Gail Davidson began her impressive curatorial career at Cooper Hewitt in 1987, as First Assistant Curator. During her 28-year tenure at the museum, she has worked under four directors, seen the creation of multiple new departments, and witnessed the incorporation of technology into the visitor experience.
On the eve of her retirement as Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design—effective February 26—Gail shared some of her proudest accomplishments, the secret to her success, and her thoughts on the new Cooper Hewitt.
Did you always want to become a curator?
I started taking art lessons when I was about eight or nine. I actually wanted to become an interior designer. Then my parents hired one to help with their house and she told me why I didn’t want to do that. I ended up receiving a doctorate in 17th- and 18th-century French drawings and prints, and I was teaching art history. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to join Cooper Hewitt. I love Rococo and textiles and 3D objects, but everything I know about design I learned here.
What’s the best part of your job?
Acquisitions are the most fun. Exhibitions are the most frustrating and exhilarating.
What are some of your favorite exhibitions that you’ve been part of?
House Proud, an exhibition of 19th-century watercolors from the thaw collection, that has travelled to Paris and Beijing. Also, an exhibition on Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran. It featured a collection of their 19th-century landscape paintings and drawings that were used to promote American tourism.
What do you think your Cooper Hewitt legacy is?
The first assignment I received was to go Vienna and look into acquiring some Wiener Werkstätte drawings. They were expensive, and we didn’t have a large acquisitions fund at the time, but I recommended that we buy them. We did, and since I started here, I’ve acquired 1,500 of these drawings for textiles and wallpapers.
A few other acquisitions worth noting are a Henry Van de Velde poster for the Tropon food company that I acquired at auction. It’s Van de Velde’s only poster design, and one of the most important works of his career. Currently it’s on view in the Line section of our Making Design exhibition, and it’s probably the acquisition I’m most proud of. Another one that appears in Making Design’s Form section and that was featured in our 2000 National Design Triennial is a concept drawing for the Air Jordan XIII sneaker. This was maybe an unexpected addition to our collection, but we do collect logos and brand identities. And the last one is Philippe Apeloig’s Vivo in Typo poster that is also in Making Design. He designed it in 2006 for an installation of his posters at a Paris gallery, and we also have a group of drawings and prints that document his design process for creating Vivo in Typo.
To what do you attribute your success in acquiring such incredible objects?
I have a good eye for looking at groups of objects and picking the best ones out from the lesser ones. I also tend to pick the most expensive objects! But most importantly is that I love beautiful things, and I think of the collection as my own stuff.
What will you miss most about working at Cooper Hewitt?
Working with beautiful things. And working with colleagues that share my affection for museums and an interest in museums (what they collect, how they exhibit it)
How do you feel about the incorporation of technology into the new Cooper Hewitt?
I actually acquired the museum’s first digital font, ClearviewHwy, in 2001. The font was designed to improve the readability of highway signs at night, by keeping the letters from running together. So I saw the value in technology and design coming together, but still I was skeptical of the museum’s push for a digital experience. I can say now though, that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive impact this shift has had on how people experience what we’re presenting. And I am pleased with the renovation and our inaugural exhibitions.
And what’s next for you?
I’m going to be teaching a course in connoisseurship here in our Master’s program. It’s the study of drawings and prints, learning everything you can by looking at a piece. You’re trying to figure out who did it and how they did it. I’ll also be writing some articles for various print magazines about the acquisitions work I’ve done over the years.