This appraisal of  Cara McCarty was contributed by Andrea Lipps, Associate Curator of Contemporary Design

Cara McCarty is a curator, lecturer, and writer on modern and contemporary design. Celebrated for her multidisciplinary approach to design, McCarty began her curatorial career in 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where she held several curatorial positions. She initiated and curated many exhibitions with publications, including Mario Bellini: Designer (1987), Designs for Independent Living (1988), Information Art: Diagramming Microchips (1990), and Modern Masks and Helmets (1991). McCarty was a protégée of Arthur Drexler, the highly influential curator and director of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. She wrote in 1987, “No individual deserves my deepest personal thanks more than Arthur Drexler… He taught me how to see.”[1]

McCarty has been described as a “conscientious collector.”[2] While at MoMA she developed a rigorous and self-assured eye, acquiring many key works including Sheila Hicks’s Evolving Tapestry, a Ballistic Mask, and a selection of Computer Chip diagrams. When collecting, McCarty considers how an object reflects the technology of its time. She looks for breakthrough pieces that represent an inflection point or “first.” She recognizes material and technical innovations. She notices the details.

In 1992, the St. Louis Museum of Art (SLAM) offered McCarty the opportunity to build a design collection. She moved from New York to St. Louis to head its Department of Decorative Arts and Design. McCarty intellectually shaped and built SLAM’s collection of late 19th to 21st-century design, acquiring over 400 works including key Japanese textiles and a long-lost screen for the Lambert-St. Louis Airport by Harry Bertoia.

While at SLAM, McCarty was involved in the museum’s expansion. She helped develop and participated in the architect selection process, and was actively involved in all aspects from the concept through design phases. She also curated a number of important exhibitions with publications, including Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles (1998), Masks: Faces of Culture (1999), and Tadao Ando: Architect (2001). Then in 2004, McCarty was awarded a prestigious Loeb Fellowship and spent an academic year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

In 2007, McCarty returned to New York to become Curatorial Director at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. There, she oversaw the museum’s curatorial vision, collection, and exhibition planning, and curated exhibitions. McCarty was instrumental in Cooper Hewitt’s 2014 renovation and transformation into a 21st-century museum, from the master plan to the creation of immersive museum spaces and participatory visitor experiences. Among her celebrated exhibitions and publications are Why Design Now? National Design Triennial 2010 (2010), Tools: Extending Our Reach (2014), Access+Ability (2017)—which The New York Times said “makes plain why design matters” [3]—and The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility (2018). McCarty shaped the museum’s collection, adding strength to its American and contemporary holdings.

View of the Access+Ability exhibition at Cooper Hewitt. An array of contemporary objects provides a context to the warm, wood-paneled historic gallery. On the center of the plinth are two female mannequins dressed in futuristic garments (The Aura Power Suit, a gray bodysuit with hexagons of a light green material) and the SoundShirt, a navy blue shirt crisscrossed with lighter blue lines). In the distance can be seen ALLELES funky, colorful prosthetic leg covers.

Access+Ability on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Like Drexler, McCarty serves as a mentor to the next generation of design curators. She teaches them how to see. And through the stunning breadth of her exhibitions and collecting, McCarty interprets design broadly, an important legacy. As she describes it, “Design is a culturally creative act to solve everyday problems. Bad design wastes resources, demonstrates no cultural gain and has no positive consequence. Good design is both popular and profound at the same time, like Mozart’s piano concertos.” [4] And much like McCarty herself.

[1] Cara McCarty, Mario Bellini: Designer (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1987, 7.

[2] Susan Caba, “Conscientious Collector: Design curator Cara McCarty likes objects to solve problems, supply joy,” Stanford Magazine, July/August 2008, https://stanfordmag.org/contents/conscientious-collector.

[3] Michael Kimmelman, “Design for All: Products for people with disabilities were once uninspired. Not anymore,” The New York Times, January 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/arts/design/cooper-hewitt-access-ability.html.

[4] “Meet the Staff: Cara McCarty,” Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, May 1, 2013, https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2013/05/01/meet-the-staff-cara-mccarty/.

4 thoughts on “Cara McCarty, Curator: An Astonishing Career

Well deserved praise and appreciation of a heroic , creative curator.

Congratulations on a stellar career and best wishes for the future!

Congratulations indeed Cara, and thank you for your wisdom, style, and commitment to Design.
Very best wishes
Paul Thompson

Congratulations Cara on a wonderful career. I have admired your eye since we fought over a Pesce Cirva glass piece many years ago. We both won as it is now at the Cooper Hewitt forever. Stay well and hope to see you soon.

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