Judging from a short stroll with Sarah Meister through the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art on a recent chilly morning, nobody at MoMA is a stranger to her. She greets everybody by name, cheerfully. Meister, curator of photography, has been at MoMA for 23 years, which might account for all of the people she knows, but not for her friendly demeanor and enthusiasm for what she does. That points to her general world view: “I believe in treating people the way you would want to be treated, and I think that extends to art,” she says. “You have to respect the art and not put things into combinations that serve you and your ideas.”
Take her current exhibition, Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, on view through May 9. It originated in a small book Meister wrote in 2018 about Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” and the contradictory narratives around it. Meister thought a larger exhibition was in order, one structured around the intersection of words and pictures. She invited 12 contemporary artists, writers, and thinkers to respond to Lange, including Sam Contis, Wendy Red Star, and Rebecca Solnit. “There’s something timely about Lange’s attention to the human condition,” she says, “and her sense of how photographs can make a difference in the world.”
Meister is a native New Yorker, the oldest of three daughters, and the only one of them not to go into the family business, Mr. Christmas, a company selling “holiday innovations” that was founded by her (Jewish) grandfather. She fell in love with photography in sixth grade when she took a photography class at the Spence School and then spent every Saturday during high school in the darkroom. When she got to Princeton University, she studied photo history with Peter Bunnell, eventually writing her senior thesis on Danny Lyon. She joined MoMA in 1997 and has been there ever since. “It’s an extraordinary place to be,” she says, not least because the museum invests in its staff.
For the last decade, for example, Meister has been on the museum’s Latin American C-MAP group (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives), a cross-departmental research initiative that focuses on artists from underrepresented areas. It has enabled her to travel extensively in Latin America. “The good news is that the field is at a point where we’re asking what is missing from this story that we’re telling,” she says. One of those missing pieces, and her current obsession, is the Brazilian Photo Club (FCCB), which includes amateurs and skilled experimental photographers. Until her research as part of C-MAP, Meister had never heard of the group, which was founded in 1939. Now, she is working on an exhibition on FCCB that will open in 2021.
On top of a steady stream of books and exhibitions, Meister, who is married and has two teenagers, was the instructor for MoMA’s free, online course, Seeing Through Photographs, introduced in 2016 and taken by more than 230,000 people. “It transformed my personal sense of purpose,” she says, “and directed me toward the bigger question of why does what we do matter, to whom does it matter, and how do we help people understand and engage with the art of the past?”