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Ashley’s a guardian of art

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Watchful eye: Ashley Dunn is shown at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Manhattan. The Bermudian joined The Met as assistant curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints in 2016 and is responsible for her first major exhibit, Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, which opened last month (Photograph by the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ashley Dunn’s journey to The Met began in Paris.

There for a year as an undergraduate, she jumped at the opportunity to intern at the Musée d’Art Américain in Giverny, and found her calling.

In 2016, the Bermudian joined The Metropolitan Museum of Art as assistant curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints. Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, her first major exhibit at the prestigious New York institution colloquially known as The Met, opened last month.

Eugène Delacroix (1798—1863) was “renowned as a giant of French Romantic painting” but was also an innovative draftsman.

“This project was assigned to me pretty soon after I arrived at the museum,” said Ms Dunn, 34. “It was motivated by this promised gift that Karen B. Cohen, a longtime supporter of the museum, offered to our department.

“We decided to celebrate that gift with an exhibit and I was asked to curate and write the accompanying publication.

“It was a big undertaking; the first project I’d curated on my own.

“I’d been involved in an exhibition of works by the sculptor Rodin but I was part of a team.

“This was on my own. It was a challenge in particular because it had such a short timeframe. Most exhibits are planned three to five years in advance, this was just over a year I had to turn it around.”

Finding a job at The Met, the largest art museum in the United States with roughly 2,000 staff, was no mean feat.

“My pathway in art history was really through French language,” the former Bermuda High School student said.

“I studied French as an undergraduate at Emory University and spent my third year in Paris.

“I had an internship at a museum there and that’s what opened my eyes to this as a possible career path.

“I came back and finished my final year with more of a focus on art history.”

She’s very grateful to Tom Butterfield and Elise Outerbridge at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art for her “first internship after college”, however her decision to pursue 19th-century French art meant focusing on jobs away from home.

“I decided to go to graduate school. I worked for a couple years in Washington, and pursued a master’s at Oxford as a testing ground for whether I could commit to doing a doctorate — which is a long haul.

“I found I really enjoyed graduate work and research and wanted to continue on in the field.”

Further opportunities came her way at Chicago’s Northwestern University, where she remains a doctoral candidate.

“I was also pursuing internships in museums,” she said. “I spent time at the Art Institute of Chicago, and also the Block Museum of Art at the Northwestern campus, and that was really the practical experience that prepared me for this job at The Met.

“I certainly received a lot of guidance and advice from many people along the way. I would love to talk to any young Bermudians who are interested in art history, curatorial studies or museums generally.

“It’s a tricky path to figure out, but rewarding certainly. It’s tricky finding opportunities and getting your foot in the door, not to mention it’s a commitment if you want to pursue a doctorate.

“Really, I threw my hat in the ring. I didn’t expect I would get the job when I applied, but I thought that it was a dream opportunity, and so why not give it a try.

“I see a lot of potential for growth here at The Met. I am responsible for all of the 19th-century French works on paper. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of researching and publishing on the collection and making other exhibitions.”

The invitation to organise drawings by Eugène Delacroix, considered “a giant of French Romantic painting”, was “a great opportunity”, Ms Dunn said.

As an added bonus, her parents, Beth and Tom Miller, her brother Peter Miller and her aunt Dede Cooper were all able to make the trip from Bermuda for the exhibit’s opening on July 16.

Her husband, William Dunn, and her cousin, Julia Cooper, also attended.

“The opening was a reception at the museum. It was wonderful to be able to share the occasion with them.

“I know Bermudians travel to New York fairly often, so I hope they have the opportunity to look at the exhibition before it ends in November.”

Most satisfying was that Karen B. Cohen, the exhibit’s benefactor, gave her blessing to her work.

“She was very pleased with both the publication, and the exhibition, so that was a thrill,” Ms Dunn said. “It was an intensive year, but very rewarding to now see it on the wall, and see the public in there enjoying it. To be able to share this collection with the public is what it’s all about.”

Great as her job is, one thing tugs on her heart: her island home.

“I miss it all the time,” she said. “I feel very rooted in Bermuda. Besides family, I think I miss the environment most. I step off the plane and once the humidity hits me, I feel at home.”

Update: This story has been changed to reflect that Tom Miller is Ashley Dunn’s father and Peter Miller is her brother, not the other way around

Prestigious post: Bermudian Ashley Dunn is the curator of a new exhibit at The Met in New York City (Photograph supplied)