Adam Harris Levine
Adam Harris Levine, Associate Curator, European Art, AGO, Toronto, Canada
1) What is your profession and what are the specific dimensions of your work?
I am a museum curator. I work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and I am responsible for European art before 1700. I make exhibitions, I choose what art goes on the walls, and I purchase new art for the museum collection. I am especially interested in what I call “Europe in a global context”: European art that offers us information about Europe and its connection to other parts of the world through colonization, empire, and trade. I am very interested in the lives of people of colour in Europe in this time period, as art makers, patrons, and subjects of art.
2) How did you come to this type of career?
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City and my parents took me to museums a lot when I was a kid. Many of the museums in New York put up different Christmas trees, like the Natural History Museum’s origami tree, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tree with angels and animals from Naples in the 1700s. I remember these visits so well! My first summer of university, I was incredibly lucky to get a paid internship in the Education Department at the Met Cloisters. This helped me learn about different jobs within museums.
3) Tell us something about your process of study and formal and/or informal education and the nature of your degrees and/or training. When, where, and how did you become educated and qualified to do what you do?
I went to McGill University and studied art history there. I’m not just saying this because it’s for Black Maple: as an undergraduate student in Charmaine A. Nelson’s classes, I started to think about art and museum in newly political and social terms that made this work feel more urgent and meaningful than before. She really changed for me what I thought our discipline was, and what I thought was possible within our discipline. I received an MA in Art History in England, and then returned to New York to work on a PhD at Columbia University. I am still working on my PhD. I’m moving slower than a lot of my peers because I am working full time while studying.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have your experienced and how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?
One tension that I grapple with in my work is that pre-modern art is rarely discussed in political terms. Many people are accustomed to contemporary art that builds political discourse, but they want paintings from the 1600s to be about beauty and formal qualities and especially about the biographies of specific artists. I think that paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from hundreds of years ago are powerful source documents for understanding the way humans lived before us, and for this reason I think it’s essential to ask questions about race, gender, class, and other vectors of identity when we look at them.
5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of entrepreneurship, work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
I have been very fortunate to have mentors at many stages of my life. I am not shy, and when I admire someone, I seek them out and try to get to know them. This has yielded some of my closest friendships and some of my most impactful professional relationships in my life.
6) What does your daily work routine look like? Where is your place of business/production and how do you stay focused and productive?
One of the really exciting things about being a curator is that every day is different. I get to work with so many people with such diverse skill sets, like conservators, who clean and care for art works, or educators who produce a whole range of programs at the museum, or installers and lighting experts who make the art look beautiful in the galleries. If I get into a creative slump, I take a walk in the museum’s galleries or I go down to the vaults to look closely at a work of art in storage, and this always helps jumpstart my creative process.
7) What are your guiding principles? What informs how you do your work and how you engage with your co-workers, clients, customers, or consumers?
In terms of the workplace, I am driven by a deep respect for everyone that I work with. I love collaboration and I love learning from the people around me. Every single person I work with comes to their job with professional skills and personal experiences that make them unique and wise. In terms of my research, I am committed to studying the past to try to build a more equitable and just present and future.
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
Right now, I am working on the early stages of a few different projects. One is on ideas around mortality and the other is on painters in the Caribbean working between 1700 and 1900. They’re very different but I love having a few different ideas on the go at once. I hope that both of these will develop into group efforts because I love working collaboratively, and I hope that these result in exhibitions that go to multiple venues.
9) What are you proudest of in your career?
One of the first artworks I bought for the museum was a painting by José Campeche. Campeche was an artist who lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico from 1751 to 1809. His father, Tomás, was enslaved for many years, and eventually purchased his own manumission while working as an artisan. José was the most sought-after painter in Puerto Rico in his day. My mother was born in Puerto Rico, and her parents moved to raise their children in New York. I am very proud to be Puerto Rican and I was very proud to bring a painting by one of the island’s most important artists into the museum collection.
10) What are you proudest of in your life?
Getting my job here at the Art Gallery of Ontario was really an incredible moment. For many years, my partner had been living in Toronto and I had been living in New York, and receiving the job offer meant that we could live together in the same place. I love the Art Gallery of Ontario and I love Toronto, and this moment meant my personal life and my professional life could co-exist. That was so, so important to me.
11) What fiction or non-fiction book should be essential reading?
Impossible to pick one! I have a few favourite books that I re-read once a year, and of these I would name The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker and The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabel Allende. These books are my anchors, and they teach me something new every time I return to them. Also, I recently read a fantastic book about The Color Purple, In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece (2021) by Salamishah Tillet, that I recommend.
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing?
I really love Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation(2020-), which is currently on its second season. Lakshmi is a food writer and travels the US to learn about foodways and food histories from Indigenous, settler, and immigrant communities to understand the politics and policies of how we eat today, and how we live in connection to land. It is incredible and I hope that the CBC produces a similar program one day for the Canadian context.
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
I love to cook and to feed my loved ones. I learned to cook watching my grandmother and my mother, and I think of them when I cook. I inherited my grandmother’s tostón (tostones) press and her copy of Cocina Criolla, the bible of Puerto Rican cooking written by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli in 1954. These are two of my most prized possessions.
14) What’s next?
I am desperately trying to finish my PhD! I have been working on it for many years, and I really, really look forward to being done.
Adam Harris Levine is Associate Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Ontario. Originally from Long Island, New York, Adam holds degrees from McGill University (Montreal), the Courtauld Institute (London, England), and Columbia University (New York). He is currently finalizing his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, where he has also taught extensively. Levine’s area of specialty is medieval and renaissance sculpture and decorative arts.