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Sarah Nichols
By Lorrie Flom

British-born Sarah Nichols knew from the age of 15 that she wanted to work in a museum. What she didn’t know was that her museum career would blossom in the United States, a country that held little interest for her as a student. Now retiring from her position as full-time curator of decorative arts after two stints and 17 years with Carnegie Museum of Art, Nichols can look back at an array of exceptional exhibitions she has curated, most notably Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets, which toured internationally, and Contemporary Directions: Glass from the Maxine and William Block Collection. She’s also still looking forward to an ongoing relationship with the museum as guest curator of a glass exhibition in 2007, and to an ongoing relationship with an arts community and a city that she still plans to call home.

How did a British girl end up with a career in the United States?
I came to the U.S. in 1979 for my cousin’s wedding in New Hampshire and made a vacation of it. When I visited museums in Washington and New York, I was bowled over by the way they presented things. British museums were very shabby at that time. I knew if I wanted to get into a museum I needed a graduate degree, so I applied for the Winterthur Program in early American Culture in Delaware. When I finished the program, one of my teachers told me about an opening for an assistant curator of decorative arts here in Pittsburgh.

What was your reaction to Pittsburgh?
I liked Pittsburgh right away. I rang my parents up to say I was moving here and there was silence at the end of the phone. My father went to his golf club—the font of all knowledge—and he called me back and said he heard all kinds of terrible things about Pittsburgh. He asked, “Are you sure you want to move there?” Of course, his information was decades out of date. My parents have since been to Pittsburgh numerous times and love it.

What were some of the challenges you faced after joining the museum?
In graduate school, I focused on the 18th century. When I came here, I found there was a real interest in 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts. I had to learn all that stuff and that was great. So my first challenge was to escape from the 18th century and broaden my perspective. One of the ways I did that was to do a lot of teaching, both for the docents here and at the university level. If I wanted to teach the subject, I needed to study it.

Did working at Carnegie Museum live up to your expectations?
When I first came to visit, I was very impressed with the museum and the decorative arts department and its curator, Phillip Johnston. It was Phillip who reenergized the department and began expanding the collection with 19th- and 20th-century pieces. He gave me many opportunities to learn—which I did.

When I came back the second time in ’92 as the curator (after a brief stint working in Yorkshire, England), Phillip had become the museum director. Decorative arts was important to the museum, and I was given an incredible amount of freedom.

After Richard Armstrong became the director in 1996, the department had another period of renewal. It was Richard who gave the green light for major shows such as the Aluminum and Light! exhibitions.

What is your most memorable accomplishment here?
The biggest thing I’ve done here is the Aluminum exhibition. It was an incredible opportunity. The show traveled around the world, and it was fascinating to see it in its different guises and venues.

Will you be involved with Pittsburgh’s upcoming glass exhibition?
I’ve become very involved in contem-porary glass. I’m involved in the Pittsburgh Glass Center, and I’ll be curating a glass exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art in 2007 that looks at the relationship between contemporary American glass and Venetian glass from the mid 20th-century to the present day.

As an arts community, we’re looking at 2007 as the “Summer of Glass” in Pittsburgh. One of the prime leaders is Phipps Conservatory, which is bringing in Dale Chihuly—a big
name in contemporary glass—who has done lots of gardens of glass in conservatories. And Pittsburgh recently received word that it will host the International Glass Arts Society conference in 2007.

Pittsburgh already has a history in glass, but I think glass has the potential to become an even more significant and influential aspect of life in Pittsburgh, with great potential for economic impact.

What’s next for you?
I’m thinking of buying an industrial type building in Pittsburgh and creating a studio where I can work in glass, perhaps stained glass, and maybe have other artists there as well. This is totally for me; I’m not into becoming a famous artist!

Besides that, I have a huge laundry list of things I want to do. I’d like to travel and spend more time in England with my family. I want to do more with the Pittsburgh Glass Center, and I’m also very interested in studying the art and artifacts related to the history of dining and learning to speak French properly. But Pittsburgh is going to stay home for me.

What will you miss most when you leave Carnegie Museum of Art?
The collection—particularly the chairs. My colleagues. The socialization. The structure and camaraderie. And being part of the mainstream of what’s going on in the Pittsburgh art world.
But it’s time for a different stage in life. I’m very lucky. I can do it.

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