
What question do you wish I had asked you, but didn't?
“Share an embarrassing moment from graduate school.” While teaching the introduction to art history one time, I inexplicably described Peter Paul Rubens’s very voluptuous and revealing Portrait of Helena Fourment as the artist’s self-portrait. It was hilarious. The students loved it—and I bet very few of them forgot the painting.