Literature 7-28-2015

In Practice: Curator Sarah Schultz

Lightsey Darst and curator Sarah Schultz on work vs. jobs (and what lies between), the vagaries of chance, and balancing a sense of agency with acceptance in dealing with both.


Sarah Schultz is an independent curator and formerly Curator of Public Practice and Director of Education at the Walker Art Center.  She lives in New York City and Minneapolis.

Choose one: prairie, coast, mountain, hillside, sea.

Sarah Schultz

The prairie, which sometimes looks like the sea.

What is work?

Sarah Schultz

This is a very complicated and personal question for me right now. I just left a job that I loved after 22 years. And I left without another job. You can see that I am using the word “job” and “work” interchangeably. This is a problem. My job was my work and my work was my job. I’m feeling a kind of urgency to uncouple those ideas as I also try to sort out things like “purpose” and “passion”. My entire ego was wrapped up in my job and the status and opportunities it conferred and not having a job now has been really hard. I’m embarrassed to write this to you but it’s true and I want to be honest. And yet, I don’t seem to want a job per se. At least in the way that I had one. I’m feeling a pull to figure out what my “work” should look like instead—you work at a job but you also work in the garden. You work at problems. You work in a studio. You “work-it-out”.

This is an interesting question to ponder.

Lightsey Darst

Not having a job is so hard—harder than it looks from the outside. I just finished a stretch without one, and although I would never have said my ego was involved in the job I left/lost (a little of both), without it I felt unworthy. Going to the coffee shop, I would think, “All these people are gainfully employed, and I’m not.” I felt like an imposter. Yet I was still working, in the way you mention. I was writing, I was making dinner (elaborate dinners, to compensate, no doubt). But when I got another job and could finally work for money again, “put in hours,” I was so relieved.

I don’t know that I have a follow-up question here. More a lament—is that the right word?—that an ethos I thought I could critique from outside (the Puritan/capitalist work ethic) is actually deeply engrained in me.

No, wait, I do have a question. The projects you did at the Walker—Open Field, Fritz Haeg’s gardens—were so often about creating a space where art, daily life, and work come together. The romantic ideal of a Tuscan village, say, where everything is part of everything else and life is not divided—is that what you want from “work”? And how can we (contemporary Americans) have that?

Sarah Schultz

Whoa! That is a big question. There is no doubt that my personal history and desires fueled the projects I instigated at the Walker. I grew up at a time and in a neighborhood where growing up felt less structured. Kids moved about freely, played in the street, and drifted around unsupervised. If we were bored, which I suspect we often were, we just made something up to do. For a while, my best friend and I were running a theater company in her basement and writing cookbooks. Also, my mother was happiest with lots of activity around her and so our house was often a hub, where everyone could come over and just hang out. I suspect that Open Field was influenced by some nostalgia and longing for those days.

And, well, I have always tried to make change on a very micro, local, and personal level. I’ve often joked that I’m wired more poetically than politically, although I know we can have a long conversation about the politics of poetics. I want an integrated life and a meaningful life, where you get to be yourself, live your values, and feel deeply connected. Utopic? Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic or a waste of time to try to create or build that life. Much of the American economic system works against that; those puritanical values are very much engrained in me as well. I shadow box them daily. I find optimism in how a younger generation and so many artists are invested in political, social, and civic change and have discovered that art is an essential way in which I can claim agency in the world and find my kindred. But along with that there need to be systems that support and value community, the quotidian, modesty, tolerance, ambiguity, difference, etc, or it can feel like a hard and lonely journey. We need to support one another with more conversations like the one we’re having right now.

What is a shameful waste of time?

Sarah Schultz

Anything that takes you away from the present and puts you in a state of mindlessness. We each swallow our own poison. For me it’s Facebook. I like that it keeps me connected but that easily slips from connection to comparison, and then I am living everyone’s life but my own. Still, I just can’t quit it.

Photo: Gauri Lama (Via Flickr, courtesy CC 2.0)

Have you ever had your fortune read?

Sarah Schultz

I have had my fortune told on many occasions. So many, I can’t recall. I had my first of many, many astrology readings done at the age of 25 while living in Sydney, although I consider astrology a poetic science and not really fortune-telling. I once drove out to a Ramada Inn in Fridley where I heard there was an amazing palm reader who gave readings on Thursday nights in the cocktail lounge. I keep all of the fortunes I get in cookies. I read the I Ching. I’ve had Tarot readings on the streets of New Orleans. One time, a homeless person who was clearly high on inhalants told me that voices were telling him I needed to relax. Sometimes I experience audio clairvoyance in my dreams and believe that I’m receiving messages from the “other side”. So really, I think the high guy was probably on to something.

The bottom line is that I believe signs and symbols are everywhere, and I like to have a sense of what is in store. As the saying goes: “Whatever works.”

Lightsey Darst

I like how this answer bounces off the one immediately above it. I see four realms here: the present, whatever that is; Facebook, the posed surface of others’ lives; the future, which you are trying to access via fortune-telling; and the timeless realm of dreams, signs and symbols, of the high guy. Facebook and the realm of dreams are both populated, social, but they represent very different ways of being social.

I used to tell Tarot. I loved the cards, the idea that a finite deck could contain the essence of every situation in life. One thing that was never clear to me, though, was how much to portray the person I was reading for (the Querent, in Tarot terms) as a free agent. The more you are part of a system, the less free you are, right? And the less you can take advantage of any knowledge you may acquire. Is getting “a sense of what is in store” more about changing the future, or accommodating oneself to it gracefully?

Sarah Schultz

Life is a perpetual exercise in both agency and acceptance, isn’t it? I’m not convinced that systems only constrain us and thus are inherently bad. They also contain us. It’s when the systems and structures become rigid that we are doomed (like the notion that certain kinds of work [i.e., paid] are more valuable than others). In re-reading what I wrote, maybe I didn’t really mean that I like to have a sense of “what’s in store” as much as I meant I like to have a sense of “what is possible,” “what is hidden,” or a call to wake up and pay attention. Poetry and tarot benefit from that old adage of “show, don’t tell”—at their very best they give me alternative perspectives and I can make the choices from there. 

What is the most important scientific principle?

Sarah Schultz

Hubble’s Law of Cosmic Expansion may or may not be the most important scientific principle but it is certainly the most mind-blowing. Far be it from me to try to put it accurate layman’s terms, but it tells us that the universe is really, really big. So big, that there is no way really to imagine or describe the size and shape of the universe. We have no words, just equations, in this case v = H0D which I cannot explain to you. Basically, I think this states that the universe is not static, but is in constant motion and expanding. Will it keep going? Will it reach stasis? Will it fall in on itself? This is all unknown. I’ve been thinking about this lately because we’ve just marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble telescope. I heard an astronomer talk about what the Hubble telescope is teaching us about our place in the universe. It was something like “We’re basically sitting on a rock orbiting a star, and that star is one of a hundred billion in our galaxy and that galaxy is one galaxy out of a hundred billion in the universe.”

Of course, this is what Buddhists have always known: You’re really not that big of a deal.

Editor’s Note: Lightsey Darst is conducting a series of interviews with artists, writers, and other interesting people. Look for repeating questions across the series. If there’s someone you’d like to see her interview, please let her know: lightsey(at)lightseydarst(dot)com.

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.

Lightsey  Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer and critic based in Durham. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for both literature and dance criticism, as well as a Minnesota Book Award. Her books of poetry are Find the Girl and DANCE (2010 and 2013, both from Coffee House Press). Her criticism is online at,, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut. …   read more