Before officially stepping into the leadership role at the Cantor Arts Center, Veronica Roberts was beginning to formulate a 21st-century strategic vision for a museum founded in the 19th century.

Roberts’ vision was based on re-engaging in-person audiences after the COVID-19 pandemic, rebuilding and reorganizing staff to meet the institution’s changing needs, deepening the museum’s commitment to diversity and accessibility, and flexing the scholarship and collaboration opportunities that come with being on a university campus. 

Now, nearly two years into her tenure as the John and Jill Freidenrich Director, Roberts is seeing her initial goals for the museum take shape, and she is forging ahead with new ideas about the evolving field of museology, using art as a lens to understand world problems, and remaining an integral part of the intellectual lives of students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

Here, she shares more about her leadership role and the current exhibition Day Jobs, which examines the overlooked impact of day jobs on the visual arts in the United States. 

What are the key accomplishments you feel you have made in your first two years at the museum?

I was fortunate to join a museum with an amazing staff, but many key positions were also vacant when I started in July 2022. I also joined the museum after the most intense throes of the pandemic and some leadership changes, so the staff that remained had been through a lot. A big part of my motivation to be a director was fueled by a desire to create the kind of supportive work culture that allows people to do their best work and feel recognized for their contributions. To date, I am most proud of supporting and growing the team at the museum. I have devoted much of my tenure to hiring a stellar leadership team, supporting the current and new staff, and shifting the work culture of the museum to a place where collegiality, collaboration, inclusivity, integrity, kindness, and a commitment to supporting artists and each other are central to the work we do. I am in awe of my colleagues on a daily basis, and it is my privilege to work with and for them.

In addition to rebuilding the staff, I am also keenly aware of the importance of recovering our valued audience in the wake of the pandemic. To that end, this fall, beginning on Sept. 5, we will increase museum hours to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and add additional hours on the weekends. This decision, supported by audience surveys, serves my strategic vision of greater access to the museum. Our café, Tootsie’s, will also be open late so people will be able to come after work to see art and enjoy a snack or a meal, a glass of wine, or both.

What can university museums do better, and more frequently in the future, than public museums? 

Free university art museums can be more adventurous in their exhibition programming because we are not large, civic museums beholden to admissions revenue. This allows our curatorial team to pursue deep passions and areas of interest rather than feeling pressure to come up with, for example, another Picasso show. 

As a case in point, we have an incredible show called Spirit House in the fall, curated by our modern and contemporary art curator, Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander. The show takes Thai spirit houses that were omnipresent during her childhood in Bangkok as a point of departure to explore how artists of Asian descent think about devotion, the spiritual, ancestry, and ghosts.

How do exhibitions support your vision for the Cantor? 

As a curator and now director, I have always strived to create shows that don’t just speak to people already passionate about art or comfortable in museums. I think contemporary art can be very intimidating and I hear from friends and visitors that it can feel inaccessible or pretentious at times. I think it’s our job as museums to think beyond the market and to tell the stories about art and artists that need to be told. The Cantor is committed to creating exhibitions and programs that reflect our shared humanity and that underscore the consequential power of art in all our lives.

One of your areas of interest is the precarious and generative ways that economic and creative pursuits are intertwined in the art world. You pursue that subject in the current exhibition Day Jobs.

Day Jobs is a love letter to artists and creatives. One of the best parts of museum work is the artists. I was very fortunate to work with some amazing artists early in my career, such as Barbara Kruger and Sol LeWitt. Both of them shared with me that their day jobs (in Kruger’s case, as an editorial designer for magazines like Mademoiselle, and in LeWitt’s case, as a receptionist at MoMA) indelibly shaped their practices. I thought to myself, why did I never hear about these crucial experiences in grad school?

Over the years, I collected stories about artists’ day jobs and began to think about an exhibition and a book around this topic. Artists Mark Bradford, who worked as a licensed hair stylist in his mother’s beauty shop in Los Angeles, and Jay Lynn Gomez, who worked as a nanny, also in LA, became crucial anchors to the show, but the reality is that many artists aren’t as open about their day jobs as Mark and Jay Lynn have been.

The exhibition really maps the impact these jobs have had on artists’ work and tries to dispel the popular myth of the artist genius working in isolation in their studio. As this show demonstrates, creative breakthroughs and ideas are often rooted in everyday, lived experiences rather than the emotional dramas depicted in many Hollywood films. 

What do you hope visitors will learn from Day Jobs? 

I hope it will destigmatize the day job and open up conversations around the reality that most artists working in the U.S. are juggling multiple jobs. There’s an attitude in the art world that to be a “serious” artist, you need to be focused exclusively on art. I think it’s a misguided assumption to attribute talent or ambition to being able to focus exclusively on one thing: That’s not talent. That’s financial privilege. 

I’ve heard from many artists and musicians who have seen the show that they feel seen and couldn’t be more thrilled by the conversations the show has generated.