Game Changer: Susan Weber

An educator and historian who has elevated the study of material culture, design history, and curatorial practice to fresh levels of depth and understanding.

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Photography Soohang Lee

“I started this place because no one would hire me,” recalls Susan Weber, the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) director. When I meet her in the institute’s six-story Beaux Arts town house on West 86th Street, her blond hair is pulled back and she’s wearing a slate blue sweater, black slacks, and velour flip-flops. I find her effusive and unassuming; a friend once described her as “a Renaissance man, only she’s a woman.” 

Weber is an art historian, curator, antiques dealer, documentary filmmaker, professor, and, with the establishment of BGC in 1993, a director of uncommon expansiveness who has elevated the study of material culture, design, and curatorial practice to that of a fine art. Material culture was marginal in 1992. Only two graduate programs existed in the United States: One was the Winterthur program at the University of Delaware, with its American focus, and the other was the newly formed Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Museum program, where Weber was among the first to earn a master’s degree. Twenty years later, BGC is an internationally respected institute that trains curators and collaborates on exhibitions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), and other leading institutions.  

[A] friend once described her as 'a Renaissance man, only she’s a woman.'

I meet the ebullient iconoclast at the BGC Gallery. William Kent is the organization’s most ambitious show to date, an exhibition ten years in the making. Weber stands under an oil portrait of Kent, an artist who transformed English taste in the early 1700s with his architecture, interiors, furniture, metalwork, illustrations, costumes, and gardens. Despite his enormous influence, he died in obscurity in 1748. Few English curators would touch Kent because his creations are scattered, difficult to authenticate, and would require negotiating 40 to 50 separate loans. Plus, no Kent archive exists. These challenges drew Weber to him. “This is my strangeness,” she says. “I always like to study areas no one has any interest in.”

The BGC’s latest exhibition, curated by Susan Weber and Julius Bryant, is its most ambitious to date. Born out of a ten-year process involving a scientific committee of British scholars and a close collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the show takes an in-depth look at Kent’s genius through nearly 200 works spanning four decades.

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