Sarah Schroth would like you to know that museums don’t run themselves. It takes a lot of effort to get those paintings on the walls of the Nasher Museum of Art — 37 people, actually. And with her coming retirement in May 2020, the Nasher will have to replace one of the most important people in its history.
Schroth, who is currently the director of the Nasher Museum of Art, first came to Duke in 1995, when the arts were virtually nonexistent on campus. With a doctorate in hand, she joined Duke as a curator specializing in 17th-century Spanish artwork. Crowded into the small Duke University Museum of Art on East Campus that didn’t even have a loading dock, Schroth was limited in her opportunities for the museum. Although she didn’t know it at the time, she would go on to lead Duke through an arts renaissance unparalleled to anywhere else in the country, creating her own breakthroughs along the way.
“It was a miracle,” Schroth says of the Nasher’s inception. A confluence of circumstances made the museum a resounding success once its construction was finished in 2005: an immigrant architect ready to prove himself, a willingness to fund on the part of Duke and the Nasher family and and a world-renowned exhibition that put the Nasher on the map.
That exhibition? “El Greco to Velasquez,” a display of art from 17th-century Spain. The overlap between the topic and Schroth’s specialty is no coincidence — she had envisioned the exhibit long before the Nasher finally allowed her dreams to come to fruition. And come to fruition they did, gaining recognition in prestigious national publications such as Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
In 2013, Schroth was elevated to her position as the Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum of Art. As museum director, she would continue to find success readily, with seemingly everything she touched turning to gold. Among these achievements are the successful launch of a museum theory concentration in the art history department, the creation of pipelines that draw local teenagers into the museum and even a program for Alzheimer’s patients.
Although she left her curator post, Schroth continued to have great influence in the Nasher’s exhibitions — perhaps most notably, the well-received “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” exhibit that opened earlier this semester. Now, perched atop an overflowing bookshelf in her office is a painted gourd. A gift from the director of the Museum of the Southeast American Indian at UNC-Pembroke, it comes as thanks for her work on the Nasher’s most recent triumph.
Other objects scattered throughout her office provide reflection on her eventful career. Joining the gourd on the bookshelf is a vast collection of art history books, many in Spanish (she’s fluent). On the walls hang prints of Spanish artwork, while the table is covered in layouts for a future edition of the Nasher’s magazine. Clearly, Schroth is keeping herself busy until her retirement comes. One of her biggest goals in particular is museum fundraising.
“I want to make as much money as possible,” Schroth said. “I want to fill the coffers for the next director.”
When that next director comes, they will have big shoes to fill. The job of appointing the future head of the Nasher falls to a 12-person committee that will search internationally to find a suitable replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Schroth.
Schroth has some ideas on what the committee should look for in her replacement. Perhaps the most important quality she hopes the committee keeps an eye out for is vision.
“I think that’s why I was chosen,” she said. “I wanted to start a concentration in museum theory and practice for undergraduates. I wanted to start a program for teens so that the teens of Durham would step their foot in here and also learn about what a pleasure it is to be a museum goer, but also all the jobs that are available at museums. I wanted to start a [sculpture park].”
Regardless of the next museum director’s ambitions, plans and visions, they certainly have a challenge ahead of them to live up to the standard established by Schroth. Still, Schroth already has ideas for her time post-Nasher. Specifically, she has dreams of direct carving, or making sculptures out of wood — quite a fitting retirement plan for somebody so entrenched in the arts.
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