Chief Curator, New York University Abu Dhabi and Executive Director of NYUAD Gallery
MFA in Film, School of the Arts, 2001
Maya Allison is the Chief Curator at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and the founding Executive Director of the NYUAD Art Gallery. Her background is in academic museums: she curated her first major exhibitions at The RISD Museum (Rhode Island School of Design), then as Curator of the Bell Gallery (Brown University). She was also director of the city-wide, international new media showcase Pixilerations, and of the 5 Traverse Gallery, all in the U.S. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, a BA in art history from Reed College, and continued her research on curatorial practice via a fellowship at Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities.
She has curated numerous exhibitions at these and other institutions. Those for which she developed book-length projects include Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the Present (RISD Museum, 2006), Slavs and Tatars: Mirrors for Princes (JRP|Ringier, 2015), Diana Al-Hadid: Phantom Limb (Skira, 2016), and But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988-2008 (Akkadia Press, 2017). Recently, she guest-curated Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years (with publication, Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi, 2018), a 30-year survey of 18 UAE artists. Her most recent exhibition is Zimoun, now on view at the NYUAD Art Gallery, for which she is editing the first book-length monograph on the artist.
We caught up with Maya last month to hear more about her Columbia journey and how her time at Columbia has played a role in where she is today.
Which school did you attend at Columbia and why did you choose Columbia in the first place?
I graduated from the School of the Arts back in 2001 and chose it because it was one of the best schools for Film studies. Also, many of the artists I admire attended the school.
What did you enjoy the most at Columbia?
I actually enjoyed teaching film history to undergraduate students as a Teaching Assistant (TA). Columbia was really large community for me given that my undergraduate school was only 1,200 students. I really enjoyed teaching others and learning from the student body. The diversity of the student population and curriculum allowed me to discover connections from across cultures and departments, which was truly an amazing experience.
I also loved the space of the campus itself. It felt really nice to have such a calm place to study in amidst the bustling of the city.
Did you have a favorite place on campus?
The East Asian Library is by far my favorite place on campus - it was a lot more peaceful than the main library (Butler). I would go there whenever I needed to do creative thinking, which was quite often given my program. I loved sitting at the desks deep in the stacks, on the ground floor by the window, surrounded by books. I actually still go back there to study whenever I am back; it grounds me and brings me back to when I was a student.
Could you describe what you do today?
I am a curator of contemporary art and a founding director of an academic museum at NYUAD. The concept is quite British-American: it is essentially a teaching museum for both the NYUAD community and for the public, meant to be integrated with the learning experience. I work with guest curators and we put on 2-3 exhibitions per year. Knowledge production is a key part of our mission, and one of my main projects is integrating the art history of the UAE into the curriculum here, serving as resource for UAE based artists and connecting many different areas of cultural activity. In some unexpected ways, curating shares a lot with filmmaking, but I never could have predicted this career path when I was a grad student at Columbia.
This isn’t what you thought you'd be doing as a Columbia student?
Not even the slightest -- my MFA is in film and I have always been very interested in experimental film and video art; think of the films you would see in a museum. I used to write a lot about film and video art, and organizing programs of this kind of screening, which was essentially the first step to curating. I was always curating without realizing my interest were similar to that of a curator. This eventually brought me to curating.
I was fortunate to have gotten a job at a museum curating rotations of video art. There, working on an exhibition of painting, I realized that, in fact, curating and producing an exhibition has a lot in common with directing a film. I faced the same budgeting challenges; I still needed to get technical and creative people aligned; I had to constantly think of my audience and their journey through the story I was telling. In actuality, the work I did for my MFA prepared me for the work of a curator. I followed this passion by pursuing a fellowship in curatorial studies, but never did degree work in curatorial practice.
How have you been able to leverage the skills and knowledge acquired during your time at Columbia to grow your career?
I truly believe that education training one goes through still matters a lot. Education, to me, is not vocational. Instead, it is a training on how to see, think and empathize from and with various perspectives. It is these tools that can be applied to no matter what profession one enters, and it has certainly helped me excel. The case of applying what I learned in film school to what I do as a curator is a perfect example of this. It is the quality of our creative analysis that is the real thing we learn in a good education.
What advice would you give recent alumni who are looking to grow their professional careers? What about current students?
Internships are extremely helpful in accelerating profession development but it is really important for you to go in knowing what the work entails and showing a passion for learning. I have had people ask me for internship opportunities who have no idea what my job entails. In that way, informational interviews are extremely helpful, where you ask someone in the field to talk to you about their job. This way you can learn more about a profession without directly asking for a job. And, again, it is really important to go in with a strong desire to learn.
Once on the job, I think it is very important to be serious, responsible, dignified and committed. The traits of responsibility, and a sense of pride in the project yet with humility appropriate to just starting out, are highly valued and will lead to greater responsibilities earlier in your career. When taking a job early in your career, seek work where you can witness how things work, and learn the industry from top to bottom, don’t worry so much about your rank. I learned so much from entry-level jobs where I could watch someone I respect work, and while I might be doing a simple job, I was able to watch first-hand how great leaders work. No matter what you do, it will pay off to be compassionate, humble, sincere and dignified.
If you could go back into time, what would do differently during your time at Columbia?
I wish I had taken greater advantage of all the cultural offerings New York City has to offer. There were some amazing things that happened during my time that I still read about to this day. Also, I wished I had audited more classes. You really do not know what you're going to be so it is important to get out and see what's out there.
What else would you like everyone who reads this to know about what you're doing?
I want people to know that our exhibitions are for you all – we offer our space as a resource to the community. We are constantly holding talks and giving tours, and this place can be used as an event space, but also as a refuge, a place where you can perhaps experience something new, or a change of mind-set.
Our current exhibit is showcasing the work of a Swiss artist, Zimoun, about whom we will also be publishing the first monographic book. The exhibit is a fully immersive experience from an architectural and acoustic standpoint. And really, every exhibit is different from the last. I welcome the community to take advantage of this space and I would be more than happy to provide you with your art fix – feel free to reach out to us for a guided tour.